#055: How to Read a Non-Fiction Book [Podcast]

It’s been said “leaders read and readers lead.” If that’s true, then reading is one of the most important things you can do to grow your leadership. But how do you get better at it and retain more of what you read?


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Recently, my wife, Gail, and I had dinner with some close, neighborhood friends. As we always do with this group, we soon began discussing books.

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A few minutes into the discussion, Gail asked, “So how do each of you read a book? What are your practices?” What a great question.

For the next forty-five minutes everyone shared their best practices. I picked up some great tips.

Since that time, I’ve had a chance to think about this a little more. I have developed a list of ten best practices for better reading. I think these can help you make your reading even more valuable.

Here they are:

  1. Don’t feel that you need to finish.
  2. Start with the author bio.
  3. Read the table of contents.
  4. Quickly scan the whole book.
  5. Highlight important passages.
  6. Take notes in front or in the margin.
  7. Use a set of note-taking symbols.
  8. Dog-ear (or bookmark) pages you want to revisit.
  9. Review the book and transfer actions to a to-do list.
  10. Share the book’s message.

If you are convinced reading is important, then be intentional. Like everything else in life, the more thoughtful and deliberate you are with your approach, the more you will get out of it.

Listener Questions

  1. Andrew Mason asked, “How do you retain all the stuff you are learning?”
  2. Brad Blackman asked, “Do you use post-it notes to flag important passages?”
  3. Brent Dumler asked, “What would recommend for someone with dyslexia who has trouble finishing books?”
  4. Christian Monzon asked, “Am I doing myself a disservice by not making time for more fiction?”
  5. Christopher Scott asked, “How can I read college textbooks faster and with better retention?”
  6. Esther Aspling asked, “Can you recommend a site for good reviews that will help me find better non-fiction books?”
  7. Jim Chandler asked, “What system do you use to queue and read books?”
  8. Joshua Beck asked, “How do you decide what books to read?
  9. Les Kerr asked, “Is there a happy medium between reading fiction and non-fiction?”
  10. Matt McWilliams asked, “How do you thoroughly digest the content to make sure you get everything you can out of it?”
  11. Pete Dahlem asked, “What do you do to help the people you mentor to grow and get to the next level?”
  12. Travis Dommert asked, “How much of an author’s content can I use in a book summary without violating his or her copyright?”

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Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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Question: How do you read non-fiction books? What are your best practices? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Haelie

    Once I started reviewing books, I started a really crazy system of dog-earing my books. My thought process was that they were often very nice books that I did not want to mark all up with highlighters and pens (I read almost solely Christian non-fiction).

    Well, I think I have done more to mark up the books, so to speak, by the way I dog-ear them. You should see them. It’s quite laughable. They almost double in thickness. And when I loan them to people on occasion, I feel sorry for them.

    Only I know the method to my madness, because after all, each dog-ear and the way it is done has a certain meaning. (Pointing directly to a sentence, double fold-ever to stand out so that I know I want to consider using this as a quote, etc.) When I read a really good book, well, just pray you don’t try to borrow it from me later. And that’s what I miss when I read on a Kindle. My old version isn’t very comfortable for me to bookmark in and such.

    Oh well…I’ll break old habits soon enough.

  • http://www.apprenticeshipofbeinghuman.com/ Graham Scharf

    To distill what you said in your podcast (and the answers to listeners’ questions), I’d answer that summarizing is one of the most effective ways to retain what you read because:

    1. It is analytic. You engage your mind to discern what is important.
    2. It is synthetic. Your creative capacities are engaged to put it in your own words.
    3. It exercises your working memory. This is a faculty that strengthens with practice.

    It isn’t just for reading. I use evernote to summarize important conversations I’ve had, podcasts to which I’ve listened (like this one). In addition to better incorporating what I’ve learned into my thinking, I also have a summary to which I can turn to refresh my memory.

    This is one of the most important learning habits that a student of any age can cultivate.