How to Read Nonfiction Books More Effectively

To read is to take a trip through time. Instead of figuring everything out ourselves, we can read the accounts of people who did it before.

But let’s be honest, reading has become a status symbol. People brag about reading hundreds of books or doing challenges like reading a book a week.

The main idea behind it is valid — books make you smarter. But that’s only part of the equation. Books only make you smarter if you work with the material.

You can fly through an entire book, skim the main points, boast about how you read it, but when you have to explain its main point you can only talk about it in very vague terms.

In this post, I’ll explain how to read nonfiction effectively and how to get more out of books without having to blast through every bestseller list you can find.

But first, let’s explore why reading goals are hurting you.

Why setting a reading goal is a bad idea

First of all, it turns reading into a chore. Not all books are page-turners from start to finish — especially non-fiction books. If you insist on powering through to the end of each book, you create resentment towards them. Instead of looking forward to reading, you create this “ugh” feeling because you have to force yourself through a book you think is boring.

And you might reach your goal in the end, but it’s not really a success if you don’t want to read any more after completing your goal.

Accept that some books just aren’t that great. Some books are written in a weird way, some books just aren’t for you, and sometimes a book is mostly filler meant to pad 10 pages of actual information.

Business and personal development books are notorious for this. They start out talking about how the idea in the book will revolutionize your business. That goes on for about 75 pages, after which you have 10 pages where they explain the actual idea. Once that part is over they start talking for another 75 pages about how mind-blowing the idea was and how it changed everything. Most of the time, those 10 pages in the middle are the only thing that matter.

Second, focusing on the number of books we read only gives us what Charlie Munger called “chauffeur knowledge” in his 2007 USC commencement speech.

“I frequently tell the story of Max Planck, when he won the Nobel prize and went around Germany giving lectures on quantum mechanics. And the chauffeur gradually memorized the lecture and he said, “Would you mind, professor Planck, just because it’s so boring staying in our routines, would you mind if I gave the lecture this time and you just sat in front with my chauffeur’s hat?” And Planck said, “Sure.”

And the chauffeur got up and he gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics, after which a physics professor stood up in the rear and asked a perfectly ghastly question. And the chauffeur said, “Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

The chauffeur knew what to say, Planck understood what he was saying.

I would argue that chauffeur knowledge is the main type of knowledge people get out of a book. We know what it’s about, we can understand it, but the moment we have to explain the topic in our own words we realize we don’t know the topic as well as we think we do.

So slow down and focus on understanding

Why are you reading in the first place? To pass time? Because you heard a lot about the book? To gain knowledge? If you do it for bragging rights or to appear smart, reading loads of books is a big ol’ waste of time. Might as well just start one of those inspirational Instagram accounts.

If you’re reading because you want to improve your knowledge or get better ideas then it pays to slow down. Slowing down will help you avoid getting chauffeur knowledge and get you to a place where you have a better understanding of subjects.

How to read more effectively

That being said, you do want to read a lot of books. They’re full of insights others had to work years to obtain. So how do you read more books and still focus on understanding and gaining more knowledge about the subject?

It all starts with being more selective about the books that you read. A book requires you to invest twice in it. Once with money, once with time. Since time is the most precious resource of the two, you have to be careful where you invest it in.

Picking the right books

Getting better information out of books starts with getting better books. In this case the saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies. If you pick books that are full of fluff and devoid of substance, your ideas and thoughts are going to be the same.

But picking good books is a problem in itself. You don’t know whether they are good or not until you’ve read it. And there’s not enough time in the world to read them all.

In this case, I like what Morgan Housel proposes: Get interested in as many books as you can but be ruthless with your time. If a book doesn’t interest you, stop reading. Or in his words:

“Without flooding your brain with inputs you’ll be stuck in the teeny tiny world of what you’ve personally experienced. But without a strong filter, you’ll be overwhelmed with choice and paralyzed by inaction.”

I also like the advice that David Perell gives: Read the books the ideal version of yourself (in 20 years) would have been proud to have read. Once you adopt this mindset you stop whatever book is the flavor of the day and you start reading higher-quality, challenging books.

With books, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s popular that specific day. I’ve read a lot of books just because I heard about them on podcasts or saw a tweet about them. Some of them are great, don’t get me wrong, but the chances that they’re revolutionary or that they will stand the test of time are slim.

If a book has been in print for 40 years, you can expect it to be in print for another 40 years. If it has survived that long chances are it’s good. Time is a great filter for quality.

T-Shaped reading

After creating a long list of books, I like to use what I call T-shaped reading. The main idea behind it reading is that you get interested in as many books as you can, but you gradually invest more time into the books that you really care about or that you really find interesting. Read enough about the rest to get the overall gist of it.

In practice this looks something like this:

  • Before buying a book, check Amazon (or Google) for reviews. Lengthy reviews often talk about the takeaways and give you a good overview of the book.
  • If you’re still interested in the book after that, check for summaries or reviews. This will give you a good idea of what the book is about without spending hours reading through the material. Most of the popular books have extensive summaries written about them.
  • If you’re still intrigued and want to learn more about the topic, check YouTube for interviews with the author any speeches they gave. A lot of times the author of a nonfiction book has done interviews, seminars, or speeches where they summarize the main idea of the book. Take, for example, the book “A more beautiful question” by Warren Berger. You can buy the book and spend hours reading it, or you can just watch this presentation and get the gist of it.
  • If you still want to learn more about the subject/ book then you can move to buying the book and reading it. But once you are reading, read with the intention of understanding. Take notes and think through the material. Take the points mentioned in the book and push them to their extremes. Twist them and try to break them. It takes longer but you’ll have a better understanding.

Taking notes

As the saying goes: The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory. When reading for understanding, note-taking is the most useful tool you have. Note-taking is what turns chauffeur knowledge into Planck knowledge. Here are a few tips to take good notes:

Write down ideas as you think of them and always have something at hand to write ideas down. Reading doesn’t just help you with learning more about the topic but it also helps you generate ideas. Personally, whenever I’m reading I have more ideas than whenever I sit down and try to come up with them.

Take notes in your own words. With books, it’s easy to think that you understand the material, but when you have to explain the topic in your own words you quickly realize you don’t know as much as you think you do. When you have to explain the topic in your own words it forces you to think through the material and understand it at its core.

Act like you’re going to write an article about the topic you’re reading. Even if you don’t plan on writing an article, acting as if will make you more critical of the information that you’re’ writing down. It makes you pay attention to any holes in the arguments and the quality of sources.

Write down enough of the context so six month from now you can still understand what you wrote. As I explained in my article about building a second brain, the note can make total sense when you write it down but if you look at it again a year later it doesn’t make sense at all.

Have a place where you can hold ideas and notes so your mind is freed up and you can think of new ideas and new connections. I recommend using a tool like Obsidian or Roam to keep track of the knowledge you’re gathering and any new ideas your generating.

Don’t focus on reading more books, just focus on reading more

Wanting to read more books is a great goal — if you do it for the right reasons. Instead of setting a goal for yourself to read a book a week, just set yourself the goal of reading for an hour or two every day. You’ll gain more knowledge and have more fun than if you try to force yourself to read.