A Better Way to Understand What You Read

If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck em!
— John Waters

Have you ever read a book and a week later you can barely recall any details of what you read? A couple months go by and I’m lucky if I remember the one or two main ideas. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted trying to find something that I know was in a certain book I read six months ago, only to give up and wonder why I read the book in the first place if this is what I have to show for it. There must be a better way. Earlier this year I completely changed the way I read books and the results have been very pleasing. I think there are a few different ways to read a book.

The dumb way
This is when you’re reading but you’re really not engaged with the book—no note taking, no highlighting, nothing. When you’re not engaged it’s easy for your mind to wander—you get to the end of a paragraph and you realize you’re salivating over the pepperoni pizza you want for dinner. Technically your eyes are reading the words on the page but your brain is barely processing the information. I used to read all books like this and it’s just a terrible way to retain information. Now the only books I read un-engaged are ones that are strictly for entertainment—such as Pushing Rubber Downhill (a great travel/adventure biography if you’re into that). But lately I’ve been reading psychology and philosophy books, in addition to a pretty technical investing book—all of which I want to have a good grasp of when I’m finished. This is when being engaged with the book is so important.

The smart way
One way to ensure you’re engaged is to have a pencil and highlighter in hand while reading, ready to take note of important points. I either highlight and take notes directly in the book or sometimes I read in front of my laptop and type notes into a Word document as I go. After I complete the book I’ll go through all my highlights and put those in the Word document as well. Finally, I go through that document and make a one-page summary, in my own words, of the most important points from my notes. These are the main takeaways that I want to remember. By the way, my reading process for annual reports is very similar to this.

An example is a couple months ago I read The Charisma Myth. When I was finished I had six pages of notes in a Word document. I then used those notes to create a one-page summary of the book. This process has two major benefits:

  1. By the time I get to this point I have read the book while highlighting and taking notes, transcribed those notes into a Word document, and used those notes to create a one-page summary of my main takeaways. Even if I never open that summary again, this process greatly increases the chances of me remembering what I read.
  2. A one-page summary of what I found most important is a fantastic resource for the future. It’s easy to read that one page in the future to get refreshed on the book’s main ideas or to recall something I vaguely remember. I’m about to reread New Ideas from Dead Economists because I read it two years ago and while I found it quite valuable, I barely remember it. If I had a one-page summary of what I took away I could review that in ten minutes and skip the reread.

The smartest way
The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. One of the reasons I started this blog is to explain my investment ideas to other people. This is a great gauge of how well I understand a company. There have been several times where I write a blog post and find a hole in my thesis that I have to fill. Explaining a topic to someone else really forces clarity of thought.

I joined Toastmasters recently (a public speaking organization) and have already given two speeches that cover topics from books I have read. If I can translate my takeaways from a book into an informative speech I know I truly understand the topic.  I may also do blog posts in the future on the best books I read that I think my followers will find valuable. Not book reviews so much as my own Spark Notes.

You’re probably thinking “holy shit that’s a large time commitment just to read one book” and you’re absolutely right. It’s only worth it for books you want to get the most out of. I’d estimate the full process multiplies the reading effort by 1.5-2x. Certainly a large commitment, but also a deeper understanding. Try it with the next book you read, you might be surprised at how much more you recall a couple months later—I know I was.

One thought on “A Better Way to Understand What You Read

  1. Great post Travis. I also use this type of method when researching stocks. Even if I just read an article on a stock that I’m not familiar with, I almost always open a new word file for the stock, so that if I ever come back to the stock later down the road, I can reference the word file and build on the foundation I already established. I’ve found this to save time by building on what I already did, but also it improves comprehension as you say.


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