“There’s this AMAZING book you need to read.
…Actually, I have no idea. When I was reading it, I kept finding myself randomly “waking up,” thinking to myself “What did I read in the last 15 minutes?”
Now I’m standing at this party, trying to tell someone about this book and I’ve realized I DON’T HAVE A CLUE what it’s about.
It’s not that it’s a bad book, really. It’s great. Or at least, I think it is.
Never not know what a book is about again
Too many of us slog through books for weeks, only to find we don’t remember a damn thing.
Meanwhile, people we admire like Tim Ferris, Seth Godin and Maria Popova read multiple books per week.
If we want to be all-knowing, like these people, we have to read a lot of books.
But who has time to read so many books? And how many books are worth reading cover-to-cover?
“Speed reading” misses the point
Everyone has dreamed of being able to “speed read.” I mean, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to just turn page after page, perfectly retaining all the information?
For me, this method is a pipe dream, and it’s completely at odds with how I operate. I’m a scatterbrained person with no respect for authority. Who says every word of the book is worth reading—especially in sequential order?
Books are great, and authors are great, but the information I take in should have some relationship to what I hope to get from the book, and to what I’m curious about.
Some people really can just zip through a book in a couple of hours, reading cover-to-cover.
But most of us need a different approach. We need to let our curiosity guide our journey through the book.
I call it “layered reading.” Instead of reading linearly, you immerse your mind into the book according to your level of curiosity.
A caveat: paper books still rule
The method I’m about to introduce can only really be done with paper books. E-books still don’t have a good interface for quickly skipping from one page to another, and for skipping between pages in disparate parts of the book.
Also, despite the fact that I have no respect for authority, I still can’t bring myself to write in a book. But, if you’re one of those heathens who can, this method will be even more effective if you can underline and make notes in your books.
Why you should read a book in “layers”
When you sit down and try to read a book from cover-to-cover, you are setting yourself up for failure.
That’s because most non-fiction books consist of various layers that take varying degrees of difficulty to digest. When you read a book linearly, you try to power through all of these layers at once, chapter by chapter, until you get to the end.
Productivity is about mind management, and this is a surefire way to wear out your mind.
By reading a book in layers, you can easily digest the parts of the book that are interesting to you, and quickly get an idea of the whole book. With each layer, new questions pop into your mind, keeping you engaged.
No matter how short your reading session, you always get a good understanding of the book. Enough that, if the book is good, it will keep you coming back until you’re completely satisfied.
How to read in “layers”
Layer 1: What is this book about? (~5 mins)
Get an overall feeling for what the book is about. Most non-fiction books have one central premise. For example, the central premise of Zero to One is pretty much “entrepreneurial energy is being wasted on ‘incrementalism,’ and entrepreneurs should be inventing the future.”
Read the table of contents carefully. Really read every chapter title and ask yourself:
- Do I understand that?
- What do I think that’s about?
- What other questions do I have?
Here’s how I’d approach the TOC in Zero to One.
- Chapter Title: “The Challenge of the Future”
- Apparently he’s saying the future holds challenges?
- I kinda already heard what this book is about, so maybe it’s that we need to “reinvent the future?”
- What kind of challenges does the future hold?
- Chapter Title: “Party Like It’s 1999”
- Okay, that’s one of those vague, cutesy titles. That could be about multiple things.
- In 1999 Silicon Valley was pretty crazy. Maybe it’s about that?
- What does it mean to “party like it’s 1999,” and why should we?
And so on. The point of Layer 1 is to get a birds-eye view of the “argument” of the book. What is the author saying and how is the argument structured?
If you want to be extra deliberate, you can write down some of your questions on the TOC page or in a separate notebook.
Don’t bore yourself with this task. The point of reading a book in layers is to be fully engaged at all times. If a chapter title doesn’t interest you, or presents a premise you already understand, skip over it.
More than anything, we’re looking for the chapters that interest us most. We’ll dive deeper into those in Layer 2.
Layer 2: How is the argument structured? (~10 mins)
The purpose of this layer is to gain a slightly deeper understanding of what each chapter is about. After reading and thinking about the TOC in Layer 1, there are likely a few chapters that really stick out to you. You may have even skipped ahead and read a few paragraphs of those chapters.
Start with the chapters that most piqued your interest. The point of Layer 2 is to find the central premise of each chapter. Again, you want to see what questions that chapter brings up in your mind.
Take the chapter entitled “Party Like It’s 1999.” If you scan the first few paragraphs, you’ll find this passage:
“The internet craze of the ’90s was the biggest bubble since the crash of 1929, and the lessons learned afterward define and distort almost all thinking about technology today. The first step to thinking clearly is to question what we think we know about the past.”
Apply the same strategy as you did in Layer 1. Don’t over-think it. Just jot down any questions that come to mind.
- So we’re a little trigger-shy about technological innovation because we got burned?
- O.K., I get it. He probably explains some interesting things about the dot-com bubble, and why we shouldn’t be so scared. I don’t have any big questions about this chapter.
As you’re trying to determine what each chapter is about, listen to your curiosity. Use it to decide which chapters you’ll dive into more deeply in Layer 3.
Layer 3: Your magnet chapters (~20 mins)
Now you have a shallow but broad understanding of the structure of the book. Hopefully, it took some effort to keep yourself from reading at least one or two chapters of the book. If not, the book is a dud for you at this place and time, and there’s no point in continuing to read it.
In this layer, you finally get to dive into those chapters that really stuck out at you. Go back to the TOC and note which chapters you most want to investigate further.
Then go and scan those chapters. Don’t read each and every line. Focus on the subheads and the first sentence of each paragraph.
For example, a piece of the Zero to One chapter entitled “Last Mover Advantage” looks like this with a quick scan:
“Analyzing your business according to these characteristics can help you think about how to make it durable.
- Proprietary Technology…must be at least 10 times better…or you radically improve an existing solution…Amazon…offered at least 10 times as many books as any other bookstore…You can also make a 10x improvement through superior integrated design….”
Layer 4: Fill in the gaps (~10 mins)
By now you know the general contours of the whole book and you’ve read the real “meat” of what interests you. In other words, you could tell someone at a party what the book is about, even though you haven’t “read” it.
Go back to the TOC and re-read it with your now deeper knowledge of the book and its argument. It’s likely some of the chapter titles that were not-so-interesting at first glance are now more appealing. If you find yourself asking new questions, go investigate those chapters with the same approach as Layer 2.
In under an hour you’ll have developed a general understanding of the book. Your session was short, enjoyable and you weren’t sidetracked by interruptions. Since you were able to connect the various pieces of the book’s argument in such a short length of time — and with higher engagement — you’ll retain more of the book than if you had tried to slog through it in piecemeal sessions.
Bonus Layer: Enjoying the book as you see fit
After you’ve finished reading in layers, you may still have questions or crave stories to reinforce the concepts presented. This is great! Feel free to revisit the book where your curiosity pulls you and read for enjoyment without any rush.
Layered reading can change your approach to reading
Letting your level of curiosity lead you through books will change your whole approach to reading.
Instead of agonizing over whether to buy a book or not, I just buy it the moment I consider buying it. I have several books shipped to me each week.
(If this sounds expensive to you, consider Ryan Holiday’s approach to books as an investment. Also, consider that you can easily ship to an Amazon Fulfillment Center and sell the ones you decide you don’t want.)
I then lay a bunch of books out in front of me and read the first layer of each one. One or two will pop out at me, so I’ll investigate the next layer. Then, I’ll pick one to dive into deeper.
Following where your curiosity leads you is the whole point of this methodology. Instead of wasting weeks and months on books that bore you, you’ll find and “read” books that do interest you in a fraction of the time.
I hope this helps you read more books, learn more from them, and enjoy the process.
David Kadavy is author of the Amazon best-seller Design for Hackers. He blogs about Design, Productivity, and Entrepreneurship at kadavy.net, and tweets at @kadavy. He lives in Chicago (when it’s not too cold).