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Writing summaries is more important than reading more books

One thing I’ve learned over time is to read fewer books but to take the time to write summaries for the good ones. The ROI of spending 2h writing a synopsis is much higher than spending those 2h powering through the next book on your list. Reading is not about page count or speed [1]. What matters is how it changes your thinking and what you take away from it. Optimize for comprehension, not volume.

If your goal is to maximize comprehension, you need to ask questions while you read — questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading. This is something I believe curious people do naturally. Forcing yourself to ask questions and to answer them also makes it easy to write a synopsis: When you’re done, simply write down the most important questions you’ve encountered and how the book has answered them. This is the template I use:

  1. In 1-2 sentences, what is the book about as a whole?

  2. What are the 3-4 central questions it tries to answer?

  3. Summarize the answers in one paragraph each.

  4. What are the most important things you have learned personally?

While the end product is short and concise, it takes time and focus to write it. Which is of course why it’s effective: It forces you extract and re-formulate the book’s insights in your own words.

Not coincidentally, I use a similar framework for writing essays: I structure them around questions I’m trying to answer, typically no more than 3-4. If I can’t formulate those concisely, or if there are more than 3-4, it’s usually not worth posting the piece. Without that clarity, it ends up either rambling or shallow and not offering any coherent insights.

Since summarizing leaves you with less time to read, you’ll have to get better at selecting books. I use a combination of two simple techniques for this, topical reading and inspectional reading [2]:

  • Topical Reading — Each quarter, I select 4-5 topics I care about and want to gain a deeper understanding of. Start wide and get a sense of what the important works are for each topic. Collate a broad list of works.

  • Inspectional Reading — Use inspectional reading to prune the list for each topic down to max. 2 books. Inspectional reading is simply systematic skimming or pre-reading: Read the summary on the back of the book, and the preface or introduction, study the table of contents to get a general sense of the book’s structure, read the summary statements at the beginning or end of each chapter. This typically takes no more than an hour and can be extremely effective at filtering out works that are not useful or irrelevant to you.

It’s surprising how even many of the most prolific readers I know are unaware of the value of inspectional reading. Most readers start on page one of a book and plow through until they’re done or decide to cut their losses — without ever reading the table of contents or the preface.

One great alternative to writing summaries is to talk about the books you’re reading. Explaining the ideas you’re reading about to someone else is one of the best ways to engage with the material, since (a) it forces you to formulate it in your own words, and (b) they might challenge the ideas and get you to examine them more critically.

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