How to avoid reading books (read effectively)

Good students avoid reading books. They read effectively. They read less words, but learn more. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.

Head scratching by a r b o Many of us read wrong!

The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning, or more likely at chapter one. As we shall see this is never the right place to start. They then slowly – but only sometimes surely – plough through until, with a sigh, they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. Better to read effectively. This time spent in “uselessness” could have been invested more wisely. For “wasted time” often pays surprising dividends, but time spent merely reading a textbook seldom does!

Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let’s think about how to read effectively. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum benefit from that reading.

I’ve always been a slow reader, I try to cope by “reading smarter”.

One way I do this is to “waste time” overviewing something before reading it:

Contents

The contents list should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised. A few moments1 spent on the contents list lets you make intelligent guesses about where to find what. You might even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.

The foreword (before the first chapter) often tells you what the author thought their book was about. That’s vital reading! Likewise, the conclusion (Like detective stories, serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) should let you write a summary of the book in a few sentences.

Go on, write the summary down! At the worst you can look back at it later, and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)

Chapters

Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.

Then skip through the material. Do not actually “read” yet, but look at a bit here and there. This will firm up your idea of what the chapter is about, and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!

Essential “reading“: they say a picture is worth 1000 words. (1Kw in metric measures.) Well-chosen pictures are worth 1Kw! Though badly chosen pictures are worth-less. (However, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) Charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw – so spend time on them!

At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter. Yes, just like you did for the whole book earlier.

Moby’s important reading by ktylerconk The effective way to read textbooks is the way we “read” newspapers or magazines!

Important “bits”

Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. See, now you are reading effectively. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually “read” all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it – often better than if you had scanned each of the words!

I find if I try to read page by page it goes in my eyes and out my ears. Reading that way, I forget almost all the content five minutes after I saw the page. Such reading is a waste of time – don’t do it!

Sometimes with the way of reading I have described you read some parts twice. But they will be chapters or sections that really matter. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all. However, you will know where they are if you need them “one day”!

In summary

Do a survey of the book, or chapter. Play with the material till you know what it contains, and where things are. Only after this, actually read carefully the “bits” that matter to you.

Congratulations, if you practice reading like this you will be reading effectively. More results for your effort!

  1. 1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs. []

7 comments on “How to avoid reading books (read effectively)

  1. Wayne Leman

    I’m a slow reader, also, Tim. These are good tips. I think I’ve used some of them along the way.

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  3. jonathan robinson

    And this is also what I do and have tried to encourage students to do, but I can’t help but wonder if doing such a process which while not requiring fast reading does require fast thinking, and the ability to interpret the contents and conclusions etc and glean from them where the relevant bits of information are. i wonder if less effort nonetheless requires more skill, which many students are yet to have developed. i wonder if it works for me and you because we’ve already read enough books to know how to get out of them what we want? hmmmm.

  4. Tim

    Jonathan, maybe, but it’s a skill that grows with practice, like walking. And, like walking again, it is only the first steps that are difficult. Whereas “reading a book” to understand it requires so much background knowlewdge and experience, as well as sharp thinking… it’s no match!

  5. Tim

    PS I reckon a student who practiced this approach on three books would thereafter beat a student who usually gets a whole letter grade higher in a timed comprehension test on a book :)

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  7. jonathan robinson

    Yes, I think you are probably right. Undergrads consistently struggle to see the wood for the trees and need to be trained to read books as a whole. It is hard but no where near as hard as trying to complete your studies by reading entire books!