How to Read a Nonfiction Book
Reading Time: 8 minutes
You know how to read.
But do you know how to retain and apply what you read? Can you summarize the last nonfiction book you read in three sentences? Do you consistently apply the ideas, beliefs, and practices from the books you read to your life?
During the past few years, I’ve dramatically improved the quality of my life by devouring books across various disciplines. In tapping into time-tested knowledge from the world’s best thinkers, I’ve become a more informed person, a better problem solver, and a clearer thinker. These qualities have accelerated my success and increased my sense of wellbeing.
Along the journey, I’ve learned that nonfiction books can radically transform your life. But to unlock this potential, you first need to learn how to read nonfiction books. The improvements to your life don’t come from picking up a book and reading it. Instead, they come from following a system that allows you to understand, retain, and apply the information you consume.
With nonfiction books, quality trumps quantity. Not only must you select high-quality books, but you must spend quality time with those books. Otherwise, you’ll forget most of what you read.
Below, I outline a six-step process that I use for increasing the value I get out of nonfiction books. If you want to read nonfiction books to expand your knowledge, solve problems, or deepen your understanding of the world, this system will help you do so.
It may seem like overkill, but if you’re going to invest dozens of hours of your time into reading books, it’s worth the additional effort to capture the value of that time.
1. Selecting a Book
There are millions of books published each year. So how do you choose a book that’s worth your time and effort?
I keep a simple excel sheet with a prioritized list of books. I’ve built the list over time by collecting recommendations from friends, writing down suggestions from podcast interviews, and noting books that are mentioned in other books. For example, my list includes at least 20 of the books mentioned in Tim Ferriss’s book, Tools of Titans.
The more I read, the more I gravitate towards specific authors and subject areas. Right now, for instance, I’m very interested in spiritual texts examining the ego, consciousness, and different forms of meditation. I have also developed a bias for books that stand the test of time. I don’t look at current bestseller lists. What’s popular right now does not equate to what’s most valuable.
When it’s time to choose my next book, I look at the list and pick one of the top five. What I select often depends on a problem I’m trying to solve or a topic that I’m interested in exploring.
Before you buy the book, you need to decide on the book format: Kindle, paperback, or audiobook. I read most of my books on my Kindle, but I also consume a healthy number of audiobooks. In the “Note Taking” section below, I elaborate on why you might choose one format over the other.
This isn’t a perfect system for selecting books, but it’s worked pretty well so far. If you want to find good books quickly, I created Foundations, a digital notebook with notes and lessons from 90+ timeless books.
2. Setting Your Intention
Why are you reading the book in your hand? Is it for entertainment? To forget about your life? To learn a new skill? To solve a problem? To explore a topic that fascinates you?
Your “why” determines the lens through which you process and apply the information you consume. So defining the “why” behind the book you choose will help you select the right book and maximize the value you get out of it.
I typically choose nonfiction books that will help me learn a new skill or solve a problem in my life. For example, in preparing for my first big public talk, I read Ted Talks to learn tips and tricks from the world’s best organization for public speakers. Because I had a clear purpose, I more easily absorbed the information relevant for my talk and directly applied it to my work.
If I read the same book to simply learn more about public speaking, it’s unlikely I would have retained much information or improved my skills in a meaningful way.
Having a clear “why” that connects the information in the book to your current goals or problems is one of the best ways I know to better leverage books to improve your quality of life.
Preparation is critical to maximizing the value you get out of nonfiction books. With an hour of prep work, you can double what you get out of any book.
Before diving into a book, I’m curious about the following: Who is the author? Why did he or she write the book? What have other people said about the book?
There are many avenues through which you can get this information, but I find podcast interviews to be the best and most enjoyable source. Finding these interviews is pretty easy because most authors do a series of interviews around the book launch to help spread the word about their book.
In these interviews, they often tell their story, discuss why they wrote the book, and elaborate on some of the key lessons and insights. This information primes your mind to understand and absorb what you’re about to read.
Sometimes, I listen to podcast interviews after reading 25 to 50 percent of the book. For example, today I listened to an interview with Tara Brach after finishing 30 percent of her book, Radical Acceptance. Not only can I better appreciate the intention behind her words, but I can now hear her voice and tone as I read.
For books published many years ago, you can often find interviews with the author on Youtube. If no interviews are available, at the very least, you can consider how the period in which the author wrote the book might have influenced the work. Instead of projecting your modern day lens onto the work, you can better appreciate what it meant at the time of writing.
Unless you’re reading to numb your mind, you need to be focused while reading a nonfiction book. If you aren’t focused, you’ll forget nearly everything you read.
To avoid a non-focused state, I try not to read directly before going to bed or when I’m in a hyper-distracted state. If I’m anxious or overwhelmed, I’ll exercise or meditate before picking up a book. The one exception is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, a book that I read to calm my mind.
If you find yourself getting distracted while reading a nonfiction book, take a few deep breaths to reenter a state of focus. If that doesn’t help, put the book down and do something else.
If you enjoy reading before bed or to relax, pick up a work of fiction or a nonfiction text like Meditations that doesn’t require you to remember the details of what you read.
While reading, it’s also essential to avoid the “I need to finish this book” trap. If a book is not what you expected and you’re finding it difficult to read, don’t torture yourself by listening to the voice that says you have to finish the book. What are you trying to prove by getting to the end? That you can do it? That you didn’t waste your money? That you don’t quit?
More often than not, slogging through a book that doesn’t resonate will bore and demotivate you. You’ll probably start reading less, and you’ll miss out on the opportunity to read more of the many amazing books out there. It’s just not worth it.
5. Taking Notes
Taking notes while you read is critical. Your notes will help you capture relevant information, allowing you to remember and refer back to key ideas and lessons. Everybody takes notes differently, but here’s what works for me based on the format in which I read a book:
While reading on my Kindle, I highlight different passages in the book. Typically, I’m highlighting sentences or compelling stories that capture big ideas. If I want more context than the text itself, I will manually type a note about why I selected a particular section.
Kindle highlights are fantastic because you can automatically sync them to a searchable database. I use Readwise, and I love the product. Readwise makes it easy to sync my notes, and they send me an email three times a week with five of my highlights across the various books I’ve read. That email is a powerful way to keep valuable ideas top of mind with no effort.
Paperback or Hardcover
“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.” – Edgar Allen Poe
Although some people argue that it’s disrespectful to the author to mark up a book, I agree with Edgar Allen Poe. It’s a sign of engagement and respect. Typically, I use a pen to make comments in the margins of the book and to add brackets around passages that convey important ideas.
I use Amazon’s Audible to listen to audiobooks. With Audible, you get access to a great selection of high-quality audiobooks. I like having audiobooks for when I’m cleaning, driving, or working out.
Because I retain much less information with an audiobook, I typically choose books that don’t require me to remember specific details. History, social science, and biographies usually work well for this purpose.
For every audiobook, I create a new note in Evernote to record all of the key ideas. While I don’t capture the author’s exact words, I still can get the essence of the ideas with my notes. And because it’s on Evernote, I can take notes on my phone when I’m at the gym, the store, or walking around the house.
How you take notes is up to you. I find the above tactics to be the simplest ways to capture what I want to remember from a book.
6. Reviewing and Reflecting
If you’ve chosen a good book, have a clear purpose, focused while reading, and took notes, then the review will be a painless way to solidify your new knowledge and apply it to your life.
My review process is structured and straightforward. Within a week of finishing the book, I revisit my notes, starting from the beginning. As I review the notes, I decide what to do with each note.
For each highlight, I decide whether or not I still find that idea compelling. If I do, then I think about what it means to me and how I can use that information to improve my own life.
For example, the idea might be material for a new piece of writing, a practical tip to solve a relationship problem, or a universal truth that I write on my whiteboard. For some ideas, I write my thoughts about what the idea means.
The purpose of this review is to reflect on the important ideas and translate them into action.
After I review all of the highlights, I curate the best ideas and write my thoughts on each idea. This material then becomes the book note summaries that I use to create Foundations, a searchable digital resource with insights from great books across categories. These summaries are meant to help you vet books and quickly get exposure to good ideas.
In reviewing my notes, thinking about the quality of the ideas, and adding my thoughts, I not only have a better recall of the ideas, but I also have a perspective on them. That perspective helps me translate the ideas from theory to practical applications in my personal and professional life.
Your reflection process will almost certainly look different, but it’s not a step that you can skip if you want to get the most out of the books you read.
If you want to maximize the value of the nonfiction books you read, quality is queen. Avoid the tendency to race from book to book. The real value comes from developing a reading and review process that aligns with your tastes and objectives. Then, stick to the process.
With the right intention and deliberate effort, you will improve your capacity to learn and your ability to apply your learnings to your life. And there is no more valuable skill in today’s economy than being a good learner.
Whatever system you choose to adopt, I recommend that you keep it simple, especially if you’re just getting started. Reading does not need to become another unenjoyable, administrative task on your to-do list. You have enough of those.
My system adds about three hours to the reading process, but after a few years of reading and iterating on the method, I can confidently say that it’s well worth the effort. The system helps me consistently use what I learn in books to improve the quality of my life.
Knowing how to use books to learn new ideas, solve problems, and improve your thinking is empowering. It puts you in the driver seat of your destiny.
If you’re looking for your next good book, check out Foundations, a growing digital notebook with notes & lessons from 90+ timeless books. It’s designed to allow you to sort and filter for books across the topics that interest you. You can purchase the product below, or you can here:
I also provide book recommendations in my weekly Sunday newsletter, Life Reimagined, which you can subscribe to in the big box below.