How I Read

I’m an avid reader: my book count annually is usually around forty books plus or minus ten or so depending on the lengths of books. Though this is fairly consistent for the last few years, in the past six months or so I’ve spent quite a bit of time investing mental energy into refining my book reading process because I was concerned that I wasn’t reading with enough intention. Today I thought I’d write a bit about what my current reading flow looks like.

Discovering books

I have a very long queue of books that I’m interested in but haven’t read yet. Often this queue overtakes the log of books I’ve actually read, even at the high rate of reading that I do. There is so much to learn and such insufficient time even if you were to apply all of your time to reading. I do cull this list regularly because I add books to the queue very easily and it can get out of hand or I may wonder later “Why did I want to read this?”

Often I discover new books via recommendations from notable figures such as Bill Gates, who usually posts an annual review of the books he enjoyed that year. Often if I’m reading a book about a particular topic it will mention other books and I’ll record the name and author just in case. Book references from other books are probably my biggest source: it’s like a giant web of information. Sometimes recommendations will come from interviews I listen to or read.

Acquiring books

These days I exclusively consume books in the form of audiobooks except when they are of a type that is not well suited for that medium (books with lots of data and tables that are awkwardly described vocally). My sole source of these are Audible, where I subscribe monthly for credits I can use towards books.

After I’ve purchased a book from Audible I download it to my computer and convert it to m4a format which is more portable and can be played in basically any audio player, as opposed to Audible’s own. This is a fairly new step in my process because I used to actually use their app.

Listening to the audiobooks

To actually listen to the audiobooks I use the iOS app Overcast. I already used this for podcasts before but I decided at some point that it would be simpler if all of my audio consumption was in one place instead of two separate apps plus Overcast syncs between my iPad and my iPhone, which is handy because I switch between them pretty often.

Overcast also has fancy features called Smart Speed and Voice Boost that are especially powerful when combined with increasing the playback speed in general. With these combined I can typically listen to audiobooks very comfortably at at least 2x speed (sometimes at 3x depending on the narrator). Of course this speed increase causes the book to require more focused attention to comprehend but as we’ll see later that’s not much of a problem for me.

Learning from reading

I use the writing app Ulysses quite a bit in my day-to-day life. I’m a bit of a power user and among my workflow is the idea of creating templates for certain repeating types of writing that I duplicate as a starting point. Often these include lots of comments to guide my future self along while setting up a particular instance of the template for a purpose.

I have one of these specifically for book notes and it’s at this point I create a new instance of it, put it in my “Book Notes” group in Ulysses, and start filling it out. I’ve refined this template over time to make sure that I’m asking myself questions to get the most value out of books as I can. Notably, I have a few questions I ask myself before and after reading a book.

Taking notes while reading

At this point I’m ready to start reading the book. I set aside at least 30 minutes a day where I do absolutely nothing but listen to my book and take notes in the Ulysses document as I go. As I progress through the book I take note of any chapter changes and mark them so that later I can find the discussion in the book if I need to.

I’m fortunate enough to listen to the books using AirPods which have a convenient feature where your audio is paused if you remove either of the ear buds. This makes it really easy to take a note from the book: I just remove an ear bud, write down my thoughts, and replace the ear bud, resuming the book from where I left off.

I’m still refining my note-taking style. As I have been reading a lot of biographies lately I struggled with finding myself essentially writing a summary of everything that happened in the person’s life. This is time consuming and I feel like it doesn’t really offer much value in the end. I’ve started to limit this summarizing to interesting, unexpected events; mostly anecdotes from the subject’s life that exemplifies some other quality or topic I find interesting about them. One thing I’m especially looking for when reading biographies is interesting tidbits of the subject’s character. Generally recurring themes eventually arise and I make note of these as I go.

I like to use Ulysses’ “glued sheets” feature, which allows you to glue multiple sheets together to act as one giant sheet but you can reorder the sheets however you want and set individual keywords (basically tags) on them. I very liberally create new sheets (as simple as pressing Cmd+N in a sheet will create a new sheet and glue it right after the one you were just writing) and try to keep the individual sheets about one specific thought or insight. Occasionally a sheet might be just one sentence.

Because my notes are broken into multiple of these sheets, I can set the keywords on them individually, such as “character”, “humility”, “productivity”, etc. I can search for these later easily and because this is possible at a per-sheet level it means I can basically tag individual paragraphs of my notes and jump straight to them in the future instead of having to skim my notes for the whole book to find a certain insight I remember I had.

I try to think of these sheets as immutable: meaning that I cannot change or editorialize the previous sheets as I write. If I think that my new insight is related to a previous one I may leave a comment to myself that says as much. After I’ve finished reading the book I tend to go back through all of my notes and reorganize them into fewer, longer sheets using those comments to guide me.

Finishing a book

When finished with a book I go to the retrospective portion of my sheet and answer the questions. Usually these are follow-ups to the specific questions I asked myself at the beginning. For example I ask myself before the book “What insights do you hope to get from this book?” and after the book I’ll ask myself “Did you have the insights you hoped you would?”.

Once the questions are answered I go back through all the notes I made during the book and attempt to organize them in a way that makes sense. I may combine notes from early chapters with notes from later chapters if they’re part of a concept I found important. Lexical chronology goes out the window usually and my notes are condensed down into separate concepts that are typically self-sufficient. Then I’ll tag those sheets with relevant keywords so I can find them later.

An example of the kind of “concepts” I’m typically looking for in this phase, when reading biographies I’m obviously intending to compile a summary of the person’s character. These things tend to be spread across the entire biography so it takes some work to condense them into a succinct and comprehensible summary. Usually I’m looking at these with an interest in finding common traits between characters I admire and how I might apply facets of their character to my own self-improvement.