Changing How I Read

For the last four years, I’ve followed a similar pattern in reading books:

  1. When I come across an insightful passage, useful idea, or unfamiliar word, I lightly dog-ear the page
  2. After finishing the book, I return to those pages and copy down the material into a document in Evernote, a note-taking application
    • A brief 140-character “Twitter summary” of the book is followed by the points of interest I’ve noted
  3. From these notes, I then create flashcards in Anki, especially for unfamiliar words, allowing for higher retention of the material. I touch on this method in my advanced guide for Anki

I almost exclusively borrow books from local libraries, which precludes annotating and highlighting, lest I serially defile those shared resources.

This method has been particularly useful in learning new words. A few I’ve picked up in the last three months alone include:

abattoir, bacchanal, cachet, chicanery, concupiscent, cri de coeur, ellipsism, inveigle, lacuna, patois, satori, prapañca, lacuna, ursine, vulpine

Despite expanding my vocabulary, I find that this method often doesn’t allow for sufficient retention of the books I’ve read.

So, in hoping to read another 50 books in 2019, I’m adopting a new method of reading.

Farnam Street, a blog frequented by Wall Street execs and profiled last year in the New York Times, explores a number of methods to read more incisively, bolstering retention of material as well as enjoyment of the activity.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from three Farnam Street pieces and hope to integrate into my practice:


  1. Define the “why” for reading the book
    1. Set intentions (e.g. “I want to broaden my knowledge base about the risks and dangers of AI”)
    2. Set expectations (“This book will provide a high-level discussion of relevant theories and policies surrounding AI”)
  2. Define the historical context surrounding the book, particularly those with unfamiliar subject matter or those that are older
    1. What’s the background of the author(s)? Their agenda?
    2. “What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing?”
  3. Create a mind map of what you already know about the subject and lingering questions on a blank sheet of paper
    1. There might be little to nothing on this mind map initially. That’s perfectly fine.
    2. Alternatively, a list of bullet points can be made summarizing pieces of knowledge you already possess about the subject (this is what I do most often)

While Reading

  1. Summarize what was just read after each reading session
    1. “If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter [or section] you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?”
    2. Writing chapter summaries can also be useful, but may be much more tedious
  2. From these summaries, fill in the aforementioned mind map with insights gleaned thus far, expanding on previous knowledge, answering questions, and posing new inquiries


  1. Complete mind map with a bulleted list of key takeaways from the text
  2. Make the material teachable to a (somewhat precocious) five-year-old, removing or elaborating on jargon, and using analogies or concrete examples
    1. In effect, this is the Feynman Technique in action.
  3. Create Anki cards with any material you hope to retain long-term

Farnam Street posts:

4 thoughts on “Changing How I Read”

  1. I love the library too. I usually only spend money on Japanese books since I don’t live in Japan .

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