It’s Not About How Many Books You Get Through, but How Many Books Go Through You

Greetings! This is my wrap-up for March. I thought I’d do something a little different for this month’s final post and bring you something I’ve been pondering recently, something I certainly have an opinion on. As I’ve been delving more and more into nonfiction as of late, I thought it would be a good time to write this post. I hope I can inspire you not only to read more, but also to better engage with the material and remember what you read.

The title of this post is a paraphrased version of a quote by Mortimer J. Adler. Adler says that “in the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” I think this is especially true of nonfiction, which is why I’ll be turning the genre wheel a little for this post.

Recently, I’ve been reading James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. Despite an initial interest in speed-reading, I decided against it for this book. And that decision has payed off. Browsing the pages simply would not do.

There’s just so much to unpack about Newton’s life. And I’m not just in it to check another book off my list. I want to remember what I read. This gets to the roots of what I’m trying to say. It’s not about how many books you read, but about how many impact you. Now, there’s a ton of online advice about how to remember what you read. My favorite piece of such advice is probably this video by Ryan Holiday. Holiday talks about his reading habits and informs you as to why you should read, but more importantly, how you can read and retain information.

Some people read books just so that they can accumulate an impressive checklist to show their friends, and I’ve never really understood this. You might be able to brag to a friend: “I’ve read a hundred books this year…” “I’m the fastest reader in my class…” but when they asked you what you’ve learned, if you haven’t been able to retain the information, your statement will suddenly look pretty lousy.

Establish why you are reading

Maybe you’re reading so you can write your own book. If so, you’re looking for something specific in the books you’re reading, aren’t you? (If not, you may want to sit down and decide what that is.) Maybe you’re reading to acquire knowledge in a field. Heck, maybe you are reading just to read more books. Studies have shown that reading has great impacts on the brain, so this is still a totally viable reason—as long as you don’t let the idea of “I have to read all the books” consume you. Perhaps you were assigned the reading. If so, you were probably assigned to find something within it, weren’t you?

In the case of a good nonfiction book, you should ideally learn something from every page. The author carefully picked out each line—so why speed through? Doing so suggests a partial commitment. I’m not saying you need to have any sort of devotion to the author, but if speed is all you care about, your respect of the material is for debate.

If you feel as if you aren’t gaining anything from a book, put it down. This is pretty important. At this point you’re just wasting your time. You don’t have to pick up new ideas in every line, but you should be reading for a reason. Establish that reason before you read, and you’ll have a much better time of it.

Remembering what you read

Clearly, there are many strategies for internalizing what you read, and you’ll have to find what works for you. I personally like to use highlighter in the book, not using pen or taking notes but highlighting lines I find interesting or that I want to do further reading on. Upon finishing the book I’ll let it sit for a time, before flipping through and transcribing everything I found interesting onto notecards or into a commonplace book.

Commonplace books are something I find very interesting, and that I plan to write on more in the future. Isaac Newton used a commonplace book; it was there that his genius began. I have written in the past about journaling and recording of ideas, as well as the benefits of reading as a writer.

Another great way to remember what you read is to write a review summarizing each book you read, fiction or nonfiction. This will force to to internalize some amount of information, and will serve as a record that you can return to to remember what you liked about that book.

That’s about all I have for you today—I hope it was of some help. I apologize if some of it came off as condescending—I’m mostly just frustrated with the modern “speed-reading” buzz. And again, if speed-reading works for you, fine. But read for a reason.

Those are my two cents. The rest is up to you. As usual, I won’t ask you to click on any more links, or to follow my blog, or check out my cool anything. What I will suggest is that, when you close this tab, your next action be to pick up a book. Spend some time with it. And learn something you’ll remember.


3 thoughts on “It’s Not About How Many Books You Get Through, but How Many Books Go Through You

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  1. Agreed! I find today that it doesn’t matter what books I’ve read before, what matters is the lesson I take away from each of them, particularly for non-fiction. Did I learn something new? Or am I embodying the teachings of a book? That’s what matters more than adding another number to my Goodreads list. Though for fiction I just chill and enjoy. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wholeheartedly agree! Great way of putting it–embodying the teachings of a book would indeed be a kind of ultimate proof that the content has gone through you. I think this is embodied especially when reading philosophy.


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