You may think it’s absurd to read an article for tips on how to read books, since it is obvious you already know how to read, but consider that private reading is an “unnatural” activity that only became common with the invention of the printing press. Before that, most people alive could not read, and only the intellectual and governing elite had access to reading materials. Also consider that for most of Christendom, there was no printed Bible. The command to “go read your Bible” wouldn’t have made any sense before the 16th century. It’s even possible that most souls residing in the Kingdom of Paradise were not able to read during their earthly life. Today, we can all read, but it surely isn’t an intuitive, natural-born skill like talking or listening.
I’ve shared dozens of book reviews, but have never shared my tips for how I read those books. Here are thirteen…
1. Devote a shelf to unread books
Most modern households have a bookshelf, and within that bookshelf is a haphazard organization of books both read and unread all mixed together. When it’s time for you to read a new book, you have to visually sort through the collection with your eyes and pick an unread book that catches your eye. It’s better to have a shelf (or shelves) with only unread books so that you can be smarter with your selections.
On the left side of one of my bookshelves, I have unread Orthodox books. On the right side of the same shelf, I have unread fiction and secular books. As of this writing, there are 18 books on the shelf. When I’m ready for a new book, I do a minute of introspection, asking myself where I am in life, what I need, and what my brain is currently able to handle. Then I pick the next book, excited at the new world I will be exposed to.
I used to have no unread books on hand, but I moved to having a constant inventory to eliminate any shipping lag (I mostly read physical copies) and to account for my shifting moods, desires, and the twists and turns that life offers me. If I’m going through demonic attacks, I’ll pick a book that offers spiritual counsel. If it’s springtime and I want to go camping soon, I will pick a novel with an outdoors element. If I experience a surge of interest in my stoic houseplants, I’ll pick a book on botany. I buy a book based on my general interest and then select it to read when that interest reaches its peak.
2. Find a time to read each day no matter what
You must make a commitment that forms a daily habit (at least Monday through Friday). Regardless of how busy you are—and who isn’t busy these days?—you have to find at least one part of your day where you can devote a minimum of 15 uninterrupted minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but in that time you can read 6-8 pages, which in one month will amount to a book or close to it. Reading for only 15 minutes a day can equate to 10 books read each year. Most of the population does not even read one book a year, so you can see how a minimal daily investment can pay off.
It’s best to read during a time when there are no social demands upon you that can interrupt your reading. Times to consider: right after morning prayers, before or after breakfast, before or after lunch, before or after dinner, before sleeping. Pick a time where you can do this every day with no exception. Even if you’re a parent, there is certainly a 15-minute period where your children are not occupying your attention.
My longest reading period is after morning prayers, where I read for 1-2 hours. Then I have a smaller reading period of 1-2 hours after lunch. Then I have an optional reading session before sleeping that is about 15 minutes long. I’m trying to read as much as I can while I’m single and my life is relatively free of normal obligations.
3. Put your phone in airplane mode while you read
It’s not enough to only silence your phone. You’ll be tempted while reading to reach for your phone to “check” something, whether a text message from someone or to do “research” on a passage you just read. You must disable your mobile and internet connections entirely (you may even have to switch off your internet router). Otherwise, your concentration will be puny and you’ll read much less, if at all. The smartphone is Satan’s most useful invention. While it can be harnessed for good, it usually isn’t.
Personally, I leave my phone in airplane mode for most of the day. If someone I know is experiencing a genuine emergency, they can call 911. Otherwise, they will have to figure things out on their own or depend on someone else until I check my messages in the evening. This may sound rude but I see no reason to be on standby 24 hours a day for emergencies that never happen due to a recent technological invention that was forced on me through universal adoption. Another option is to have a dumb phone where only your parents, spouse, and children have the number.
4. Ramp up pages read each week as you proceed with a book
The hardest part of any book is the beginning. It’s similar to meeting a new person. When you meet someone new, you don’t know what values and opinions they share with you. You don’t know their style of communication and what “language” they are speaking. Your concentration has to be higher during this time so you can establish common ground with them. Compare that to an old friend where the interaction is more intuitive and casual. A new book is like a new friend. It’s better to get to know them slowly, especially with literature. As you get to know them, you can then spend more time with them.
When I start reading a new work of classic fiction, I limit my reading for the first week to only 10 pages per session, and I take my time reading so that I can slowly digest the new plot and the cadence and rhythm of the author’s language. I “get to know” the book. Then in the second week, I read 12 pages per session. I add 2 additional pages each week until the book is done. What ends up happening is that I go slowest in the hardest part of the book, and read many more pages once I’m comfortable with the story, giving me momentum to finish even huge books.
I used this approach recently to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which in my edition had over 1200 pages. I started with two 10-page sessions a day for the first week, which was necessary since the first 200 pages of the book introduce dozens of characters and many plot lines that will stymie you if you move too fast. I added two pages a week until I was pulling in nearly 30-page sessions, allowing me to finish the book within two months. Of course, you cannot escape the time investment, but through this approach, I find no book to be insurmountable. If you are not used to reading, instead of 10 pages you can start with a lower number.
5. Read at the speed of your brain, not your will
Everyone wants to be a “speed reader,” but that will come at a cost of retention. You simply cannot exceed the structural abilities of your brain by reading fast while retaining the same amount of information from slower reading. I’m not a naturally fast reader. I test at around 250 words per minute, which is slower than an adult “average” of 300 words per minute. For easy books I can read faster than that and for harder books I read slower.
My will is to read at a billion words per minute, but if I use speed reading techniques of scanning the text instead of pronouncing them in my mind, I retain much less. The goal is not to read a lot of books or to win a competition, but to spend time on a wholesome activity that will educate or edify. We should enjoy the process of reading and the connection with another human being (the author) through the written word, not the bragging rights of reading a lot of big books. It’s okay if you read slow. You will speed up if you read daily, but you will hit a limit inherent to your brain, and should be content that God allows you to read and understand text at all, because many people cannot do so because of disabilities.
6. Highlight favorite passages without mutilating the pages
My heart cries whenever I see someone share a picture of a book page with a passage underlined using a ballpoint pen. The book is now mutilated, unfit to be given to another person without distracting their reading efforts with your mutilations.
To highlight text cleanly, you will need a 3×5 index card (or small piece of paper) and a pencil. When you encounter a portion of text that you want to save for future reference, make a small dot with your pencil in the outside margin of the book page where that section begins. Then make a dash in the margin of where it ends. Then write on your notecard the page of your highlight. There, you just made a highlight that will be clear to you without defacing the page. You can also use the index card to jot down any notes. By the end of the book, the card (which also can serve as a bookmark) will contain a list of pages of highlighted text along with any notes you took. To access your highlights, simply turn to the page, find the pencil dot in the margin, and read until you get to the margin dash. If you ever want to sell the book, simply erase the pencil marks, and the book will be like new.
If you’re highlighting a lot of passages using this technique, that means the book is dense with information for your particular life station. That’s a hint that you may want to read the book slowly to help with retention. For example, one of the densest books I’ve ever read is My Life In Christ by St. John of Kronstadt. Because of how many highlights I was making, I refused to read more than ten pages a day (even that may have been too much). The book is 500 pages so it took me about two months to read. On the other hand, for books that I rarely highlight, like fiction, I can read them much faster.
7. Read your highlights at least three times for high information retention
To retain what you read from a book, periodically review the highlights you made. Usually, I read the highlights and notes from a book three times within a year, and then I kiss the book goodbye. If I need to return to the book for whatever reason, I’ll simply check my highlights or read the book again.
If you want to put your retention ability on steroids, type up your highlights. This is not practical for people who don’t review books on a blog, but the act of typing text does help to remember it (as does writing it out by hand). For all my book reviews, I type up my highlights. This activity is painfully laborious but it gives me needed breaks from creative writing. It helps that I can type fast.
8. Fight brain fatigue by reading multiple books at the same time
I find it hard to read more than 20 pages of a book per session. My brain gets tired of the author, similar to how I can only be in someone’s company for a certain amount of time before I need to depart from them. To avoid this fatigue, I discovered that I can read more pages per day if I read multiple books simultaneously. I’ve taken this to the limit: as of this writing, I’m reading nine books at the same time. Four of those books are daily spiritual readings, with only a couple pages per book daily. One is a Bible commentary. One is a dense spiritual book. Then there is a novel, a regular Orthodox book, and a non-fiction book. If I were only reading one book, I would max out at 40 pages a day, but by reading multiple books, I can push above 80 pages, not get tired of the reading, and retain much of the information.
If you do read multiple books simultaneously, try to select books on different topics so that they don’t access the same part of your brain. If I want to read two spiritual books at the same time, I don’t read two theological books or two books of spiritual counsel, because I’ll just get confused. Instead, I read one theological book and one book of spiritual counsel. I can read them back to back and not get fatigued or muddled. This is another benefit of having a shelf of unread books: you can stagger your selections on different topics to optimize your reading. If I see on my unread shelf that I have too many books on the same topic, my next purchase will be books about different topics.
You can use this technique with reading multiple novels, where it’s better if the novels are not of the same genre. I wouldn’t read two dystopian novels at the same time, for example, because you may subconsciously project the plot of one novel onto another.
9. If it’s hard to concentrate, read aloud
By reading silently, you’re only activating the visual center of your brain and the part that decodes words, but by reading aloud, even if it’s at a whisper, you’re doubling the activation by also stimulating the vocalization and auditory parts of the brain. I believe that reading, speaking, and hearing words causes the brain to essentially process them in four areas, increasing the chance that you will “catch” the words in some way. Consider that most humans who have lived learned new information using at least their ears in addition to their eyes.
If you’re reading silently and can’t focus on the text, your mind drifting off with every other line, read it aloud. You will find that your attention is better. I use this technique during prayer to defeat distractions and also through difficult Biblical texts. It’s still possible for your mind to wander when speaking aloud, but much less so. This is a bit humbling since the last time you read aloud was in grade school when learning how to read, but it works well so use it on difficult days or for hard texts.
10. Use white noise in loud environments
The older I get, the less I can tolerate auditory and visual distractions while reading. I ask myself how I used to read in public coffee shops, as loud as they are, and the answer is that I only read articles or no more than ten pages of a book per session. There’s no way I can read 80 pages in a Starbucks or a European café today with all the noise from the coffee machines, people yammering on their phones about their romantic lives, and the coming and going of people wearing modern clothing. Even at home, the noise is too much. I live in an apartment complex with a roommate (my mom) who is not as quiet as me and talks on the phone as do normal women. My solution is a variety of white noise apps and websites. Here are my two favorites:
If it’s slightly too loud for me to read, I put on brown noise on an external speaker. If it’s very loud, I use headphones.
Reading is a strenuous mental activity that demands all of your concentration. You simply will not retain much if you’re distracted or, heaven forbid, listening to music while you’re reading, a behavior common with students.
11. Understand the story first before analyzing it on a deeper level (fiction)
We were done an injustice in high school when assigned literature: the English teachers pushed us into analyzing metaphors and symbolism that even the author may not have been conscious of instead of understanding the story itself. It is a pointless activity to understand the symbolism or deep meaning of a novel if you don’t know what’s going on in the story, and that itself may be a metaphor for the pointlessness of public schools in general.
When reading a novel, your pride may urge you to understand it on the same level as a professional book reviewer, but that sort of intellectual activity is separate from the storytelling. Your main goal should be to comprehend the plot, and even that is very hard for some works of literature. I know I’m supposed to love A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and I’m certainly fluent in English, but I could hardly understand what he was saying. An online plot summary told me of so-and-so character doing a specific act in so-and-so chapter, but I couldn’t find it with my eyes, because Dickens used a particular style of language that I couldn’t connect with. How could I analyze Dickens if I don’t even know what’s going on? Therefore, upon reading a novel for the first time, I don’t concern myself with analysis, which anyway can only come from multiple readings.
If you intend to read a novel only once, your goal should be to understand the plot and gain the author’s perspective on common life situations and scenarios. If you have a special connection with an author, you will start to see his symbolism without trying, but to force it is a fruitless behavior, in my opinion. Let deeper meanings come to you naturally after you comprehend the plot. Don’t be shy to use sites like Spark Notes and Wikipedia to check your understanding of the plot as you proceed with the book. I find that I often have to check plot notes early in the novel, but once I’m comfortable with the author’s style, my ability to understand him increases.
12. Write down character names and descriptions as you encounter them (fiction)
I stumbled upon a game-changer when reading Russian literature: write down the names of all characters and a basic description of each as you come across them in the text. I find that Russian authors do not care to remind you of certain characters that were introduced 100 pages ago, and if you don’t write names down, you will get lost in no time and quit the book in rage. When you encounter a name you don’t remember, check your notes and then proceed.
One issue is when there are a lot of minor characters that only appear once. My general rule is to write down all names that appear in the text twice (usually this happens in the same paragraph), signifying that the author wants you to know who this person is. It’s often the case where the names of servants and maids are given once and then never again.
13. Do not read academic introductions for classic literature until you finish the book (fiction)
If you want to spoil your reading of literature, read academic introductions. These introductions are supposed to help you understand the story by giving needed background information and context, but they always reveal major parts of the ending, including who dies, and they do so without warning. The academics destroy the reading experience to show off their understanding of it. It’s better to read the introduction after the book is complete, to plug some holes and get a deeper perspective.
While reading is easy, reading well or voluminously is not, and if you want to tackle difficult books or long books, it’s wise to have a handful of tools to help. Sometimes I look in the mirror and see a man who is a worm of books, and so from one worm to potentially another, I hope these tips will help you enjoy the written word.
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