How to Read Books for Research
Reading is one of my favorite activities. Some books I read for pure enjoyment and others for personal or professional development. In order to utilize what I learn, I’ve developed a simple system for keeping track of the more notable parts of what I read. I’ve tried a handful of techniques over the years, but lately I’ve become accustomed to a much more simplistic approach. In this post I’ll share my technique along with some thoughts on why I think it works best when you’re conducting research.
Choose the Right Books
Before I start a new book, I like to read through the introduction, prologue, or first chapter to get an overview of the author’s thesis. What are they trying to say? What will I be convinced of when I finish? Is there a specific theme I should pay attention to throughout the book? And most importantly: what is the author’s writing style like?
Doing this is helpful because it can tell you pretty quickly if a book is for you. I used to have a habit of just buying books, only to find out that it wasn’t what I was looking for. Reading the first bit of a book allows you to understand if the book is for you and will provide the type of information you’re looking for (and save you a bit of money in the process).
The easiest way to do this is to walk over to the library or bookstore and spend an hour reading the introductory pages of a few books, taking home the one’s that leave you with the strongest impression.
Read the Book, Don’t Scan It
I used to think that reading a book for research meant skimming it for quotes and anecdotes. This is partially true, but it’s important not to make this the soul purpose of your reading. In order to fully comprehend a book, you need to take the time to enjoy and synthesize what it’s saying.
This means taking the time to read each chapter carefully (avoid speed reading) and thoughtfully selecting the ideas that best elicit the overall theme of the book. This might be a little confusing at first, but a good rule of thumb is to realize that there are no rules. You’re reading the book to educate yourself, not others. My preferred method for keeping track of my favorite ideas in a book is a simple highlighter.
I used to fiddle with things like sticking miniature post-it-notes in the margins with little notes. I found, though, that this is a mistake because it constantly takes you out of the flow of reading (I also found it agitating how the post-its would push the book off the shelf). Doing so means you risk missing important points or confusing your own thoughts with that of the author. Simple is best here. Just highlight the meaningful parts and move on.
Take Breaks Between Chapters
This is important. When you’re reading a book, especially for research, it’s important to let your mind hang on what the book is trying to say. This affords you two things: truly understanding what the author is trying to say and giving you time to form an opinion around it.
I’ve found a good way to do this is to read books in two daily sessions (these can be whenever you like, ideally an hour or two apart). For each session, read the book until you feel as though you can’t memorize what you’ve just read. For me this is usally in the range of 2-3 chapters. When I’ve hit my limit, I put the book down and think on it for a bit.
Depending on the day this could mean reading over breakfast and returning in the evening or reading a little bit at home and then walking to the park to finish. Once you’ve had a chance to fully contemplate what you’ve read, feel free to go back (this is a per-person thing, so don’t feel attached to any specific method or schedule).
Finish and Reflect
Follow this process until you finish the book. Depending on the topic or what’s going on in your life, it may take you a while to finish the book. This is perfectly fine. Just make sure to read from start to finish, highlighting the important parts.
Once you’re done, take some time to synthesize the end of the book and its overall theme. Can you answer the earlier questions we presented? If the author did their job correctly, the answer should be yes.
Organize What You’ve Learned
Now that we’ve read the book and considered what it’s saying, it’s time to go back. Because we were highlighting all along, we’ve already done the hard part. Now, we need to organize those stand out moments in the book so we can quickly reference them later. For me, I use the popular Evernote software.
In Evernote, I create a “note” for each book I read. First, I make sure to give the note some tags so I can pull it up later if necessary. I tend to categorize this based on topic, theme, or the project where the information will be helpful later.
In the note, I list the number of each chapter as a heading (with its title if applicable), and underneath each heading, the notable parts of that chapter (the highlights). I call this “sweeping the quotes.” The goal here is to get all of the meaningful stuff out of the book. Once I have everything down, I go back again and set the most important ideas – the “takeaways” – in bold text and highlight them again.
Coming Back Later
This may seem like a lot of work, but it comes in handy later. Because we’re reading for research, we’ll want to reference what we learned at some point in the future. I used to think that I could just “remember” what the author said. The obvious outcome of this is that I rarely remembered anything and likely lost a lot of useful information in the process.
The way to use this information once you’re done is up to you. I’ve found that I’ll use it to support arguments in articles or other writing, guide me to other sources of information later, or for use in conversation with a friend when they touch on a topic mentioned in the book. Really, though, the ways in which you use what you learn is seemingly infinite. What matters is that you’ve taken the time to thoughtfully read and organize the information so it can be ready whenever you need it.
In this post we learned that reading for research is more about the book and the ideas than any fancy system. We talked about the importance of selecting books carefully, reading books for the sake of reading and not just quote hunting, taking breaks to consider what we’re learning, and organizing what we’ve found into an easy to come-back-to system for later.
Hopfully this will inform your own reserach process and help you to get more value out of the books you read! If you have your own methods for reading for research, I’d love to hear them on Twitter.