On Becoming a Better Reader

I guess I’m lucky. I’ve always been able to absorb information in different ways. Some people are auditory learners while other visual. I’ve never encountered a particular method that’s made me learn more or learn less (that I know of at least).

I’ve always been able to absorb information in different ways. Some people are auditory learners while other visual. I’ve never encountered a particular method that’s made me learn more or learn less (that I know of at least).

One surefire way I’ve been able to learn is through reading. For the most part, I can read something once and the general facts and information will stick.

This is great with general knowledge, and as someone who is excellent at pub trivia and cocktail party parlor games, it’s served me well through my life.

I can also get a bit obsessive (no really??) on a topic. It’s not unusual for me to read 3-5…6…7…books on one area or event during my free time.

During summer breaks in school, I’d get absorbed in certain topics.

My Own Summer Reading Lists

 

I spent one entire summer just reading about Mount Everest.

Literally.

I read about 8 books on it from the best seller Into Thin Air to the more obscure Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy. 

These obsessions almost always end up being a good thing. For years afterward, I could tell you all sorts of facts and information about the Hillary Step and the South Col, the Sherpas, and the disasters.

I never really got tired of it, and I’ll watch pretty much anything on Mount Everest still today. Yes, before you ask, of course, I saw the movie.

Typically my big reading sessions would inevitably go on a tangent. More often than not, some obscure line would take me off on the search for more information.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that my Mount Everest summer led to an Ernest Shackelton fall.

The local librarians were always intrigued.

I remember getting asked if I was doing research projects.

Nope, I just had summers dedicated to Nazis, serial killers (and the FBI profilers who hunted them), Mormons, Sabermetrics, and the stock market (among others). Never, ever, look at my browser history, my sister already knows to tell the police this in case I am ever falsely accused of a crime.

There was never a rhyme or reason, something would spark an interest, and off I’d go.

Looking back, I really enjoyed this way of reading.

Honestly, it suited my personality. I like a lot of things. I’m someone who gets super into something for a few weeks or a few months and then moves on to the next. I couldn’t imagine spending my days caring about one topic, it’s just not how I’m built.

From Reading Obsessions to Reading Obsessive

 

Somewhere along the line, I got away from it and just read to finish. Not absorb it or follow it up. Every time I picked up a book I was looking for what I’d read after I was done so I could check it off and move on.

Since I can be a reading machine if I put my mind to it, finishing books in just a day or two if I wanted,

Not only is that a pointless way to read, it’s also against my natural learning patterns.

It probably no wonder that the last few years I’ve felt a bit lost in my reading. While I’ve read more than ever, over 150 books in the last few years, I can honestly say only a dozen really captured me and truly sparked an interest.

I was reading to read not reading to learn.

Unfortunately, I got too obsessed with checking off goals and not nearly obsessed enough with getting my brain cells to wiggle around with excitement.

Until recently.

A few months ago, I fell back into my old ways and got a bit of a spark back.

In July I went on an Ancient Greek and Roman kick. I started with a primer on Stoics. In that book, a note about a philosopher led me to another, which I devoured, and then off on a fiction book too.

Reading those two books about the Stoics was not only great but I was able to see connections between them that I’d likely have never picked up on if I’d read either on their own or at different times.

My brain kicked back into shape, and I loved it.

More recently, I’ve been into the Song and Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) series. I’ve not only been reading the books, but I’ve found a few sites that offer chapter by chapter analysis too.

Yes, that means it’s taking me way longer to read (which I’ve been struggling to untrain my brain to worry about). But I’m having a much deeper reading experience.

I’m becoming a better reader.

Becoming My Own Beethoven

 

I starting using the Internet for powers of good and found other readers who were also deep thinkers. These are the people who can read a variety of books and spot the patterns and weave interesting and unexpected stories out of them.

When I began to encounter these people, like Shane Parrish at Farnam Street or Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, I felt like a piss poor reader (to be honest). Sure, I read a lot too, but I wasn’t digging very deep in thinking about what I was reading.

I wanted to be a better reader so I tried copying their approaches. Taking note cards like Ryan Holiday or writing in the margins of books like Tim Ferriss.

Then I read something in one of Taylor Pearson’s latest essays that really resonated with me:

For years, I took notes summarizing the points I read. After I finished, I kept telling myself, “I should go back through my notes from a book after I read so that I can really remember the important points.”

However, I almost never went back to my notes, and I beat myself up for it (maybe this sounds familiar?).

It wasn’t until I heard a story about Beethoven that I stopped feeling bad about not reviewing my notes.

Someone asked Beethoven, who was a prodigious note taker, when he looked over his notes. His reply was to the effect of “Never, it’s the act of taking the notes that helps me process the information so I don’t need to review them.”

Now, my approach is changing. I might not need notes or highlights, for me, it could be the act of reading through my obsessions that helps me process information and learn.

So, I think I’m slowly righting the ship. The irony is my first instincts with reading were probably the right ones, I just fought it for years.