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Survive the book: How to read and actually understand nonfiction

Jonathan Davy
Jonathan Davy

Strategic Partnership at Qlue Indonesia

Jakarta  /  Sun, September 24, 2017  /  09:33 am
Survive the book: How to read and actually understand nonfiction

Reading can be overwhelming for some. This strategy is intended to help the reader to read effectively and retain as much information as possible.  (Shutterstock/File)

Reading can be overwhelming for some people, especially when it comes to nonfiction.

My last job was at a startup and we had a monthly book club. Sadly, I am a slow reader and considered myself to be too busy (don't we all?). However, our director was so keen for us to read properly, he would sit down with us once a month to discuss what we had read. 

To survive from the judgmental stares, I needed to find a shortcut. I figured that reading executive summaries or reviews would help me get by in the monthly discussion. Guess what: it didn’t. So I decided to find how other people read nonfiction and adapt their methods to make my own strategy.

This strategy is intended to help in reading effectively and retain as much information as possible. If you are reading fiction, or just reading for pleasure, please forego this strategy. It will ruin the immersive experience and taint your love of words, as you will not be able to admire the lyrical and poetic prose that makes literature, literature.

However, if you read to support your profession, learn new ideas, or simply survive your boss’ initiatives, this guide is for you. You may proceed.


Read the summary, bio and overview

Know what it is that you are reading about, what angle the writer takes and the broader argument of the book. No less important is the writer’s background, so that you can understand where the writer is coming from. There may be a lot of interviews or articles online about the author, so read that quickly, or better yet, find a video of an interview on YouTube. It will give you a sense of the person’s perspective; building on your own understanding.

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Read with purpose

After you have an idea of what the book is about, create an objective in mind on why you want to read it and what you want to get from the book. Take some time to formulate the guiding questions based on the limited information you have from the overview and summary. Don't be afraid, these guiding questions are not intended to be comprehensive, but to give you a purpose and equip you to be better at spotting important information.

Initial reading:

Skim through the chapters

Read the conclusion first, then go to the table of contents and read the headings and subheadings. Skim through the whole material so that you have a familiarity over the main ideas that are discussed. You can read just the first and the last sentence at this point. We don’t want to be overwhelmed by details yet.

Jot things down

Make mind maps or bullet points, or even both. You can organize your thoughts by chapter or by concept. Having a side note as a reference is a good method to track ideas, answers or discussion points relevant to the purpose of your reading.

Make action points

Action points are one-time actions you can do within the next day or two to help you fine tune the primary concept that you are learning about. It can be activities or mental exercises – such as writing a summary, or explaining ideas to others.

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Practice what you learn

Leave the book for a day or two to let it sink in and give your mind a break. Instead, try to practice the principles of the book so that you don't get stuck in the theory. Most of the time, real-life practice will give you better and more relevant feedback rather than just reading the book repeatedly.

These steps are helpful to save time. If you find that after doing the exercises above the book has nothing more to offer, then you can move on to the next one. But sometimes, you may find a good book that fascinates you, in which case you can move on to work on the finer details of the book.

Extensive Reading:

Start again with a new objective in mind and reframe your question by incorporating new pieces of information. This time, read thoroughly and notice the things you left out before. As you read, refine your initial notes and make the necessary changes. Work on the second and third layer of your mind map to get a better grasp of the argument. Ask concluding questions such as what the book says about the topic, what it’s against, what did it leave out and how does it relate to your current situation. As you write, visualize the connections of the information to what you have practiced during your first reading. This will help your brain to make new pathways, making it easier to recall information about what you have learned.

Most importantly, make a system to help you retain information and implement the principles consistently. The system should be a comprehensive repetitive action that lasts for at least 21 days, to incorporate the new ideas or information into your routine.

Now that you have a more comprehensive understanding about the subject, find another book to compare your conclusion and repeat the process. May you survive your book! (dev)


Jonathan Davy works as a strategic partner at Qlue Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of Youth Corps Indonesia. If you are interested in collaborating with Qlue, connect with Jonathan via LinkedIn

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.