If you're anything like me, you read books and the words flow in your eyes and fall out your ears, never to be seen again.
Here's how I learned to absorb what I read. Clue: you'll need a pencil.
Get an overview
When you first open a book, start by getting an overview. What does it look like, feel like, smell like? (Yes, it matters: you'll be spending quite a while here!) Open it. Read a few sentences. Read the chapter headings. Flick through the book (or scan it on your e-reader) and notice how it's laid out. Maybe skip to the last page and read it. Read the introduction or first chapter, and find the key sentence: the one that tells you what the author is trying to do (grab your pencil, and write "sum" or "aim" in the margin). Now you're ready to go.
Write in your books (the key to absorbing what you read)
Always read with a pencil in hand (unless you're using an e-reader, in which case highlight and make notes electronically). I like push-up pencils best: the fine line means you can make your notes neat and small. Keep an eraser handy. There are three main things I mark as I read:
- key sentences and paragraphs. When a passage stands out or adds to the argument, or is particularly helpful or memorable, I use a variety of markings depending on its significance: underline or double underline; a single or double line down the outside of the paragraph; an asterisk or circled asterisk in the margin; a box around the paragraph. That way I can see at a glance the bits I want to come back to. (Post-it notes are another good way to mark significant passages.)
- the flow of the argument. As I read, I try to follow the author's thought and indicate the main points with a number or word in the margin. The logic is clearer in some books than others: sometimes the only obvious structure is the one you provide. If the argument is hard to follow, you might like to write the main points at the head of each page. It can also be helpful to circle a few key words in a paragraph to highlight definitions and contrasts.
- questions and comments. If I have a question, the argument is unclear, or I disagree, I put a question mark in the margin and note down the issue. Sometimes it will be answered later in the chapter or book. If not, I might make a note of it in the front of the book.
You can read my other tips at The Briefing, or wait for next week - I'll continue to publish this article as a series on my blog.