The real goal of reading a non-fiction book is to learn something.
You want to spend less time reading and learn more, which means remembering and understanding more of the information. While learning to read faster certainly helps, a big part of it is reading less. It’s usually not a good idea to read the book cover to cover. Remember, you own the book. The book does not own you.
Before you open a book, you have to know what you’re looking for and why you’re reading it.
That way the things you need to know will pop out at you; 80 – 90% of what’s in a book is not important. You want to ignore that and focus on the 5 – 20% that is valuable. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. If you don’t know what the needle looks like, it’s a lot harder to find. The best ways to find this out are to ask your teacher and look at your syllabus.
In general, this is what you need to know when you read:
• The main idea. Everything else hangs on this.
• The author’s point of view, if it’s applicable (sometimes it’s not important, like in a science book).
• The key concepts. These are clusters of ideas.
• The principles or general laws that explain the details, or that allow you to predict.
• The vocabulary of the field. Depending on the book it could be names, dates, places, events, key ideas or scientific concepts, specialized words and terms.
Look for the big picture first.
A lot of times when you read, you’re seeing the pieces and figuring out the big picture, but the process often goes a lot faster if you see the big picture first. It’s like looking at the box of the puzzle while you put it together. You want to have a general framework to understand the material, because that makes understanding it much easier. The best way to do this is to pay attention in class. The teacher assigned the book because it helps you to better understand what she’s teaching. What you’re covering in class is the general framework that the book fits into.
Some parts of the book are more important than others.
When you pick up the book, read the introduction, the preface, the table of contents and the summary first (assuming the book has them). These parts of the book give you the framework for the book. Then see if the author has summarized, bullet-pointed, made a chart, or in some other way pointed out the most important concepts. Read those things next. If the book is broken down into chapters, the chapters will often have an introduction and/or a summary as well. They should be the first things you read in each chapter. Everything else is examples, applications and details, which are less important.
Skip what you already know.
Some of what you need to know you will already know before opening the book. How does this happen? By paying attention in class. I can’t stress this enough. You have to be there anyway, so make the best use of that time. The more you pay attention in class, the less you will have to read at home, and the easier it will be to understand what you read. Then, if you follow these steps I just outlined, you’ll find that a lot of what you read is simply a restatement of the key points. What do you do when you come across something that you already know? Skip it! Skim over it really fast until you get to unfamiliar material.
So to summarize, this is how you read less:
1. Know why you’re reading the book and what you’re looking for.
2. Pay attention in class.
3. Read the most important parts of the book first.
4. Skip what you already know.
The next step is to eliminate distractions when you read. And don’t multi-task.
Every time you get distracted, you lose a lot of time. There are a lot of distractions in the modern world; phone, IM, the internet, music, your friends, your siblings, your parents, the dog, feeling hungry and getting a snack, wanting to take notes and not having a pen and a notebook by your side, etc. Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, turn off your phone and all that other stuff, have a pen and notebook with you when you start reading, tell your friends and family not to disturb you. This will allow you to focus, which is a really valuable skill for all of life. Read for 50 minutes straight. You’ll be surprised at how much you get done when you’re concentrating intently for that whole time. Then take a 10 minute break, and then read for another 50 minutes. After that you’ll probably need a longer break, because it’s hard for anyone to concentrate fully on one thing for longer than that. I suggest a half hour break at this point.
Some distractions are internal, and you have to do your best to eliminate them as well.
We’re not used to focusing our minds for that long, so they tend to wander. One thought or emotion leads to another, and before we know it we end up in daydream land. It’s a big time waster, and it’s going to happen, at least once in a while, and at least when at first. Sometimes one thing makes us think of something else, and before we know it, we realize that we were turning the pages but not really reading. Don’t be mad at yourself, just be mindful of it. When you notice it happening, go back to where you last remember what you were reading. As you place your awareness on it, it will happen less and less.
Here are two potential trouble spots that are special types of internal distractions.
If you don’t handle them, you’ll end up taking longer to read the material and learning less from it. The first is when you find yourself disagreeing with something you read. It’s hard to learn when you disagree with someone or something, because when that happens our minds tend to close. Just like with daydreaming, the key is to be aware of it when it happens. If you find yourself disagreeing with something in the book, take it as a signal that you have to focus harder. Remember that your job is to learn the material, not to agree with it. The second trouble spot is when you’re reading complex material that’s hard to understand and you get frustrated. Again, be aware of it. Skip anything that you don’t understand. Trust that your mind will figure it out. If at the end of a chapter you still don’t understand something, then go back. If you still don’t understand, make a note of it, and the page number it’s on, and ask your teacher about it in class.
Take notes, but not a lot of notes.
In your own words, jot down the key points that I talked about above. Sometimes it helps to make a drawing or diagram, or even an outline. Make sure you write down the page number that this stuff was on so you can easily go back for clarification later if you need to. You also want to write down questions that you have, and things it makes you think of, especially if it’s related to your own experiences. For example, let’s say you’re reading about Manifest Destiny. If I were taking notes, I might write, “Did they really believe it, or were they just using this concept to justify the action they wanted to take? Are there situations today that are similar? Assume for a minute that some people really believed it; how did that belief come to be? And might there be things that we believe today that in the future people will think were wrong, or even almost impossible to comprehend?” This will help you understand the material better, and make you seem really smart in class during a discussion.
When you’re done, re-read your notes.
Do this quickly; take about 5 minutes for each hour of reading. Then do it again a couple days later.
Practice reading faster.
Read slightly faster than you feel comfortable with. You will adapt to it. Again, don’t skip back if you don’t understand something. Keep going. Trust that your mind will figure it out. If at the end of a chapter you still don’t understand something, then go back.
Teach someone else.
If you have someone you study with, teach the other person what you learned as soon as you can, this will cement it in your mind.
That’s about it. Try it and let me know how it works for you.