Reading has arguably been the most important habit I’ve picked up over the years. Books have been a source of wisdom—a friend I turn to when I encounter a roadblock. Whenever I’m faced with a new problem or issue, I seek out wisdom from others. What I’ve found is that life’s problems aren’t just unique to me; there’s a shared human experience; a sense of solidarity, which others have not only dealt with, but have imparted to others through the written word. Reading not only produces that blanket of comfort, but also provides a roadmap to help you tackle whatever you’re facing.
Challenge, accomplishment, ongoing learning and personal growth are key values to me. I’ve carved out time in my day to ensure that I’m spending time on the activities that bring me real joy and fulfillment—things like reading, writing, and training. Reading is an evolving habit where I’m not just looking to inhale as many books as possible, but rather, I’m always in search of new ways to get the most out of the books I read. I aim for quality > quantity which means being patient, re-reading passages where my mind wandered elsewhere, and engaging with the book by means of highlighting, making notes, and Googling unfamiliar terms, concepts and phrases as I go.
Since I started tackling more difficult literature and philosophy (ie. Joyce, Aristotle, Dostoyevsky, Plato, Nietzsche, etc.), I’ve had to adjust the way I read by taking a more academic approach to a) understand the material and b) make it applicable to my everyday life. Whether you want to tackle more difficult books or get more out of your existing reading habits, I’ve put together a list of my 2022 rules of reading; some of which I designed myself, while others I sourced from others.
Go slow baby, go slow.
I can’t even count how many books I just sped through—grasping at straws to recap what I even just read. Speed reading and trying to hit a goal to read “x” books in a certain amount of time can often conflict with absorption. When it comes to non-fiction, don’t we want to read in order to learn and make practical use of the material in our everyday lives?Even fiction has something to teach us. It’s taken me many years to shift my reading philosophy from quick absorption to soaking in the content—taking my time and going slow vs. speeding through to try to get to the end. I still feel a twinge to rush through the books—chasing that high of finishing a book, but I’ve learned to tame the twinge, reminding myself to chill and go slow.
Use supplementary material
Depending on what type of literature or content you’re diving into, you may want to use supplementary material in the form of podcasts, articles, Wiki, courses, etc. to better absorb the book you’re reading. This is particularly important if you’re diving into a new, unfamiliar discipline or in Ryan Holiday’s words, “reading above your level.” When I read Ulysses by James Joyce, which was almost ~1,000 pages (considered the marathon of modernist literature), I started by first reading Homer’s Odyssey (as there are many references and parallels throughout the book and the chapters are structures based on the Odyssey). Right now, I’m reading Nietzsche’s oeuvre and am taking an Audible course taught by University professors titled The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. I set my sights on Beyond Good and Evil as the first philosophy book to read since taking a philosophy course back in University. Full disclosure, my first attempt at the book ended with me feeling like a complete space cadet—what did I even just read? I’m now just returning to Nietzsche after a year hiatus, with hundreds of hours of studying philosophy under my belt—providing me with a bit more background and context to tackle it the second time around.
Always read the translator’s introduction
If you’re reading a text that’s been translated into another language, don’t skip the introduction by the translator. It’s in this preface, that translators will provide you with a background on the author, the context/some pain points of the text, and also include some notes on the translation. The translations are open to interpretation by the translator, so of course they have some biases when they come to the table.
Read actively (vs. passive)
Active reading means actively engaging with the book. Marking it up, highlighting, and making notes for yourself. For me that means looking up words, ideas, or themes that feel like a foreign concept to me. I use sticky notes to mark important passages, ideas, or further reading to circle back to. The goal for me (when I read non-fiction) is absorption and understanding. I tackle it like a textbook; as if I’m studying the material. This has been the most important skill I’ve developed to get the most out of my reading habit. Passive, on the inverse, means reading without engaging physically with the book; while of course you can still absorb the content, I can guarantee that this method won’t nearly help you retain as much of the book’s contents as the former. Does that mean you should never read passively? That’s not what I’m saying at all. With fiction, I rarely read actively (it’s more as a source of entertainment for me) and even some non-fiction as well, I’ll disengage a bit more. While of course active reading is more effective from an absorption point of view, it can be rather intense and deter some of us from even starting a reading habit.
Create a “New Word” Library
I have an ongoing doc in my notes app of new words I’ve discovered in books, blogs, or through conversation. Every few weeks, I’ll skim the list and pull out a word or two to try and incorporate in my writing or conversation. I know it sounds rudimentary, but trust me, it’s effective. Through my New Word Library, I’ve been able to expand my diction and vocabulary, improve my writing, and sound more like a pretentious snob (kidding).
Use a “commonplace” book (analog or digital version)
A commonplace book is an ancient practice that’s been adopted by some of the most prolific writers that was popular in antiquity, particularly the Renaissance. You can think of a commonplace as a scrapbook but rather than just including pictures, you can include ideas, sources of inspiration, quotes, anecdotes, recipes, or whatever the hell you want. It’s almost like a never-ending mood board. The goal is to accumulate pieces of knowledge over the course of your lifetime. It can be in an analog (ie. notebook) or digital format (ie. journaling app; whatever suits your personal preference). I use my app, Day One, and have a specific journal within the app called “commonplace” where I add particular themes I read from books (ie. Ethics, Death, Happiness, Vices, etc.). Here, I will add in quotes and ideas (both from others and my own). It’s a neat and constantly evolving tool that can help us make better sense of the world we live in.
Create a reading ritual
A reading ritual has been the key catalyst in helping me sustain a daily reading habit. Setting up an environment to read (whether that be in bed, your sofa, outside, etc.) can be an effective way to unconsciously get us into the mode of reading, almost like a little cue that you’re in your safe space. However, it’s worth nothing that it’s important to be flexible with rituals–ideally making the ritual transferable wherever you go. My most focused, and longest spurt of reading is always first thing in the morning, with a coffee in hand. In the winter months, I sit inside at my desk and read. In the summer, I make the most of my patio. I also try to read in the afternoon and before bed most days, but my real ritual is first thing in the morning. Where do you like to read? Where can you really relax and focus?
Ruin the ending (Ryan Holiday)
When I was reading Ulysses (and trying to understand this difficult and obtuse text), I read Sparknotes before each chapter so I could understand both the synopsis and analysis before even reading the actual material. I do that quite frequently with philosophy books as well. Right now, I’m reading Goethe’s Faust Part One and to get the most out of each episode, I lean on the text’s prefaces prior to reading the actual scene. There’s just something so deeply gratifying about grasping material that once seemed so obscure and abstract. If your goal is understanding, ruining the ending won’t matter that much.
I have a confession: I’m really bad at quitting books. Even if I hate the book, I’ll slog and suffer through it. Mama ain’t raise no quitter. Only recently have I started to get better at putting a book down if I’m not enjoying it. Life really is too short to endure books that are garbage—someone, please put that on a Homesense plaque. There’s a lot of noise out there and some of the worst books I’ve read more recently are very popular ones—I’ve found it’s important to not subscribe to what Reese Witherspoon deems worthy of a read (although, in fairness, she makes good recommendations). Books are deeply personal, however, and I’ve learned to judge the contents myself. When I quit books, I bring them into my local used book store to sell or donate and swap for something else.
Read the oeuvre
If you find an author that you love, read the oeuvre. In other words, read the entire body of work by that person. Reading a complete oeuvre of a writer—all of their published pieces of work over the course of their lifetime—is a highly rewarding experience. We can observe the progression of their work over time, their style, and how they organize information. Seeing how one text influences another, seeing how it’s a reflection and projection of the athor’s life. It’s rare to find authors that I adore and I would say there’s about a handful. For me right now, that’s Plato, Robert Greene, Frederich Nietzsche, Ryan Holiday, Steve Palvina, Steve Magness, and Brad Stulberg.
Juxtapose tougher reads with lighter reads
When you read tough literature, you may want to experiment with reading some lighter material as well; it will make the lighter material more enjoyable. I read philosophy first thing in the morning and in the afternoon or evenings, I’ll read something a bit lighter like fiction or more entertainment-focus non-fiction. Reading difficult material all the time can sometimes strip the joy or light-heartedness of enjoying a good book. If you’re not one who likes to read multiple books at a time, maybe try reading something light afterwards then switch back to a harder text.
We all know that person who, when they’re losing an argument, resorts to personal blows. Ad hominem is a type of argument where one attacks the person vs. the argument. While ad hominem can be a fallacious type of argument, it can also be helpful when reading; not just looking at the argument or convictions the author is presenting, but also the author themselves and their potential motivation. Nietzsche was a big proponent in attacking not just the philosophy, but also the philosopher as he presented in the case with Kant, Socrates, Schopenhauer, and many others. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:
It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosopher has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary unconscious memoir….[To] explain how a philosopher’s most remote metaphysical assertions have actually been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to ask oneself first: what morality does this (does he –) aim at?
I personally enjoy when authors inject personal anecdotes in their writing; I get to understand their experiences and how they came to their conclusions. By using ad hominem in our reading, we can formulate a better understanding of the lens in which the author sees and interprets the world; their own experiences, interpersonal relationships, the literary movement they belong to and the challenges they faced. Ad hominem will give us a more holistic view and understanding of the teachings and the type of person they were. However, I would be remiss to mention that it can be a fallacy if we only look at the author alone—we should, look at both the work and author.
While these are my rules now, I’m always open (and trying) to evolve my process–exploring new ways to get the most out of what I read. I really hope this list helps you and happy reading!
Sounds like great rules to have! I have started taking notes in my non-fiction reading, especially for Kindle versions, and I always ask myself what I’ve understood from each chapter (with a summary). That does help me learn and remember the books much better.
With fiction though? I just go with the flow.
Anyway, have fun enjoying your books in new ways, Emily!
Great list ! I particularly liked the active reading vs. passive reading. I really need to get better at this.
Thank ya darlin’!