The stages of effective reading

I used to read books ear to ear.

I started reading when I was 4. I’d read any book I could lay my hands on. This was OK because I had infinite time & curiosity, and limited discernment. Everything is interesting and relevant. I was in explore mode.

I’m almost 40 now. Still a proud tsundoku, but I find myself reading very differently. I’m mostly in exploit mode.

In this post I’ll talk about the different steps I noticed I took in becoming an effective reader. Feel free to jump to the end to find the list of mindsets to navigate the “stages of effective reading” and come back up here any time.

First, if you could take one thing out of this post, let it be this: there is no one right way to read, and reading is just one way of learning.

The default reading strategy most people use is similar to a depth-first search algorithm. We’d read along in the sequence that the author has arranged, and to the depth that the author immediately laid out. Flat and linear.

This is usually the “right” way to read when reading fiction books because the plot line is usually arranged in such a way for the optimal reading experience. But when reading books that don’t incoporate any form of storytelling, or books that have the main function of conveying information and not stories, we often forget that we can skip around and just hunt for the answer that led us to picking up the book. We most likely have some questions or problems we’re interested in answering or solving by reading the book. For example, we want to the different principles in designing data-intensive web applications proposed by the book. Or we want to etch into our mind the framework for effective communication so we can practice them later.

If I forced myself to read ear to ear, I’d often get lost in the weeds. Or I’d be in the mindset of wanting to retain everything, as if I will not be willing/needing/having a chance to reread this book.

I find that the first time I start on a book, I’d digest the book better if I get a sense of the structure of the book. Doing a breadth-first reading approach is like orienting yourself before going on the adventure.

Sometimes one-pass is enough, but I find that good books are worth rereading. I could pick up different things and learn from the same text because I’d be a different person during each reading. And even if I don’t learn anything new, it’s great to refresh my memory. We are not computers, the more we encounter an idea in different articulation, the better it lands.

Distilled, the stages of effective reading:

  1. identify your question/problem/expectation from the book
  2. orient yourself. Check out the Table of Content, skim the subheadings.
  3. hunt for the answer/solution. No need to finish if no new questions and problems popped up.
  4. convince me more”. Read the supporting data, anecdata, studies.
  5. anything else interesting?”. Let your curiosity lead you to other parts of the book. Any new questions and problems to hunt for?
  6. remind me please”. I find that notetaking practice is the most worth doing at this stage. You have formed the big map of the book in your head, digested the key points made, and synthesised some personal takeaways.

I didn’t elaborate on some of these, but I hope they’re self-explanatory.

Note that this is not an argument for reading efficiency, speed reading, or glorification of “reading more”. Reading more/less doesn’t mean reading better. Reading faster doesn’t mean reading better. Reading is not a competitive sport. Reading more of what you need (and engaging with it so the information graduates into knowledge), is reading better. Well, unless you are fully aware that you DO want to participate in the “book Olympics”.

One Reply to “The stages of effective reading”

  1. I stumbled upon this video of Karlina Supeli, an Indonesian scholar and philosopher, where she discussed the value of reading. In the video, she said that while films and social media provide visua…

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