Image licensed from Shutterstock // Diego Cervo
A mentor once told me it’s better to read one great book ten times than read ten books once. He reasoned if you only read a book once, you can’t glean its powerful lessons. Simply, you don’t retain enough information from a single reading.
What if you could only read a book once and extract value as though you had read it ten times?
Is this possible? Yes. It’s possible and straightforward. You merely need to change the way you read, take notes, and absorb the information.
Let’s start with recognizing the obvious.
Most nonfiction authors pad their books with superfluous content. Even the best books contain unnecessary anecdotes, examples, and explanations. It’s basic economics. No customer is going to pay $25 for a hardcover book with 6,000 words. Hence, publishers set a minimum word count.
The extra padding can serve a useful purpose when done well. It enhances our understanding by demonstrating how a concept works and how it applies to real-world situations. But in most cases, it’s overdone — forcing us to wade through a mine full of junk to find a handful of gems.
I use a simple process to harvest the gems and create a Cliffs Notes type of summary that cuts out 98% of the material. Instead of reading a book ten times to drive home the lessons, read it once — going through the harvesting process — then read your summarized version ten times (or more).
Here’s how it works.
Doing This for the First Time
If this is the first time you’re following this process, take five minutes to create a simple folder structure on your computer. Start by creating a folder called Book Notes.
Within that folder, create subfolders for the various categories of books you read (self-help, business, meditation, philosophy, writing). Yours may differ from mine depending on the type of books you read.
That’s all you need to get started. Don’t worry about neglecting categories. You can always tweak it later.
1. Read and mark
Keep a pen handy as you read. Whenever you come across a passage that interests you, a critical insight, or a profound statement, put a small asterisk next to it. (Use the highlighting feature for electronic readers).
If you’re reading a physical book and hate marking up the pages, use a pencil instead of a pen. Or, you can fold the bottom of the page down as an alternative method — this will disadvantage you some as you’ll have to reread the entire page to find the line or passage you wanted.
Don’t worry about redundancies or key insights that supersede earlier notations. You’ll deal with that in the next two phases.
You’ve finished reading your book. Congratulations. Now comes the fun part.
Create a new document with the title of the book and its author. Here’s a snippet from my drive.
Thumb through your book, starting on the first page.
When you come to a marked or highlighted passage, reread it. Does it still seem important to you now that you’ve read the entire book? If so, type it into your document. Here is an example from the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.
The great turkey problem — A butcher fed a turkey for one thousand days. The turkey was unaware that the holiday of Thanksgiving existed. The turkey will believe the butcher loves turkeys up until the day he slaughters the turkey. This surprise is the black swan event, but just for the turkey — Antifragile, Pg. 93
As you go through the text, you’ll find passages that are similar and superior to the ones you’ve already noted. This happens in almost all nonfiction books. Authors repeat themselves, explain concepts in different ways, and use different analogies.
When this happens, delete the old record and replace it with the new one. If you’re unsure, record both. You will edit later.
Always include the page number (for books) or chapter and timestamp (audiobooks) so you can revisit the source material when necessary.
You’ve transcribed the best of your book into a document. Now it’s time to whittle down your text into a manageable size. I recommend no more than three to five pages.
Why so few?
You’re more inclined to revisit a three-page document than a twenty-page document. You can capture the best of most well-structured nonfiction book in three to five pages. Yes, there are exceptions, such as compilation books and history and science books.
If you harvest more than that, you likely have redundancies or multiple examples that teach the same point.
Feel free to reword your entries in a way that makes sense to you. Don’t feel obligated to retain the author’s exact words. The goal of reading any nonfiction book is to glean the lessons. Writing the lessons in your own words will help with comprehension.
After finishing the editing process, read your book summary once a day for two weeks.
A reminder that your summarized document should be no more than five pages, so this should be a doable task, even if you start another book in the interim.
If you want to gain even more from your book, pick out a few topics and write about them as though you were teaching them to others. You don’t need to publish it. The mere act of organizing your thoughts and simplifying them into a narrative will enhance the retention process.
Let’s pretend you follow this program for a year, and you accumulate dozens of books. Will you read all of those summaries regularly? Probably not. That’s why you should also create a best of the best document to capture the top highlights of each category — an anthology of your most prized lessons.
The example below is from my Best of Persuasion, Sales, and Marketing. This document is admittedly getting too long and in need of some editing, but I refer to it frequently.
Do your best to keep this document short. You can leave out the author, book, and page references. If you need to keep an anecdote or short narrative, rewrite it into as few words as possible.
Use this anthology as a means to trigger a memory about a particular technique or theory, rather than rereading the book.
- Read and mark