You don’t need to read faster, just pick the right books

2015 December 13
by Emmanuel Goossaert

TL;DR

  • The non-fiction book publishers are imposing a standard that is toxic for the readers: books that are 200-300 pages long, sell for $10-20, and get 4-5 star ratings on Amazon.
  • Trying to read everything is overwhelming and unnecessary, as most non-fiction books do not deserve your time anyway. They just recycle old ideas that are available in shorter and better formats elsewhere.
  • Reading speed is a distraction from the real problem: you don’t need to read faster, just pick the right books.
  • Apply the Pareto principle, and just pick the three great books that will bring you 99% of the value you need, and focus on reading and re-reading only those.
  • Skip any paragraph or chapter that is not relevant to you. And if a book is just plain bad, drop it right away.
  • Trying to remember everything is a waste of time. Summarize what you read down to the core concepts and models. Make your brain a search engine, not a storage system.

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Learning is awesome

Like most people, I love learning about new ideas, and a great way to that is to read non-fiction books. Books about psychology, business, history, technical topics, etc. But there are so many books out there, and so little time, it’s almost overwhelming!

So like many before me, I have researched techniques on how to read faster, but all of them ended up being no so workable for me. Reading speed doesn’t really matter for non-fiction books, as it is worthless to read a book as fast as possible if nothing is remembered. Thus another criteria to consider is retention, and how to assimilate the concepts you read about, so you can relate to them in your future thinking.

So what should we prioritize on? Read many books as fast as possible, or try to remember as much as possible from books? I’ve read a whole lot of non-fiction books over the past few years, and I’ve come to a conclusion: most of them are not even worth reading, and here why.

The current state of the book industry

The publishing industry has had a lot of time to experiment and refine their offers to find the sweet spot for their market. Let’s take an example to make it this more real. There has been a bunch of pop psychology books on the topic of expertise, here are the five most notable ones:

  • The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, 256 pages, 4.5 stars, $16
  • Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, 240 pages, 4.2 stars, $18
  • Mastery by Robert Greene, 352 pages, 4.5 stars, $12
  • Bounce by Matthew Syed, 336 pages, 4.4 stars, $11
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, 336 pages, 4.4 stars, $20

Do you notice something in that list? All those books fall in the same bucket, which is the industry standard for the average non-fiction books:

  • priced 10-20 dollars/euros
  • around 250-300 pages long
  • rated 4-5 stars on Amazon

Cal Newport wrote about how the non-fiction book publishing industry works. Non-fiction writers rarely write books and then try to sell them. In the majority of the cases they have agents who talk to publishers, and so writers pitch ideas for books to their agents who green-light them based on what they know about the current trends and what publishers want. The publishers then impose the industry standard, the infamous 250-300 pages that will sell for $10-20.

The standard of the book industry is toxic

So among those five books on expertise, which one should you read? That’s easy, the answer is none of them! They’re all closely or remotely based on the same 2007 HBR article The Making of an Expert by Anders Ericsson, itself based on earlier research by Ericsson and his peers. The HBR article is about 10 pages long, and will cost you nothing as you can read it online on the HBR website.

I’ve taken this one example of non-fiction books on the topic of expertise, and I’m sure you can easily think of other topics you know about where similar books are competing and bringing nothing new to the table. Most books are repeating what other books before them have covered, and will be forgotten 10 years from now.

And that’s why most non-fiction books feel the same, and are very repetitive. They’re basically trying to expand a 10-page article into a 250-page book by bending anecdotes with hindsight bias, all of that just to fit into an industry standard. And you as a reader and consumer end up wasting your time reading a 250-page book that really should just be 10 pages of concise and surgically-edited high quality content.

Pick a handful of books, read them, then re-read them

You don’t need to read everything, just read the good books. Following the Pareto principle, there should be 1% of the books out there that should provide you with 99% of all the value you need at this very moment of your life. Let’s pick a number, let’s say three books. There should be no more than three non-fiction books really worth reading for you right now, which are well-written, concise, and relevant to who you are and the areas where you need to grow at this very moment of your life.

So here is my advice to all of you trying to find ways to read faster or remember everything from what you read: just don’t. There is no need for that. Just try to find, among the gigantic pile of redundant books jamming the search results of Amazon, the one book that matters in a field and which will have 99% of impact on your mind, and just focus on reading that one. Assuming that this book was the best in its field, from there any additional book you read in the same field will have an exponentially decreasing impact on your mind.

How I read books at the moment

I’ve looked into various memory techniques such as the method of loci and spaced repetition, and concluded that for book it was not the good solution, because the underlying assumption and goal are wrong. Here my reasoning: if you need the knowledge every day, then the actual practice of it will make you remember it. And if you do not need the knowledge every day, then why do you even bother trying to remember it!

Here is what works for me for non-fiction books:

  • I do active reading by taking notes and writing down action points as I read.
  • In my notes, I summarize the concepts and models from each chapter.
  • If a paragraph or chapter does not seem relevant, I skim over it. If it’s not relevant at all, I just skip it.
  • Every 6-8 week period after the first reading, if I feel like I need a refresher then I re-read the book and my notes. Those re-reading always take a lot less time that the initial ones.
  • What really matters is not the actual content and anecdotes in the book, but the core concepts and models.
  • Next time I face a problem that relates to those concepts, I will know which book they came from. So essentially, I want to make my brain a search engine, not a storage system.

Of course it’s partly boring, because I’m not reading new books about some shiny new topic everybody is talking about, but who cares? I’m re-reading the few books I know are the top 1% in terms of impact on my brain, and spending the time re-reading them is the only way to ensure this great content will have a lasting impact on the way I think.

What’s next?

What’s your opinion on non-fiction books? Any reading trick or method you think I should have mentioned here? Drop a comment!

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Kamol permalink
    April 26, 2017

    Hi Emmanuel

    I love your blog, thanks for your sharings!

    Btw, can you share your three great books?
    I would like to buy them for my team as well.

    Best regards
    Kamol

    • May 6, 2017

      There are are few books that I think are timeless and that will bring value to anyone who reads them, here they are:

      Thinking, Fast and Slow for the mindblowing number of new ideas and concepts packed in it. Be careful though, it’s a difficult read.
      The Lean Startup, because it helps anyone who reads it be more fact-based and commercially-minded, instead of basing judgement on opinions.
      The Elements of Style, on better writing skills, because written communication is a critical skill too many people neglect.
      How to Win Friends & Influence People, for the insights it gives into interpersonal communication, even decades after it was written.

      Finally here is an article about Planned Reading, a technique to read nonfiction books faster while retaining more. This was new to me until recently and has changed how I read.

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