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How to read non-fiction

by mel starrs on November 10, 2008

in Book Review, Getting Things Done

I’m an avid reader, a bookworm, a bibliomane, call it what you will. I’m seldom caught without a book in my bag. I’ve just finished several non-fiction which have been gathering dust on my shelves and before I launch into a few reviews I thought I’d share my top 7 tips for reading, in particular non-fiction (with a major hat-tip to Ben for writing about this very topic back in March 2007 and also to Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader which in itself is fiction but expresses the joy and wonder that comes from reading in a way I can never hope to capture here).

  1. Read often. Books are very versatile. They need no wifi connection, bootup nor power supply. Indeed, all that is required is adequate light, shelter from rain (if required) and that’s about it. If you have time to kill (say, 5 minutes and upwards) and aren’t driving, pick up a book. (Driving and reading is not recommended, despite temptations at traffic lights. Audio books may be a useful alternative but suffer from the lack of ability to mark up and notate). I currently tote around an enormous handbag which usually contains a non-fiction book, notebooks and stationery (see below). This is not great for my posture but fantastic at relieving boredom. I’m yet to be convinced that digital book readers are the way forward (Kindle, Sony READER E-BOOKet al) but the thought of bringing as many books I want on holiday is very appealing?
  2. Think about what you  are reading. Make notes, comments and flag up passages you might want to refer to in the future. This discipline came to me partly via my MBA. Much as I try to kid myself that I’ll be able to retrieve a certain passage or quotation from my brain, I just can’t. I try not to leave home without either my notebook (currently a nifty A6 hardback leather number), a highlighter (more often used in printed pdf’s than ‘real’ books or which I still have a reverance borne of being a librarian’s daughter) or my sticky coloured labels (known as index flags or page markers – not my usual ‘stickies’, who knew?) and a host of biros (in my old-skool pencil case I also carry my spork, for when I need cutlery. Can you tell I was a girl guide?).
  3. Record what you read. This is related to my point above, but it makes sense to record what date you read stuff. I use Librarything for this and it’s been useful to track what books I’ve read, what I thought of them (occasionally I blog about books too, which has been very useful and something I ought to do more of), and how many books I’ve read in a year (I know it’s not a race but here’s a sobering thought – at a rate of 75 books a year and a projected lifespan of 75, I have only 3000 more books to read – pants! Also, choose your books well and don’t be afraid to dump bad books given this thought)
  4. Keep a wishlist. I keep my wishlist on Bookmooch. This has several purposes, the most appealing of which is keeping my reading affordable. It also mean I can source scarce books or those published only in the states. I also keep wishlists on amazon, on RTM and scribbled in various notebooks and on post-its. Whilst I got good at the writing stuff down bit of Getting Things Done, keeping things all in one place is taking longer. I also keep snippets of online reading in my Google Notebooks. The advantage to surrendering to this way of implementing Getting Things Done, by the way, is that I’m never in the wrong place to do my stuff. If I hear of a good book whilst say listening to the radio or browsing in a bookshop, I can text it to myself using twitter and RTM. If I find one when I’m online, I add it straight to Bookmooch or if I really can’t wait, buy it straight from amazon. Entering into bookshops is a dangerous pasttime for me – I’m trying to limit my exposure in an effort to curb the massive number of books I’m accruing.
  5. keepers vs. moochers. Much of what I read, I keep, especially non-fiction. In fact, there are a couple of books on my wishlists which I read and either gave away or had borrowed in the first place and which I now want to refer back to. Anything I don’t have a use for, goes back onto Bookmooch. These tend to be the short, bite-sized, unreferenced fluff which sometimes make it onto top 10 best seller lists and I fall for. I’m getting better at not doing this, but as I said before, if you pick up a lemon – there is no need to finish it. Drop it and move on.
  6. Read broad, read deep and question everything. How do I pick the books I read? It’s a question of connections, much like a family tree. I start somewhere (usually something which interests me and I broadly agree with) and then by reading that, other paths open up and off I go. I’m a great advocate of reading a wide selection of topics (economics, food production, nutrition, climate change, religion, history, philosophy, business, management, entrepreneurship, etc) and then when I find something which piques my interest reading deep into it. To read deep, you have to read alternative points of view. It’s impossible to argue a position unless you know what your opposition thinks. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend that you go off and read Ann Coulter straight after reading say, Richard Dawkins (that might be too extreme a variance to take in!), I do recommend you question what you read and be aware of your own confirmation bias. The father of an acquaintance is an old socialist who religiously reads the FT everyday – so he knows “what the enemy are up to”.
  7. reading non-fiction before sleep = insomnia. My final tip is a simple one. Don’t read stuff which will fire off your neurons just before you retire to bed. That’s a recipe for insomnia. Read some fiction instead – I like mental fluff such the John Rain books by Barry Eisler or the Ian Rankin Rebus books, but whatever floats your boat…
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  • http://www.mcqn.net/mcfilter/ Adrian McEwen

    It sounds like you’ve got your note-taking solution well sorted (and I must admit I use “index flags” too, also without knowing what they’re called 🙂 but thought I’d mention http://bkkeepr.com/ which lets you twitter notes and bookmarks as you read a book.

  • http://www.mcqn.net/mcfilter/ Adrian McEwen

    It sounds like you’ve got your note-taking solution well sorted (and I must admit I use “index flags” too, also without knowing what they’re called 🙂 but thought I’d mention http://bkkeepr.com/ which lets you twitter notes and bookmarks as you read a book.

  • Liz Male

    I’m in awe Mel. Trouble is, I end up reading far, far more ‘temporary’ stuff than ‘real books’ – ie. newspapers, journals, online versions of the same, plus great blogs like yours! How do you track, record or simply make time for all that as well?!

  • Liz Male

    I’m in awe Mel. Trouble is, I end up reading far, far more ‘temporary’ stuff than ‘real books’ – ie. newspapers, journals, online versions of the same, plus great blogs like yours! How do you track, record or simply make time for all that as well?!

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    I thought I was the only one that liked Barry Eisler’s books! I started into them after living in Japan and just got hooked to the series.

    Great list, by the way. I agree with your first point and haven’t been able to fully convert to the e-readers. There’s something about the tactile feel of a book, in addition to paying good money for it, that makes me want to read it.

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    I thought I was the only one that liked Barry Eisler’s books! I started into them after living in Japan and just got hooked to the series.

    Great list, by the way. I agree with your first point and haven’t been able to fully convert to the e-readers. There’s something about the tactile feel of a book, in addition to paying good money for it, that makes me want to read it.

  • http://www.zerochampion.com Phil Clark

    Mel,
    Very valuable stuff.
    I wish I had reviewed/recorded all my reads. Laziness has probably stopped it. I often mean to write down passages then move on. A problem I can often find is thinking of the next book you want to read while you are reading your current one – why can’t you just enjoy what’s in front of you?
    One question – do you have more than one books going at the same time? A non-fiction and a fiction? I find it difficult to achieve myself.
    Phil

  • http://www.zerochampion.com Phil Clark

    Mel,
    Very valuable stuff.
    I wish I had reviewed/recorded all my reads. Laziness has probably stopped it. I often mean to write down passages then move on. A problem I can often find is thinking of the next book you want to read while you are reading your current one – why can’t you just enjoy what’s in front of you?
    One question – do you have more than one books going at the same time? A non-fiction and a fiction? I find it difficult to achieve myself.
    Phil

  • http://www.melstarrs.com mel starrs

    Answers to some of the questions in the comments – I make time by commuting a lot! I don’t read newspapers unless I see an article linked on line somewhere. And I always have at least 2 books (one of non-fiction and one fiction). Sometimes more. Reading according to context is a good idea – deep stuff for quiet locations, short sound bity stuff for noisier locations or shorter time spans. And I don’t struggle with books I don’t get on with – drrop them and move on (you can always come back later).Life’s too short to read crap books…

  • http://www.melstarrs.com mel starrs

    Answers to some of the questions in the comments – I make time by commuting a lot! I don’t read newspapers unless I see an article linked on line somewhere. And I always have at least 2 books (one of non-fiction and one fiction). Sometimes more. Reading according to context is a good idea – deep stuff for quiet locations, short sound bity stuff for noisier locations or shorter time spans. And I don’t struggle with books I don’t get on with – drrop them and move on (you can always come back later).Life’s too short to read crap books…

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