“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
— Epictetus, The Art of Living

I read a fair bit. I read to improve myself and become smarter. I read because it is a habit that has served the most successful people throughout history (Warren Buffet estimates he spends about 80% of his day reading). After I read a book it is mine; as I read a book I like to think that I am having a conversation with the author.

Marking up the books I read is essential. It keeps me awake and aware, and engages me actively in the process of reading. Writing down my reactions helps me to solidify my thoughts on the piece and remember the author’s arguments.

I have a process for starting a new book:
  1. I skim over the preface and the conclusion. I want to know the author’s opening and closing arguments (and sometimes those sections are enough for me to put the book back on my shelf).
  2. I go over the table of contents. This helps me understand the direction of the argument.
  3. As I read I take notes in the margin, circle words I don’t know, and highlight key sentences and paragraphs. I ask questions, think through arguments, and try to draw connections to other works I’ve read and enjoyed.
  4. A few weeks after I read the book I go through it again and copy any passages that stand out into a common place book. This ingrains them into my thoughts and gives me a central repository to return to later.
As I read a book I try to ask myself four questions:
  • What is it for? Why did the author write the book and what is she trying to convince me of? What is the theme of the book?
  • Who is it for? Who is the audience? A book on economics written for a doctoral program is going to be radically different than one written for the masses.
  • What is being said in detail and how? What are the main ideas, arguments, and data that are used to support the argument?
  • Do I believe all of the author’s arguments, some of them, or none of them? After I realize what the author is getting at I can decide if I agree or not.

Every book you read is an opportunity to learn deeply from the author; it is a conversation and a dialogue. Learning is an active pursuit, and you have to question yourself, the teacher, and the arguments. Questioning a book and marking it up are some of the best ways to ensure you are actively reading and engaging in the material.

Sean

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