How I live: Reading books so they last

This post is part of a larger attempt to share my personal “systems” that help me organize my life. I’m no expert, but by sharing my system, I hope to get feedback and inspire others to share as well.

Why should I care about this anyway?

“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”— Bertrand Russell

For the last five years, I was allergic to books (unless I could boast about them). I thought fiction books purely for fun, and non-fiction books were always longer and less to-the-point than an online article. I scoffed at book-readers, listening to my 30 minute informational podcasts — skimming Wikipedia was way faster than spending two weeks on a book!

After retrying books recently, I’ve realized that podcasts and articles are baby carrots to the five-course-meal that a book provides. Books are effective at deep dives on specific topics of interest, as well as testing out philosophical hypotheses (e.g. “What would a world look like where …”). For instance, Brave New World taught me about a utopia’s tension between equality and freedom, while Sapiens has completely changed the way I view corporations, now seeing them as brilliantly constructed “imagined realities.” More so in the long-form medium of books can I really empathize, philosophize, and draw deep conceptual connections.

How I read

(1) Pick the book

Although I love Goodreads, I personally prefer to track my to-read books in a spreadsheet so that I can easily rearrange priority, write notes, and write down who recommended me the book or who is also interested in reading the book.

You check out this sample spreadsheet that models how I track my to-read and recommended books. I prioritize based on the topic’s relevance to my latest thoughts/questions, or if someone is concurrently reading the book.

(2) Get the book

I personally prefer reading books on the Kindle app on my iPhone. Having the book ever-present with me means that I can stop scrolling endlessly through Facebook and instead take a thirty minute break to read part of my book. Kindle books are also perfect for annotation.

(3) Read the book

I read books on my Kindle app on my smartphone, so I’ll frequently forgo my Facebook feed for book reading (I’ve deleted most social media apps from my phone). This habit helps me hit an average of 30 minutes to an hour of reading per day.

I will generally read the book end-to-end, but if desired, I’ll skip around in the book or skim segments that are of lower interest. When I go through the book, I take two types of annotations: highlights and notes.

Highlights. This is for when I come across a quote or line in the book that I really want to remember, something that either sounds like a main point the author is getting across, or maybe something written beautifully that I want to capture.

Notes. When I read, I often have questions, criticisms, or connections to other works I’ve read. I’ll highlight the relevant passage and jot down a related note in the moment.

(4) Write about book

Next, I’ll whip up a Google Doc and write up a book summary. I’m not writing these for an audience other than myself usually, so I’ll just go through my annotations, dump the quotes and notes into the doc, and process them a bit.

The important part: I make a section for each book titled “Five Things I want to remember” and I write a numbered list of these at the top of the page.

You can check out this book summary of Flowers for Algernon to get a sense for what mine look like.

(5) Read about book

Next, I’ll read about the book online. I’ll usually Wikipedia search the author and the book, and write down any interesting insights or facts. Next, I’ll google the book to see if there are any good book reviews that analyze the book, to contrast with what I wrote about the book. Lastly, I’ll check Goodreads, which has a section highlighting the top quotes from the book.

(6) Share

After I’m done compiling all the info I want to remember, I’ll rate the book on my Goodreads account, and see which of my friends has read the book. I’ll ask them about my questions, share my Google Doc summary, or just tell them how awesome the book was.

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