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Get More Out Of All Those Books You’re Reading

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”  – W.H. Auden (The Dyer’s Hand, 1962)

The average American adult reads about 150 words a minute. At that rate, a book of 250 pages will take you about 12 hours to read. If you take a good speed-reading class, you can easily triple that rate. And if you keep at it, you’ll eventually read the way my mother used to. She could burn through a novel of that size in about 90 minutes.

In terms of building your career and accomplishing your goals, nonfiction will be your primary fare. And for 80% of the nonfiction books you read, you’ll go faster and retain more by using the speed-reading technique I explained in Message #262.

To refresh your memory, here’s how you do it:

First, read the table of contents. Then ask yourself exactly what you want to get from the book. Don’t be greedy. You’ll do much better and absorb more over the long-term if you aim to learn only one big thing from every book, report, or article you read.

I’m talking about Big Ideas here. A principle or perspective that is new to you. Some important insight that can help you succeed.

That is your primary objective — to locate that Big Idea. To find it and understand it and figure out how it fits in your life. You have to learn it so well that you won’t forget it and will always be able to use it.

With that limited objective in mind, you will be able to sprint through the book — ignoring everything that is tangential and/or irrelevant to your purpose.

Keeping the Big Idea principle in mind, use the following method for maximum speedy comprehension.

1. Take a look at the preface and/or introduction. Sometimes, these are abbreviated summaries of the book’s contents. If so, you might want to read them in their entirety.

2. Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter entirely.

3. Read the first sentence of each paragraph.

You will be amazed by how much of the book you will “get” by skimming in this fashion. When you reach a particularly useful section, feel free to slow down a bit. But get back to this technique as soon as you get what you need from reading at a regular speed.

Reading this way, you can easily digest 1,500 words a minute — which is 10 times the rate quoted above. As you practice this method and apply it to subjects you know something about, your speed will increase even beyond that rate.

But you don’t just want to read faster, you want to read better too.

So, soon after you’ve finished reading your next book, find someone to whom you can summarize what you’ve learned. Express the Big Idea clearly and mention whatever supporting details you think are significant. If you can’t find a warm body to talk to, write it down.

Then, within 24 hours, do it again. Try to preserve in this reiteration most, if not all, of the necessary details.

And then do it one more time — and again, within 24 hours.

Studies show that we forget 80% of what we learn within 24 hours and most of the remaining 20% within the week that follows. By focusing your attention on one Big Idea and recounting that idea in detail three times in 72 hours, you will find that you will remember — permanently — 80% of what you’ve read.

This method works. I’ve been using it now for just over a year and I’m much better at using the stuff I read than I was before. Phrases come to mind. Terminology. Titles and authors.

It makes my thinking more “linked.” I am starting to see how certain popular business and financial ideas correspond to ideas about art, literature, etc. It also makes me speak more confidently. (I don’t have to make up my facts anymore.) And I believe it makes my arguments more credible.

I don’t use this technique for every magazine article I read, but I am using it for every book — and that amounts to about 50 a year.

So read more. And read smarter. And let me know how it works for you.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]