How I Read a Book

From time-to-time, people ask me how I read a book. I often get this question after I send out my favorite book-reading list each January (to see this blog post, click here). It happened again this year.

In 1987, while I was finishing my master’s 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 I read a non-fiction book.

1. 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, 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 him or her—it’s good to know them.

2. I read the Table of Contents.

Before I launch into the book’s content, I preview the entire book and its direction by reviewing the table of contents. Here, I can see what the author plans to cover, and what he or she intends to accomplish before the journey is over. This provides me with a map for the trip we will take.

3. I read the Preface and the Introduction.

Next, I read thoroughly through the preface and the introduction. I know this seems strange, because so many actually avoid this part and jump right into chapter one. But because I plan to read the book a little differently than most read, I want to learn from the author and capture the big picture first.

4. I read the first two pages and the last two pages of each chapter.

I have found I can basically glean where the author is going in each chapter by reading its beginning and end. So, in the first two pages, an author usually lays out where he or she is going, and in the last two pages, he or she summarizes what has been said. In this way, I can see if I want to read more of that chapter.

5. I highlight important sections.

It is difficult for me to read a non-fiction book without highlighting and marking the stuff I like, and the content I learn. I sometimes use four or five colors to indicate different pull-outs I will want to use later. Yellow means it’s important; orange is for an illustration; green a quote; etc. I also enjoy writing in the margins.

6. I write notes in the front cover.

As I glean good stuff from the pages, I write them in the front and back inside covers 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 or her content.

9. I share the content or message of the book with two other people.

This allows me to retain the message. It’s ironic—sharing the message helps me keep it. I find a colleague, a family member, a person I meet on the road, or in a mentoring relationship and summarize the book’s message.

10. I don’t feel I need to finish the book.

This was the most liberating revelation I came across over twenty years ago. Up to that point, I labored under the notion I was a “quitter” if I didn’t finish every book I read. Not true. Sometimes I will buy a book just for one chapter. Sometimes, I will read until I feel I “caught” the message. That’s enough for me. I move on.

Of course, if you intend to read any of the books I have written… some of this list above is irrelevant. You will want to absorb every single page and take notes. :o)


How I Read a Book