Bite the bullets
- A book is a set of resources, some parts more valuable than others.
- It’s okay to skip to the valuable parts.
- You don’t need to wander the whole forest, just get the coins and the pot of gold.
- This is a way to map out where the gold is.
NOTE: If you can figure out your own process just from the high level strategy, this aside is for you:
- Reading a book from cover to back can be thought of as a series of deep dives. Meaning you dip into a subtopic every chapter, which adds a branch to the knowledge tree the book is building to. This high level strategy is to cast a wide net first.
- Rather than going down one specific rabbit hole at a time, the goal is to get a broad understanding and increase details only as necessary.
- You can stop when you have reached the completeness of information you need, which you define before you start and then refine as you go. The mindset you need to adopt is: “I am going to do the minimum effort to achieve the goal of each step.”
- Start with the lowest hanging fruit, and then work up from there.
What this is and where it came from
If I want the contents of a book in my brain without spending 10 to 20 hours slowly reading every word, I do this in about 2 to 4 hours. I’ve heard the term “power reading,” but now I just think of it as eating the book quickly instead of savoring every page.
I learned how to do it in college when I had procrastinated in one of my classes. I had pushed actually reading a very dense book to the last night. I was supposed to be doing the last edits on a well crafted essay due the next day. Rather than just “finish essay” as my homework, I had the hefty work of “read book, start essay, finish essay” on my plate. I had about 14 hours to complete this task.
I simply didn’t have the physical time to read the book. After a lot wheel-spinning, reasoning, self-admonishment and searching the internet for “how to speed read,” I was forced to just do the best I could. I was resigned to writing an incomplete essay, getting a C in the class and living my life as a mediocre human. Then something dawned on me. It was the structure of the book itself. Some poor schmuck was sitting in front of the computer trying to organize their thoughts into a book at some point, and what was in front of me was the finished product. Some of their choices probably started with a notepad and a list of points they hoped to get across. I really just wanted that list of points and just enough information to support them. From that, this system was born.
I mentally deconstructed the book into smaller and smaller parts. Then, I prioritized each part by importance based on what the book was supposed to be about. After that, I wrote a summary of each of my defined parts, fleshing them out on further passes. It’s simple as that. If that’s all you need, then you can stop reading now! I just explain how to do all that below.
Clarifications and caveats
First, I should clarify something. There are two types of reading: reading for pleasure, and reading for information. This is solely for the second type and is not a fun way to read a book. You shouldn’t read Lord of the Rings this way. If you need the ideas in your brain fast, do this.
Second clarification: this isn’t just a cop out to not read the book. This is a super-focused approach to smashing everything you need into a higher density and then smashing that into your head. I’m not promising you can read a book in a few minutes. I believe this is much harder mentally than reading the book from start to finish because it works by removing every passive part of the reading process.
Third, the limitations: this does not work for things like math, physics, organic chemistry or anything requiring practice to master the concepts. You can use this technique to absorb the theory parts of those types of topics, but you’ll still need to do the problems. (Sorry B.S. undergrads).
It works the best with physical books (slightly slower to navigate ebooks) and on books that make a specific argument. I.e. you can compress the proof of a fact, but you can’t compress the fact itself.
The core skill set here is not actually reading, but prioritizing. You’re going to be reverse engineering the structure of the book. To do this, imagine you’re going to write about something you know a lot about. How would you tell a friend about it? You’d probably make a point, and then give an example. That’s what a chapter is. A big point (or a few) and then a ton of examples to prove the point. Same thinking, but imagine you have to write the book you want to read.
Which brings us to the first step.
Step one: What’s your goal and what is the author’s main point?
Before you even begin, you need to organize the parts of the book, as well as your approach to reading it. If the book is straightforward, the overarching point of the book should be written right on the back or the inside sleeve. That’s going to have the highest density of info about the book.
Bust out a notepad or a computer and write the overarching point in a sentence on the top of the page in your own words. This is your North Star. Remember, you still have to the hard thinking and figure out what’s the point of the book. It can be phrased as a question which will be answered or as a simple topic, either way, it’s better to be as specific as you can be.
Additionally, you’re going to want to do some strategizing. You want to set the rails to keep you on track. This part is the most tailored to you. Everyone should interrogate themselves before starting with at least these questions:
- Why did the author write this book?
- Who is the audience?
- Why am I reading this book?
- What is the author’s main point? (which we covered earlier)
After that, you should write out or think of specific questions you want to answer. If you’re reading for some class, there are probably things that you need to know or answer for the class. If you’re reading to learn about a specific topic, write what you are curious about. This will be another help in the ruthless prioritization. As you begin, you should only read something in full if it moves you towards your North Star of the author’s main point or if it answers a critical question.
Step two: What are the sub-points?
Now we dive into the table of contents. This is going to be your map of the book. If the book doesn’t have a contents section, you’ll have to do a bit more digging for the same effect. What you’re getting is the outline the author hung the flesh of the book on.
If there is a front index: write each chapter title with a good amount of space below each for notes. Make a note next to the title you wrote down whether it’s a long or short chapter (Or even the exact page count). Start priming your brain to wonder at what each of the chapters is about and write that down too.
If there is no front index, or no chapter titles: You’re going to make your own titles! To do this, you will have to actually do some reading. Start with the first sentence and the last sentence of the the first paragraph of each chapter. Come up with what the chapter is about and write that as a sentence.
If you can’t figure out the thesis of the chapter from that, it may not be the best written book. You’ll have to move to the second paragraph. Do the same thing: first and last sentence. There is a great shortcut we’ll need later anyways, but every chapter after the first should end in summarizing the chapter, and then introducing the next chapter. So if it’s very unclear what the chapter is about from the other places, look in the last sentence of the chapter before.
Now that you have these titles written out, take a little thinking pause to try to understand how they point to your North Star. You should write down or think of any questions each chapter might answer. This is getting your brain ready for the battering. The better you understand how the chapters fit together with the main thesis, the faster you can blast through the whole book.
Step three: What order do you read in?
After following the last step, you should have a rough idea of what this book is about, and how you’ll flesh out what the pieces are. This is when you’ll decide what order to read the book in. There are a couple of strategies to deciding order. No matter what, you want to tackle the sub-points in order of importance, but how do you determine that without having read the book?
The first hint is chapter length, and the second is how well you can infer what’s in the chapter just from the title. Then you want to start with the best chapter first, using what you’ve learned from that to help to more quickly understand the more complicated chapters.
After reading the chapter titles in the context of each other, and seeing which are the longest, rate them on a scale of how well you understand them just from the title against length. A longer chapter means that the author had more to say about that topic, which isn’t a perfect correlation for complexity, but it will have to do.
For example, an ”easy” chapter might be “How to jog, 20 pages” since it’s a short chapter and you probably have a good idea of how to jog. Likewise a “hard” chapter might be “Nuclear Power Plants and their Effects on Russian Economy, 100 pages,” at least for me since it’s long and I have no idea how to start thinking about that. Medium could be anywhere in between with the weight on how well you can infer the information from the title. Also, what weird book has both of those chapters?
Step three and a half: Read the index
This part is a bit of magic, which plays on how our brains work. If there is a back index of terms, take the time to read every single term. Don’t skim this part. Actually read every term and even say them out loud. Don’t focus on understanding or noting which page they are on. Just read the terms.
Without getting too deep into it, this allows your brain to pause with recognition for a split second when you are speeding through the chapters when one of these terms comes up. It improves your ability to skip the unimportant words later on, and capture the important ones.
Step four: Skim wide, read only when necessary, repeat.
This is the most time consuming part. You’re essentially using a smart strategy to skim for the highest rated information. There is only so much you’re going to remember from any book and you’re trying to get that important stuff without over-reading things you’ll forget anyways.
Look back at the list you came up with. Start at the highest ranked chapter and dig in with the sole purpose of answering the main question of the book, your North Star, and the sub questions for that chapter.
On the very first pass, if there are subsections, write them each under the chapter headers. If they are not labelled but are clearly subsections separate from the other parts of the chapter, write your own subtitle.
Next pass, skim the chapters by reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph by section. It will be really clear (assuming it’s a relatively well structured book) which sections are making a point and which serve as evidence of a point. If you find that there is a series sentences mentioning one thing over and over, go back and read the paragraph introducing and defining that thing. Do this high level pass for each chapter by rank, taking notes relevant to your important questions.
There is a really important optimization in actually reading: as soon as you realize something isn’t serving to answer your questions or support a point, skip to the next chunk. For instance: If, on the second pass—reading the first and last sentences of the paragraphs—it’s clear the intro sentence that the paragraph won’t help you, don’t read the last sentence either. Just skip to the next paragraph. If you already have an example for a new point, move to the next major point.
You can repeat this skimming process as much as you need answering all of your questions. You should quit a section as soon as you have an answer to the core questions associated with it and some evidence to support it.
I’ve found there is some finesse to the strategy here: you’ll start to notice patterns in the author’s writing that will tell you what they think is important. It’s really dependent on the book or author but an example might be starting several paragraphs in succession referencing something they mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. I can go back and read that whole paragraph and then skip all those sections where they reinforce the concept.
Post reading and some pro tips
If you’re reading to learn something, read your notes in full once you’ve written them out. That is the best time to reinforce the condensed info you’ve pulled from the text. There is a chance you may have missed something in the skimming process, especially the first time you use this system, don’t shy away from other people’s summaries of the text as a resource.
Note that if you have more time, you can actually use this system to read the whole text of a book oriented towards learning what is inside rather than simply how the author presented. It turns out that it doubles as a really effective learning technique by adding more “skimming” passes until you’ve finished every section with notes.
Pro tip for analytics-heavy books: create your structure around understanding the figures, since it will be what the book is primarily about. After that, making sure you are focusing on the definitions of specific terms bootstraps the understanding of the concepts inside the book. An addition to this technique is to write a dictionary for the book as you go for term heavy books.
Finally, you can do this process with a break or a day in between each step. I don’t recommend stopping in the middle of a step because that incurs context switching penalties except for stopping between chapters during the last step, which is fine.
There you have it: the not-so-easy and not-so-fun way to condense reading an entire book into just a couple hours.
Good luck in your readings!