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How to Read a Book: Read More Books This Year!

How to read a book

Every year, I publish my “Top 10 Books of the Year“. Almost everywhere I go, people ask me the question: how do you read so many books? Where do you find the time? And…can you tell me how to read a book? Do you read it from cover to cover? 

In 1987, while I was finishing my Masters degree, a faculty member shared with me how he reads a book and saves time. I so appreciated his ideas that I began using them and later formed my own steps. Below is a list of tips I share with people about how to read a book.

How to Read a Book

1. Choose books based on your target growth areas.

Don’t be random; I don’t read everything that comes out. Know how you want to feed your mind and heart. Each January, I take a day to completely get away and decide what my plan for personal growth is; then I choose books that are suitable to be part of that plan. For a place to start go to:

2. Commit to reading a set number of pages per day.

I do twenty pages a day, five days a week, which allows me to read at least two books a month. Our team is using the App: irunurun. It allows us to hold each other accountable for our growth, our reading, our health, our work, etc. My entire team knows if I have failed to reach my reading goal.

3.  I begin with the author’s bio.

I always read the inside flap or I Google to find out the background of the author. This will inform me about their perspective and their heart and their intent on writing the book. Each book flows from the author’s character and since you’ll be spending some time with her or him—it’s good to know them.

4. Read for speed at first.

When starting a book, read the front matter thoroughly—the introduction, preface, foreword, table of contents. Once you are very familiar with the author’s thinking, read the first two and the last two pages of each chapter. Authors almost always get their idea across and summarize it in these pages. This way, you will have received the big ideas of the book.

5. Review the chapters that were most relevant for you.

Once you grab the big idea, go back and fully digest the great chapters and mark them up. Identify your favorite stories, quotes, statistics and facts. The criteria should be: useable, helpful, relevant and fitting to your mission. Don’t feel guilty about not reading every word of each chapter.

6. Record the great stories, quotes, stats and facts you pulled out.

You can record them electronically on Evernote. This is a program we use at Growing Leaders to file helpful information. Or, if the material is in a hard copy of a book or magazine, file them in a cabinet. All information should be titled (you may use more than one title and file it in more than one place).

7. I write notes in the front cover.

As I glean good stuff from the pages, I write them in the front and back inside cover of the book.  For instance, I will write: “Story of Zappos CEO working for Happiness, page 73.”  This way, I can easily find great quotes, points or stories later as I need them. It saves me hours of search time.

8. I use note-taking symbols.

I have made up a set of note-taking symbols I can use to save space and time when I   write down my own thoughts in the margins. I will use stars, triangles, dots, question marks, or even a ballot box if the content requires a decision or action.

9. To ensure you retain the information—share it with others.

I have found the more I talk about the ideas in a book, the more I am able to keep them in my own mind. It’s one life’s paradoxes: give the idea away and you keep it yourself. Our Growing Leaders team has a book club, where team members take turns sharing brief reports on what they’ve read the last month. It’s inspiring.

10.  I review the book and transfer information or “to do” items to my agenda.

I have found great books are full of ways for me to change the way I live, lead and communicate.  So, I will transfer the great stuff (action items) to my “to do” list or to  a piece I am writing. If I use it for a lesson or talk, this makes it easy to attribute the author for his/her content.

Hope this helps!

What tips would you share about how to read a book?

Looking for great books to read?

Pick up Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future

or Habitudes for Communicators


  1. Kaye on May 2, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Great tips, Tim.   Thanks!
    I do the notations inside the front cover as well & I mark the book up like crazy – AND tell other people about it.

    One thing that I’m experimenting with is something that David Mays, a missions mobilizing mentor,  was excellent at.   He was known for his book notes – different from a book review in that it is strictly lines from the book.  I like the idea, but still struggle to be efficient at it.  It does serve as a good review of the book for me to flip back through my markings & type up some of the pertinent notes.  BUT it takes time so I’m still working out the details & how consistently I want to do it.  Perhaps just on the very best books – or the ones that I do want to pass along. 

    How great it is to be able to shoot that two or three page document to someone to give them a taste of the book.  And how wonderful to be able to easily access my notes wherever I am – because I’ve sent some of my very favorites to my Kindle.   So when my husband asks about some lines from some book, I can often find it & read the quote.

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Thanks Kaye! I like the David Mays idea – I think the highlight feature in Kindle or iBooks would make that process a lot faster! I can imagine doing it manually would be time-consuming but a great way to have all the best content available for review later. Thanks for sharing the idea about keeping your book reviews on your Kindle – that’s a great way to have the info handy whenever you want to share it with someone else!

  2. Travis Dommert on May 3, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Tim, thank you for these tips on not only reading more, but getting more from what we read!

    Thanks also for mentioning for irunurun, Tim.  This app has enabled me to go from reading one or two books a year to 12+…which not only fuels new ideas, it gives me confidence that I can do anything else that requires similar discipline.

    This past year, I followed the lead of one of our clients, Adam Faurot of Titus Sports in Tallahassee, FL who used it to tackle a special reading project, reading the Bible.  While I continue to read other business books, I added “Read a daily passage” in my Daily Chronological Bible…and have already covered the entire Old Testament and part of the new. Today, I’ll read about The Sermon on the Mount.  

    When I finish this summer, I plan to start again…to think that it’s taken me 40 years to get around to this is a little sad.  To think that I could read the Bible all the way through 40 more times in my life is thrilling!

    Best to you and your amazing team!

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Glad you found the tips helpful, Travis. I can’t tell you how much we’ve enjoyed using with our team.

      Being able to break a large goal down into manageable, daily chunks is an invaluable skill. Congrats being able to read through the entire Bible – that’s definitely an accomplishment!

      Wishing you and your team all the best, too!

  3. Samantha Johnson on May 9, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I agree with Kaye. This might sound very promotional but it isn’t. 

    I have been working with a company that produces book summaries. It’s been 8 years since I started using them and I still experience the benefits tremendously. 

    It also gives me enough meat that it enhances my decisions to read the full books. Saved me tons of time.

    I am about to look into David Mays’ method. Looks like it’s worth a try too!

    • Tim Elmore on May 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      Thanks for the input, Samantha. I think book summaries are a great way to grasp big ideas – and it does help you make an informed choice on the books you really want to read in their entirety. 

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How to Read a Book: Read More Books This Year!