The Art of Reading by Farnam Street is a step-by-step system for reading and fully absorbing books (although, you can use it for anything you’re studying) in an efficient manner.
The course starts by helping you find and decide on what books you should read. It gives you a funneling process where you take the books that you hear about or that are recommended to you, and you’ll take them through many filters so that you’re only left with books that are a good fit when it comes to your goals and interests.
The second phase is about determining whether a book (or whatever it is that you’ve decided to study) is worth your time or not. And you can do that by giving the book an inspectional read where you’ll scan and skim certain sections to determine what you’ll do. If you’ve decided that the book is worth your time, you’ll then need to determine whether you’ll read it in full or in part—you definitely want to skip the sections that aren’t aligned with your goals and interests.
The next phase or step is to actually start reading. Your goal here is to be actively engaged with the book. You want to read with a healthy dose of skepticism, connect and compare what you’re reading to what you already know, take notes and put comments on the margins, use post-it flags on pages you want to return to, underline, highlight, draw, and so on.
You also want to analyze what you’ve read by using The Feynman Technique where you’ll take something that you didn’t fully understand, write its name on a sheet of paper, write down the little that you understood about it, and then keep going back and forth between the book and your little sheet of paper to fill in the gaps in your understanding.
After you’re done reading, you’ll set down the book for a few days and pick it back up to review what you learned.
The last section in the course is about syntopical reading. This is for those who want to take their understanding of something to the next level. Basically, this is a type of deep and comparative reading where you compare two books (authors) simultaneously.
With that said, The Art of Reading system isn’t just about reading books. You can use for articles, essays, courses, and anything else you’re trying to fully understand in the shortest amount of time possible. This is definitely a course I wish I have discovered earlier in my life.
The following notes from The Art of Reading by Farnam Street are meant to be concise, reminding me of high-level concepts and not trying to recreate the whole course. This summary is basically a bunch of notes and lessons paraphrased or quoted directly from the course and does not contain my own thoughts.
• You want to master the best of what other people have already figured out. There’s no better way to do that than to read.
• The way that we go about reading has a profound impact on not only our understanding but the time it takes us to get the relevant information that we want out of reading.
1. How to Read a Book
Effort is Important
• People rarely follow systems in part because they are not flexible. Prescriptions don’t tend to work.
This is why self-help continues to dominate the bookshelves. There’s all these “do these 5 things and you will be successful”, but it never really works that way.
You pick up the book, you do those 5 things and you come away doing no better than you were before.
• People need to come up with their own adaptations of whatever it is they’re trying to apply because it has to be context-dependent.
Make Conscious Decisions
• The core of the Farnam Street system for reading is to make conscious decisions when you’re reading every step of the way. This means you’re going to pick what you read consciously.
You’re going to choose why you’re reading something consciously, and you’re going to focus on what you’re reading.
The Farnam Street Ethos
• Here are the principles and the ethos that ground the system:
- You’re better off putting a lot of energy into a few amazing books than a little energy into many.
- Some books demand to be read in their entirety. Most don’t. It’s your job to decide.
- Active engagement is key to reading for understanding. Exactly how is less important.
- Always be skeptical. It’s okay (even good) to disagree with what you’re reading.
- Great leaps in understanding come from imagined conversations between authors.
• If you read a plethora of books so fast, you won’t really retain and connect and synthesize the information you want.
• If you’re selective about what you read, you can get 1 or 2 books and you can get a ton of information out of them.
• Focusing our efforts and putting more energy into fewer books or fewer online articles gives us the opportunity to go a little bit deeper and hone our understanding of key ideas rather than trying to understand everything, or rather than just reading to read.
• Some books demand to be read in their entirety but not all of them.
• You want to be really selective about what you’re reading really deep. You want to read books to achieve your goal and you don’t want to let it sit and interrupt your reading on other things.
• Taking notes is not an end to itself, and my notes look very different from book to book. I do different things with different books and I connect the ideas in different ways.
• It amazes me how many people accept the written word as truth. You can rebel against this and stay skeptical. You don’t have to agree with everything you’re reading. You want to question the author and the conclusions, and you can do this in a way that’s non-politically correct.
• You can go look up counter-arguments and you can deep dive into a subject and again, the goal is to go towards deep fluency.
• Consciously directed effort is the key to exponential rewards when it comes to reading books, and as I said, the system is simple but not easy.
2. Find Great Books
How Do We Find The Right Books
• The most important thing that we’re going to emphasize is that you really only get out of a book what you’re willing to put into it.
• Sitting and reading passively is a great experience. There’s nothing wrong with reading Harry Potter passively and enjoying it. With that said, you shouldn’t read a scholarly text on the history of the English language the same way you read Harry Potter.
• Reading on auto-pilot or getting lost in the book is great for entertainment, but it doesn’t work as well for learning and understanding. You have to keep your brain turned on.
• You want to use sort of a funneling process. You fill the top of the funnel with as many ideas as possible, then you focus on your curiosity and your goals. You focus on what you’re passionate about and what you want to learn about, and then you do your best to filter out bad books and stick to the great ones.
• I want you to imagine that all of the book recommendations you get out of the Amazon browsing sections, the bookstore gazing, the bibliographies scanning and so on are throwing book ideas into the top of the funnel.
The other end of the funnel is what’s going to make it into your brain, so how do we decide what makes it through? The way we’re going to figure that out is by figuring out what we’re most curious about right now. We have to figure out what books will get us there most effectively.
Step 1: Fill Your Funnel
• To fill your funnel, you can solicit recommendations from friends or from your audience if you have a blog or something similar.
• Another thing you can do is to search on Google by your favorite smart person (e.g. author, professor, football coach, business leader). You can also pick books from a good book’s bibliography.
• Once you’ve got some great books in hand, the other thing you can do is check out the bibliography or the appendices. Figure out who it was that influenced the author and what sources he or she drew on. This is a very underrated source of book finds, and not many people take advantage of it.
• Finally, you always have the old-fashioned way, which is browsing. Go to the bookstore, go to the library, ask the clerk what their favorite book is on X, Y or Z. Gaze at the shelves, see what piques your curiosity.
Build an Anti-library
• The most valuable part of our library is not the books we’ve read, but the books we haven’t read. They’re a reminder of all the things that we don’t know yet, they’re inspiration. We call these the anti-library.
• Another purpose that an anti-library serves (besides inspiration) is serendipity. I can sort of walk over and browse my shelves to see what’s piquing my curiosity, or if my curiosity has already been piqued, I can see what books I’ve already got on that topic.
Step 2: Follow Your Goals and Curiosity
Choose What to Read
• The question is: Do I even care? That’s really the question I ask before committing time and energy to read a book. Do I care? Am I being pulled in by my curiosity? Right now, is this the thing I want to spend time on?
• Unless you have an actual project with a deadline that you’re working on, in which case you’re being forced by life to sort of feign interest in a topic, you need to follow your passions and your curiosities, follow your interests. That way, you’re going to enjoy the process of getting to know the material, so what goals are you really after? We call this answering your why, getting to know your why.
• Start by taking a second to figure out what it is you’re setting out to do. Did you see a documentary on the Civil War that made you want to dive into that topic, did you read a biography of George Washington that made you want to know something about the other founders, about the founding of the country, did you realize that you knew nothing about evolution and wanted to remedy that?
Did you see War and Peace in Barnes & Noble and decided that that was the time to pick up some Russian literature?
Find your why and focus on it.
• Now that you know what you want to read and you know why you want to read it, it’s time to sort of go through that stack at the top of your funnel to pick some books that can fit the profile.
Step 3: Apply Effective Filters
• It’s important to recognize that choosing to read a book carries an opportunity cost. This is right out of Econ 101. We can’t emphasize this point enough. Reading, like all of life, is filled with these opportunities costs. The weeks you spend on one book are the weeks you won’t spend on another.
• Don’t waste your time reading mediocre books unless you have to, there are too many good ones out there. One great book is worth ten or a hundred average ones.
• Some of this filtering is going to have to happen while you’re reading. It’s impossible to filter out bad books a hundred percent of the time before you start reading them, sometimes it’s hard to know.
• Filtering at a glance:
- Trust from referrals: Personal or from afar.
- Age: Old books that are still around have passed the test of time. Seeking fundamental truths. If no one is going to read it in 10 years, you can probably skip it.
- Read reviews.
- Google the author.
• When you’ve got a list of ten books that are satisfying your why, go ahead and
start with the one that comes the most highly recommended by the people you
trust the most.
• You can read reviews and read interviews with the author. Remember that reviews can be highly biased and sometimes they’re ridiculously nitpicky, so you need to tread carefully when you’re reading reviews.
• One quick question you can ask yourself is: Are books really the best way
to absorb this type of information? You could also be reading a series of articles or you could be talking it over with someone smart, you could do some original thinking.
3. Before We Read: Is It Worth Your Effort?
• Now that we’ve figured out what we’re going to read, let’s dig into how we’re going to read it. The question we want to spend our time figuring out is the following: is it worth my time to read this book in full, in part, or maybe not at all? This is called giving the book an inspectional read.
• The key to an inspectional read is to not try and grasp all the book has to offer right at first, not on the first go-round here. We will do that later if it’s worth it, but for now, we’re going to be doing what you might call an intelligent scanning process.
Create a Map of The Book
• We’re going to start by making a map of the book. There are a few points we want to tease out here:
The first is the concept. What is the book about in whole or in part? What am I supposed to learn? You want to gain an understanding of what and how the book would teach you.
The second part is understanding the structure of the argument.
Remember, a nonfiction book seeks to persuade. There’s no such thing as zero bias.
The author has a point of view. He has to. This is not a bad thing, but you must be aware of it. How will he/she be making that argument to me as a reader?
What are the parts of the book and what are the parts of the parts? You’re creating a mental map of the book.
Lastly, we want to figure out which parts, if any, of those arguments are going to interest us as readers?
Do we want to read the whole chain of argument or only a specific piece? Is there only one area of knowledge that we’re looking to pick up here? If it’s a biography, do we want to know the whole life of the subject or just a certain period?
Step One: Identify The Concept
The First (very quick) Skim
• The first part is this quick skim. It really should only take 5 or 10 minutes realistically:
- Start with the table of contents: How is the book structured? What kind of parts are there? What kind of chapters are there? What are the big concepts?
- Read the dust jackets: What is the gist?
- Skim through the intro.
- Read the online reviews, either on Amazon or more professional ones if you haven’t done that yet, just to see what you’re getting yourself into.
The questions in the back of your mind are “Is this book worth pursuing?” and “What am I going to learn?”
This is just a basic first step towards an eventual better understanding. We’re basically just dipping our toe into the water at this point.
The Superficial Read
• The next thing we want to do is a superficial read of the whole book. This will take slightly longer but you really want to keep around 30 minutes if you can, more or less depending on the size of the book:
- Read through the introduction in full.
- Read the chapter titles and subtitles.
- Read the first and last paragraphs: A great strategy is to go ahead and read the first and last paragraphs of any chapters that you think you’re going to want to read in full eventually. Obviously, if it’s a book with a narrative, you may want to be careful about what surprises and so on that you’re ruining for yourself. The average nonfiction book really doesn’t have any surprises. The end is not more important than the beginning. It’s just a series of arguments. You can begin absorbing it from the end; that’s okay.
- Read the last chapter of the book: You can also go ahead and read the final chapter in its entirety, the conclusion or wrap-up to the book. This should sum up the author’s viewpoint in a pretty effective way.
At this point, we’ve spent less than an hour and we should have a fairly good idea of what the book is about and where the author wants to take us. We sort of read the guidebook. Now it’s time to take the tour.
Step 2: Understand The Argument’s Structure
• The way we’re going to do that is by trying to understand the structure of the argument. This is the next step of the inspectional process. At this point, we’re going to start having some thoughts on whether we agree with the author or not.
Don’t worry; we’re going to do a lot more of that later as we read more analytically and deeply, but it really starts here. We’re going to start engaging with the text, at least on a surface level.
Get the lay of the Land
• As we get the lay of the land, we sort of want to ask ourselves questions:
- What is the book arguing and how?
- Is this a relatively sensible argument? Do you agree with the idea in principle?
- What are the author’s biases?
- What do you already know about the topic?
- What don’t you understand?
- If there are parts of the book, what are the parts?
- What are the sub-parts?
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve thought I wanted to read, only to discover on inspection that either:
- I didn’t care what the author was talking about or how he was structuring his argument. Or
- I could see too many flaws in the way he/she was going to do it. I simply knew that spending more time with the author was not going to benefit me. It wasn’t going to improve my understanding of the topic. It was either too surface or simply too wrong given what else I knew, or maybe I was just no longer interested in it when I looked more deeply.
• You don’t need to understand the full book yet. The goal is to determine if it has ideas worth exploring.
• We’ve outlined the book in our head. We know the structure of the work we’re going to tackle. We know the playbook. Ask yourself, “Can I state the basic argument of the book in one, or just a few sentences? Do I know the parts of the work? Do I know the structure of the parts?”
Step 3: Identify Areas of Interest/Focus
• If we’ve decided that we’re going to stick with the book at this point, and this is a big key, now we get to decide what parts of the book we’re going to read in a deep analytical way.
No one seems to tell you this when you’re in school, but you really don’t have to read the whole book cover to cover.
You’ve got a good book with six parts and you’re only interested in the arguments from parts one and four, which you’ve found out as you’ve been doing this inspectional reading process, then go ahead. Read parts one and four.
• If you’ve taken the half-hour or hour to do the intelligent skimming process, you know that in many cases, you can get 95% of the important knowledge into your head by reading 20 or 30% of the book.
If you’re reading for understanding, that may be your smartest strategy. It may not.
You need to find out, but it just really doesn’t take much time and in the long run, the time you spend doing this will save you so much more time later.
• Here it is. We’ve gone through the table of contents. We’ve read some paragraphs out of the chapters. We spent a few minutes understanding exactly how the book is structured, tried to figure out if we’re at the right level to continue reading more deeply, and if our interests remain even in doing so. Now we make the decision. What to read? All of it? None of it? Part of it? Go ahead.
• This process should really have taken you less than an hour. It’s not too much to ask, but the reward is that you will have avoided a lot of wasted effort in our next module, which is analytical reading.
4. Critical Thinking: Reading For Understanding
• So far we’ve spent some time wisely finding books and using our intelligent filters to decide what to read. Then we started by choosing our first book and doing an intelligent skim of the contents so that we have a mental map of a book in our head and a good idea of whether we want to read the book in whole or in part.
Now it’s time to get down to work and that means reading parts of or entire books in a way that enables deep learning and deep understanding.
• Try to figure out how to allocate more time to reading while maintaining your good habits.
Increasing Active Engagement
• The way we’re going to improve our yield is by increasing our active engagement with the text. Reading for understanding means having your brain turned on the entire time you read. If we can do this successfully we will be better readers.
• We figured out why we were reading this particular text and how it fits in with our goals and our curiosities. We took a small amount of time to get the structure and the argument of the book straight in our head before we dived right in. We’re already ahead of the curve and now we can take it another step.
Here’s how we’re going to do it:
- Engage: We’re going to engage with the text as we read.
- Analyze: We’re going to do a little bit of simple analysis after we’re done reading.
- Return: We’re going to return to the text later and engage with it again.
• One of the first steps toward becoming a great reader is developing your skepticism. You must, must, must learn to disagree with the author and to use your brain while you read.
The author is trying to convince you of something. Never forget that. It’s your job to see whether you agree.
Step 1: Be an Engaged Reader
• Separate reality from non-reality and try to understand what really works in the world versus simply accumulating red herrings that sound plausible.
The way that we do that as we read is to keep a sort of dialogue or argument going with the author as we go along. Do we agree with what’s being said? How does it fit in with what we know about this or other topics? How does it fit into our preexisting collection of mental models?
• If we’re having a mental dialogue with the author, agreeing, disagreeing, noting new or old information, we will remember what we’ve read, but we’ll also get way more than that. We’ll also be able to synthesize it with other information to create new ideas and understand the world more correctly.
• Your engagement with the text is crucial. We never want to take anything at face value.
Your next job, of course, would be to do your best to reconcile the conflicting facts. This is the essence of the learning process:
- How does this fit with what I know?
- How does it conflict with it?
Beware of The Great Writers and Anecdotal Stories
• One part of becoming a great reader is to recognize and be very afraid of great writing.
• You need to stay on guard of the great writer and the simple fact is that the better the writing, the harder it is to do this.
• Remember, too, the plural of anecdote is not data. Some authors string together anecdotes extremely well. A great anecdote can pound an idea into your brain very well, which is why teachers use them, but don’t forget to ask, is the idea really correct? Are there explanations that are more complete and more correct?
Take Notes When Moved
• Different books require different levels of effort and different levels of note-taking. Different books present information in very different ways. If we did our job correctly in the last module, we’re going to know how the information is being presented to us.
Trying to have one method used across all books has never seemed to work for me, and I don’t think it’s worked the same for Shane either. Most people we know are the same.
• The most important thing is that you’re doing something. Have a pen and pencil in hand. Use it periodically. Do this consistently and you’ll be ahead of the game.
• To be engaged and take notes, you’ll need to do things such as putting comments in the margins, putting little doodads next to concepts you thought were important, underlining, drawing boxes around phrases you really liked, using little post-it flags on a particular page because you knew that page was so good that you might come back to it later, writing page numbers on the front page of a book with short reminders of what was on the page that you were interested in (you might add even more page references on a second or third or fourth read).
Step 2: Analyze What You’ve Read
The Feynman Technique
• You’re reading and taking notes, you’re engaged and you want to connect this new information to what you already know, but what can you do to make sure you actually understand what you’ve learned? What can you do at the end of a chapter or a section or a book?
It’s fairly simple. When you want to test and improve your understanding of a topic, you need to teach it to yourself. Grab a piece of paper, write down the subject at the top and begin explaining in simple terms whatever it is you’re worried about that you don’t understand.
Let’s say that you’ve been reading Poor Charlie’s Almanac by Peter Kauffman. You finished Charlie Munger’s speech at the end of the book, called The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. You want to see what you recall.
Go ahead and write it out and see. How many examples of each particular misjudgment can you recall after you’ve finished reading and close the book? Is it way less than you thought? Go back to the text and relearn it.
This is very effective because it will quickly expose gaps in your understanding.
Actively Consider What You’ve Read (Spark Thinking, Not Memory)
• Step two is really just a continuation of step one as far as our engagement with what we’re reading. What we want to figure out is
- What are the key ideas?
- How does this relate to what I already knew?
Do I agree with the author?
- Are the conclusions accurate?
- Are the conclusions biased?
- Is there something missing?
- Do the facts support the conclusion?
Step 3: Set Down the Book
• Step 3 is a quick pause. When we’re done with our first major digestion, we put the book down. Shane and I usually find it’s about a week, and I would set that as a rough minimum.
You have to let your brain move on to other things before you come back to what you read before. That’ll help you make new connections when you come back.
Step 4: Pick The Book Back Up
• “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” — Vladimir Nabokov
How Does it Hold Up?
• Now I want to know how it’s held up since I’ve put it down. I flip through and look at my notes. I read back a few sections I had read previously. I read any notes I took or Feynman sheets I put together.
This can be a short reflection or a long one. It depends on how much you enjoyed the first read, how much you remembered, and how much of the material you’ve decided you wanted to revisit.
• I have books that I’ve reread every single year since I read them the first time. Some of these books are approaching 7, 8, 9, 10 rereads at this point, but I’m still picking up new things.
5. Exponential Leaps: Reading Across a Topic
• To gain a deep fluency in anything, you need to read more than one opinion on it. To do this in an optimal way, we’ll need to learn how to read syntopically. Whether it’s an article or a book, there’s no one definitive source on all of the knowledge or all of the different arguments on that take.
• If analytical reading was a discussion between you and the author, syntopical reading is going to be you facilitating a discussion amongst several authors on the same topic.
• Because there’s an opportunity cost to reading, you should usually only do the deep and comparative reading on the general principles that stand the test of time. The mental models. Things like reciprocation, or Newton’s laws, or thermodynamics, and evolution. These are the ideas that you really want to understand deeply.
• In ‘How to Read a Book,” Adler outlines the five steps to syntopical reading. The first is to find the relevant passage.
- Figure out how much you want to read. You need to figure out do you want to read the whole book comparatively, or do you just want to read certain sections of it that you might be having trouble with or sections that you want to develop a deeper understanding of.
- Translate the vocabulary so you can understand what the author is saying. People use different terms and jargon and one of the main efforts involved in syntopical reading is to translate these into your own language. That’s a large part of understanding.
- You need to be clear about what questions you want answered. What are the keys to the author’s arguments? What are the propositions? How do they structure things? What do different people think about these? What are the facts?
- You need to define the issue. Most people are not going to see things in the same way. If they do, it’s kind of boring. It’s not really interesting. You want different takes on the same problem, the same idea. This helps you see it in a three-dimensional way.
- You want to analyze the discussion. When you’re reading these books, you want to make sure that you’ve read at least one or more sources on them. You need to have a good idea of what it is you’re reading and why you’re reading it. The only thing I personally want to go into this level of detail on is the general principles, the mental models, that hold up over time.