How to read non-fiction

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7 min read

I wrote before about how I read in general. I have developed a way of reading non-fiction over the years. I wished I discovered how to read non-fiction earlier. I’ve read articles by others that helped shape my reading process and want to put it down for others who might benefit.

I grew up an avid reader. I gobbled up fiction, from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl to Hardy Boys as a child, to fantasy and sci-fi classics as a youth. These fictitious worlds were so fascinating and inspired me to write my own and fantasise about the imaginary.

However, non-fiction books were my bane. I found them boring and dry. It was hard to get through them, until I had a change in mindset. Now I read three to five non-fiction books for every fiction novel I finish.

“Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others.”

Otto von Bismarck

Non-fiction books are often the accumulation of experience from others who have gone down similar paths or wondered about the same topics and ideas. Reading non-fiction helped me to learn from the experience of others to help me to keep learning.

Taking notes

The key to reading well is to be engaged while you read. Reading inevitably stirs thoughts and emotions. These are usually fleeting so pen them down while you are aware of them to help you understand more about what you read and also about yourself.

If you read with any decent reading app on your desktop or phone, it would come with highlighting and note taking functions. If you’re reading a physical book, mark and write on the book if it’s your own and grab a pen and notebook to expand upon the notes you take.

To get the full value out of your reading process, it is important that you practice active reading. Think while you read. Try to connect what you’ve read to your past experiences and current problems you might face.

By linking what concepts that the author writes about with your personal experiences, you understand them better and even gain insight on how to view the problems in a different light and potentially resolve them.

Reading it again

After you finish reading it, give the book a rating and let it marinate for at least a week, ideally longer.

Pick the book up again. If you think the book is good but not great, read through your notes. If it was better than good, read the whole book again or at least go through all the parts that you thought were outstanding.

As you read through the second time, be it the whole book or parts of it, make notes again. After that, check if your initial rating of the book still stands.

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.

Arthur Schopenhauer

I wrote previously about having my personal wiki. It is a personal database where I file away my notes on books I’ve read and films I’ve watched. My database is a trove of my thoughts I wrote down when I read, or after I watch a movie or drama series. Good content is worth going back to.

By reviewing your notes while you read the book the second time and after you finish the second reading, you can examine how you have grown during the two readings.

This is either due to the insights you gleaned from the book, or it could be an accumulation of knowledge from the book and other books or content you might have consumed between the two readings.

Another factor is your emotional and psychological state while reading the books. These generate different thoughts and ideas when you read, and in turn lead to notes that are different between the two readings.

I have found that the longer the duration is between the two readings, the greater the differences. This is why I often let the books marinate for months before I pick up the same book again.

Skip the boring parts/books

How many of you are stuck somewhere on a book because it’s hard to make progress? Try skipping forward to a point where it catches your interest to speed up your consumption of the book.

Be quick to start a book, but quicker to put a bad one down.

I used to think that I should read everything that the author wrote and try to understand it. If I failed to appreciate a certain part of it, I would think I was missing out on something and was not good enough compared to someone else who gets the book.

It’s not about reading the book from cover to cover. It is perfectly fine to jump around to find the chapter or chunk that gives you the most value. Of course, reading it in the way the author intended it to be helps you understand better, but if you already grasp the idea, then honing in on the most valuable or interesting portion works too.

“If you find yourself wanting to speed up the reading process on a particular book, you may want to ask yourself, ‘Is this book any good?’ Life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy reading.”

Ryan Holiday

If jumping around doesn’t help then put it down and move on. The book might not be for you. Or if it is a highly recommended book, perhaps it’s not the right time for you to be reading this book.

Have read a book and you thought it is not as great as the reviews or what your peers say about it, and wonder if you were not smart enough to appreciate the book like they did?

We are not in the same race. Every individual is in a different path in life, and even if we are in a similar growth path, we might be at different stages of growth. Don’t compare with others. If a book doesn’t resonate with you, then it is not the right book or not the right time to read this book.

Don’t give up on a book just because you can’t get through it in the first read. There is value in a book, especially if many people praise it. Keep it the gist of what it says in mind, so when you encounter what it talks about, you’ll think of it and come back to it again. It just might be the right time to read the book.

Dive into your next book

Changing my mindset towards reading has helped me reap a lot more rewards than before. As I said before, I wished I discovered how to read non-fiction earlier.

Everyone has their own way of reading, so my process might not work for you, but I hope that sharing it gives you insight to improve on yours.

I would love to read about how you read. I’m sure I would gain useful insights from it.