How to Get (and Give) the Most Out of the Books You Read

Old Books on a Bookshelf

At the time of this writing, I am 111 books into my 1000 Books Project. I’ve gotten a number of questions about what I’m reading and why. Reading entire books isn’t like reading a blog or a newspaper. A book is a large, thorough body of work. It takes a good bit of time and an intense level of focus to get through to the end. So, it stands to reason that you’d want to optimize your reading time by doing it right.

“Read a book. Change the world.” That’s my philosophy. If you read the right books in the right way, you’ll not only better yourself; you’ll become a greater asset to those around you. Reading for change–that’s the kind of reading I advocate. My suggestions won’t work for everyone. But they’ve worked for me pretty well so far, and there’s a chance they’ll work for you. So give them a shot…

10 Tips to Becoming a Better Reader

1. Read a Lot

Should you read for breadth or for depth? That’s the million dollar question. Obviously, my answer is a resounding, “BREADTH.” Of course, you should find some semblance of balance, but I would argue that you are for the most part better off getting the gist of Shakespeare’s entire body of work than you are memorizing Hamlet and ignoring his other writing. Why? Essentially, for two reasons:

  1. You won’t find all the answers in one place. It’s detrimental to read a single work (or a single kind of work) like it’s a religious text (assuming it’s not). You miss additional insights, peripheral viewpoints, and conflicting information. In short, your perspective becomes flat. For a more well-rounded understanding of things, read more books.
  2. When you first read broadly, you discover what’s worth reading deeply. You may think you know what interests you, but how can you be sure until you’ve properly surveyed what’s available? When you read a lot of books, you stumble across points of intrigue that you never knew you had. Once you’ve gathered a broad sample of literature, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the kinds of books you like to read. Read broadly, THEN read deeply.

2. Read Things that Challenge Your Beliefs

Most people will be drawn to topics they’re already interested in or to arguments that confirm beliefs they already hold. I call this “high-five” reading, and I would argue that effective readers will do the opposite. If you find something you disagree with, that’s usually a good sign that you should read it.

The trick is to read with an open mind. Read as objectively as possible. If you are a Southern Baptist, read Richard Dawkins and try to understand Atheism from his perspective. If you are a “bleeding heart liberal,” read Ann Coulter and try to understand Conservatism from her perspective. If you are merely reading books in order to further justify to yourself that what you believe is true, you are wasting your time. You aren’t growing. You aren’t becoming a more well-rounded human being.

And this principle applies also to books that aren’t persuasive in nature. It belongs to history, to fiction, to instructional books, and so on. If the book covers a topic that you find boring, that is also a sign that you should probably read it. If you are into contemporary thriller authors like Michael Connelly or Dean Koontz, try reading some 19th century European authors like Victor Hugo or Ivan Turgenev. If you read a lot of books on the Civil War, try reading some books about Women’s Rights. You get the point. Read what doesn’t interest you. Why? Because it expands your horizons and opens you up to new things.

Don’t read things that keep you the same; read things that challenge the status quo within.

3. Read Fiction and Non-Fiction

I’ve met people who read a lot of books but read exclusively fiction or exclusively non-fiction. For example, a business friend of mine found out about my project and asked what I was reading. At the time, I was reading a fiction book, so I told him. He looked at me as if I were speaking another language. “It’s a story about…,” I began, but he interrupted waving his hand dismissively, “Oh, I don’t read fiction.” Nina Sankovitch (See Book #100), who was part of the inspiration behind my project, read a book a day for an entire year, but all of the books were fiction. As for me, I’m all about a good mix.

Both non-fiction and fiction, I believe are about conveying truths. It’s just that, with non-fiction, it’s more direct. In fiction, we often grasp the subtle truths without realizing it, gaining a deeper understanding of landscapes, societies, events, and the human mind. Non-fiction gives it to us straight. You could say (though it’s not always the case) that we read fiction with our hearts and non-fiction with our minds.

So I’d advise you reward your whole person. Read some stories and read some research. There is truth to be found in both.

4. Read a Diverse Range of Genres

Let me tell you a bit about how I’ve been spending my time lately. In the past 7 months…

I have been a(n):

  • Stay-at-Home Mom
  • Biologist
  • Pirate
  • Entrepreneur
  • Hotel Clerk
  • Sasquatch
  • Neuroscientist
  • Mega-church Preacher
  • World-Renowned Marketer
  • Author
  • Financial Coach
  • Philosopher
  • Educator
  • Lead Singer for a Heavy Metal Band
  • College Professor
  • Stock Broker
  • New York Times Columnist
  • Amish Preacher
  • Chef
  • Psychologist
  • World Memory Champion
  • Space Explorer
  • Circus Performer
  • Inmate

I have been to…

  • The Galapagos
  • New Orleans
  • Russia
  • France
  • Shawshank
  • Levant
  • The restaurant at the end of the universe
  • The Carribean
  • Palo Alto
  • Tennessee
  • Jerusalem
  • Winterfell
  • Mississippi
  • Wall Street
  • Emond’s Field

I have:

  • Built businesses
  • Lived alone in the woods
  • Chased a couch across a field
  • Freed a slave
  • Turned myself invisible
  • Started a scientific revolution
  • Burnt down a school
  • Discovered electricity
  • Lived in a maze
  • Lost custody of a child because of my Facebook status
  • Shot and killed a man
  • Opened a coffee shop
  • Created a new species
  • Escaped a prison
  • Gotten fired

You get my point? I am one person, but I have lived as many. I have seen worlds both real and imagined without leaving my couch. Read hundreds of different books, and you’ll live hundreds of different lives. Prolong your stay on this earth–diversify your reading.

5. Read Both Old Books and New

I am all about staying current. I have read many books that have come out in the last year, sone of which were released just days before my having read them. New books provide the most current information…or they reveal the next chain of events in a fictional series. New books are great.

But old books are great too. When an older book is still in circulation, that fact alone is evidence that it has longevity. There is something evergreen about its content that makes it worth reading no matter how dated it is. Perhaps it is a foundational work in its genre. Perhaps it is exceptionally well-written. Whatever the case, old doesn’t mean stale. Give the classics the respect they deserve.

6. Connect the Dots

Don’t read as if each book is written within a vacuum. Cross-reference like crazy. Say to yourself, “Wow, that’s kind of like the argument Author X made in Book Y,” or, “that’s kind of like what Character P did in Book Q.” Connect the ideas as you read from book to book in order to give yourself a more wholistic picture of the world. No matter how different things may seem, everything is related. When you read, identify those relationships and ponder how they interact with one another.

7. Read in Different Formats

When people ask me how I can possibly read so much, this is where my secret lies. I read books in three different formats:

  • Audio
  • Digital
  • Print

I listen to audiobooks while I’m driving, doing dishes, and while I’m doing mindless data-entry tasks. I read digital books (eBooks) while I’m waiting in lines, at doctors’ offices, and basically anytime I’m in a place where the only content I have access to is in my Kindle library and I have nothing better to do. I read print books (the traditional kind) early in the morning and sometimes late in the evening. Basically, if I’m not talking to someone or doing focused work, I’m reading something.

I recommend reading in the different formats because it definitely assists in remembering the content. Because you’re reading from different sources, there are different somatic markers tied to the content that help you keep straight which material comes from which book. Try it out; you’ll see what I mean.

8. Find Books in Different Places

If you’re going to read a thousand books and you’re going to be incredibly particular about what you read, it’s going to cost you a lot of money–$10,000 as a rough estimate. I’m not so scientific about picking my books. It turns out there’s this AMAZING depository of books that are available for free. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s called the public library. In my neck of the woods, there’s even this cool app called OverDrive that works with my library to offer free audiobooks and eBooks for borrowing. How can I not take advantage of it?

But I do buy some books. I go to Half-Price Books, which is a used bookstore somewhat akin to heaven for book lovers, every few months. I go to Barnes and Noble on occasion and, even more infrequently, independents that I stumble upon. And, of course, if there’s a book I really want, I’ll go on trusty old for a purchase.

My point is that you should look all around for good books. Don’t rely on one distribution channel. And ALWAYS bump a personal recommendation to the top of your list. People are putting their reputations on the line when they make recommendations, so that generally means you can trust them.

9. Read for Different Purposes

As I’ve read, I’ve realized there are different purposes for which books are written, and I’ve devised my own system of categorization:

  • Narrative Book: a book, fiction or non-fiction, that is told in a story format. You typically read this kind of book to be entertained.
  • Declarative Book: a book whose purpose is to express the author’s opinion; self-help books, manifestos, and humorous books often fall under this category. You will typically read this kind of book to be inspired.
  • Informative Book: a book whose purpose is to explore an issue and reveal information about it; many science, journalism, history, and books fall under this category. Obviously, you will most likely read this kind of book to be informed.
  • Persuasive Book: a book whose purpose is to persuade the readers to take his or her position on an issue; many political and social issue books fall under this category. As mentioned above, most people will read this kind of book to confirm what they already believe. I would recommend, however, that you read this kind of book to consider various arguments and viewpoints on a particular issue.
  • Demonstrative Book: a book whose purpose is to teach the audience how to do something; many business books, health books, and self-help books fall under this category. You will read this kind of book to learn how to do something.

You read these different kinds of books for different reasons. Although they certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, I would recommend reading a good bit from each category. Don’t read only for entertainment or only for information. Read for all kinds of reasons.

10. Talk About What You Read

Don’t just read books. Join the book reading community. Knowledge and personal growth are greatly limited by the extent to which we keep to ourselves. The greatest insights come not merely from reading but rather from extracting what we read and sharing it with one another.

I’m a big believer of this last point. Reading alone won’t change the world. Openly and honestly discussing what we read will. We read. We discuss. We understand. Voila. World Peace. I wrote an entire post on this point and I highly recommend you check it out.

Thank you for sticking with me and making it to the bottom of this post. I hope what I’ve shared will help you in your reading. Feel free to leave me a comment on what you’re reading and why. Lets start a conversation and change the world together.

featured image courtesy of Moyan Brenn licensed via Creative Commons


About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
This entry was posted in blog, Books and Reading, Self-Help. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How to Get (and Give) the Most Out of the Books You Read

  1. profkrg says:

    Not surprisingly, I agree with most of what you wrote here. However, you had me debating after the first point. I don’t think you have to choose. I realize that there are only so many hours in the day, but I love filling the ones I have with as much reading as possible. I read only things I enjoy. I also make sure I have one “heavy lifting” book going and one that’s pretty mindless. This helps me read for depth and breadth, at least I think it does.

    • Doug Rice says:

      Yeah, I was going to go on and on with the disclaimer about how “a lot” to me is not the same as “a lot” to you and that we all to some extent read for breadth and depth, and so on and so forth. But, I decided instead just to take a position.

      I’ve read 111 books so far, and I haven’t reviewed a single one. For now, I’m not so much about analysis as I am about getting the “gist” of each work. I think, after I’m done with this project, I’ll do more specific research and probably read more thoroughly. But I think it makes more sense to start broadly and then narrow your focus later than vice versa. But that’s just me. You’re doing an AMAZING job with your #100Books project! I’m absolutely loving the reviews!

    • douglaserice says:

      Yeah, I was going to go on and on with the disclaimer about how “a lot” to me is not the same as “a lot” to you and that we all to some extent read for breadth and depth, and so on and so forth. But, I decided instead just to take a position.
      I’ve read 111 books so far, and I haven’t reviewed a single one. For now, I’m not so much about analysis as I am about getting the “gist” of each work. I think, after I’m done with this project, I’ll do more specific research and probably read more thoroughly. But I think it makes more sense to start broadly and then narrow your focus later than vice versa. But that’s just me. You’re doing an AMAZING job with your #100Books project! I’m absolutely loving the reviews!

      • profkrg says:

        douglaserice I’m struggling with the reviews. The truth is that, if I reviewed every book as I read it, I would never write anything else. I can’t decide how I want to do it. I disagree with just reviewing books I like. I’m thinking of doing a single-line review of the entire 100 for the end of the year. In the meantime, I’ll review the ones I want. Thoughts? And, thank you!

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