How to Read a Non-Fiction Book

Recently, my wife, Gail, and I had dinner with some close, neighborhood friends. As we always do with this group, we soon began discussing the books we were reading. A few minutes into the discussion, Gail asked, “So, how do each of you read a book? What is your practice?”

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We then spent the next hour going around the table. Each person shared how they approached reading a book. I was fascinated by the variety and depth of the answers. I picked up several great tips.

When it came time for me to share, I ticked off three or four things I have found helpful. However, now that I have had a few days to think about it, I have come up with several additional items.

When I read a non-fiction book, I typically observe these ten practices:

  1. Don’t feel that you need to finish. Not to be cynical, but most books aren’t worth finishing. I read until I lose interest. Then I move onto the next book. This is the secret to reading more. I also listen carefully to what my friends recommend. If they suggest a book, I am more likely to like it—and finish it.
  2. Start with the author bio. Every book flows out of an author’s heart and mind. I want to know something about the person I am going to be spending the next several hours with. Usually, the bio in the book is enough, but often I will Google the author before I start reading.
  3. Read the table of contents. I learn best when I understand the context. I look at the contents just like I look at a map before I begin a journey. I want to know where we are starting, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. Note to authors: I especially like annotated tables of contents that give me more than just the chapter titles.
  4. Quickly scan the whole book. I like to do a quick “fly over” to sample the author’s writing. I notice how long the chapters are and how they are structured. I might read a few “pull quotes” or subheads. I note his use of lists, diagrams, and block quotes. I am trying to set my expectations for what is ahead.
  5. Highlight important passages. I cannot read a non-fiction book without a highlighter. (On the Kindle, I use the built-in highlighter function). I prefer yellow, though I have been known to use pink in a pinch. I highlight anything that resonates with me in some way. The better the book, the more I highlight. I keep lots of highlighters handy in my desk drawer and briefcase.
  6. Take notes in the front or the margins. I often take notes in the front of the book, so I have a convenient summary of what I have read. I also like to write in the margins. (My wife, Gail, has a written conversation with the author and fills the margins almost completely!) Interestingly, I rarely go back and re-read these notes. They simply help me think while I am reading.
  7. Use a set of note-taking symbols. I use the same set of symbols I use when taking notes:
    • If an item is particularly important or insightful, I put a star next to it.
    • If an item requires further research or resolution, I put a question mark next to it.
    • If an item requires an action on my part or follow-up, I put a ballot box (open square) next to it. When the item is completed, I check it off.
  8. Dog-ear pages you want to re-visit. I bookmark the really, really important passages by folding down the corner of the page. These are usually passages with a quote I want to use in my writing or speaking.
  9. Review the book and transfer actions to my to-do list. When I have finished with the book, I go back and do a quick scan. As I mentioned above, I don’t pay much attention to my notes—unless they have one of the three key symbols or the page is dog-eared. If there is an action I need to take, I put it on my to-do list with a reference to the book title and the page.
  10. Share the book’s message. As we say on Thomas Nelson’s site, “great books are contagious.” They are meant to be shared. I blog about them, teach them to others, and buy multiple copies to give away to friends and colleagues. This is one way to ensure that the message lives on—and is passed on.

Please note: I don't read fiction this way. I don’t highlight passages, and I rarely take notes. I read novels purely for pleasure.

What about you? Based on the survey data I have collected, I know that most of my readers are book lovers. As such, I’m sure you employ some disciplines in your reading that would benefit all of us.

Question: How do you read non-fiction books?

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