How to Eat Books: A Guide for Power Learning

I’m a Learner. It’s my top StrengthsFinder strength. And over the past 37 years, I’ve honed this strength and found books to be the best, most affordable way to learn and digest new topics and get answers to problems.

I want to share the way I approach reading books and read so many of them as many people over the years have asked me about it. And for this post, I’m focusing solely on books and learning from them FOR your own professional and personal development. Not entertainment or casual edification.

I want to show you my way for using books as learning to get results, to achieve my goals and dreams.

Also, I’m only talking about non-fiction, commercially published books here. Yes, you can read blogs, magazine articles and emails to learn too (I do that every day). But here’s why I suggest these types of books are the best for professional learning:

  • Written by subject matter expert who has spent months, maybe years on the subject
  • Forced to write condensed, compact learning, focused on laser-guide subjects, delivered in edible, readable chunks (around 200-250 pages)
  • Vetted and filtered through editors and editing process
  • Delivered to you for a cost of $15-25 (The consultants we typically hire start at $150 an hour and are typically higher than that.)

To me — that’s the best bargain for what is typically the best learning wrapped in a pretty little bow.

Some of you might say that you learn better through audio or video. That’s ok, and understandable. You should learn and grow in the way you do so best. But for most people, reading is the best way to learn most things. And thus, I’m going to give you a couple of bold statements:

Learning is reading.

Learners read.

And books are the best way to learn.

Thus, books are the most efficient, most affordable way to learn most anything.

So let’s get on to eating books …

How to pick the right books to eat

1. Does it answer a question you have currently?

Don’t merely read for archiving information, casual edification or entertainment. You should read for impact and application. Every book I pick helps me answer a key question or work through a problem I have professionally or personally. This is about focused learning.

2. Is it written and organized well?

I do this in three ways:

  • Scan the Table of Contents. Amazon makes this really easy. (Although if you’re scanning Kindle books, I’d suggest switching to the Print to see a better display of the TOC.) A good book will have a well-organized TOC by sections, with chapters making up those sections, and not try to be flowery. The TOC is an author’s presentation (and defense) of the subject. If they can’t outline it well, they have other problems. To me, the TOC should get to the point and help me find the useful stuff easily. Otherwise it’s just irritating.
  • Read the Introduction. This short chapter typically shares what the book is about and what is covered in each section. I find this tremendously useful if I’m on the fence about the book. If done well, it’s almost the Cliff Notes of the book.
  • Sometimes I check out the Kindle Highlights.  If I still need convincing, I go see all the highlights (and notes) that other people are making on Amazon’s public Kindle platform. I find the most popular highlights helpful (and number of highlighters) helpful in gauging content (but also if others like it, which is next.)

3. Do other people recommend it? 

Check the Endorsements (on the inside and back covers) as well as its Amazon Reviews. What are people saying about it? I like to see that credible people I know and trust recommend it. And I like a lot of diverse reviews for variety of opinion (and agenda). I typically skim the one-stars just to hear their arguments (or bias). Usually the top ranked review is pretty handy. The best reviews lay out the book in summary fashion and hit the highlights.

Also, if it’s personally recommended by someone I know personally it adds a lot of weight. Some of the best books came to me through trusted personal recommendations.

I post my reading list here.

4. Is it worth your limited time and energy?

With all this in mind, is it worth it? Is there a better option for you right now? Or is it something you’d like to read one day that you could put on your shelf now?

I’m very careful with my time (and money). I don’t like to read books that don’t help me do something or be better.

4 keys to eating books the right way

1. Redeem the time.

Make the best use of your limited time, whenever possible. That means getting the right reading tool and having books on standby to read.

The best tool for reading is the Amazon Kindle platform. Notice I said platform. Although there is a device called a Kindle, Amazon’s entire digital ebook platform is lumped under that title — from the devices, free reading apps (that I use — for iPhone, Android, Mac, PC), Cloud Read and more.

With millions of titles available, syncing across devices, the ability to highlight and takes notes in the apps, the Amazon Kindle is it for reading.

I’d highly suggest using the Amazon Cloud Reader on your computer, and a free reading app on your iPhone or Android. This way you literally carry your entire library around with you at all times. I read about 70% of books on my iPhone and the other 30% on the Cloud Reader.

And then I always try to have a book ready to read (or continue reading) at a moment’s notice so I’m making the most of free time. So I keep a running Amazon WishList to refer back to often.

2. Read exclusively for ideas and application.

Reading passively and not thinking about how you can apply it to specific issues in your personal or professional development is a waste to me.

Always ask: How can I apply what I’m reading? What ideas can I glean from this?

Typically I have a steno notepad handy to jot notes, or use SimpleNote on my iPhone. But I don’t let those ideas seep off into neverland.

3. Don’t insist on reading books cover to cover.

I’ve noticed that most people blindly read books from front cover to back cover, maybe because we think it’s required. It’s not. I think this is a waste. It’s slow and inefficient. And the primary reason so many people tell me they don’t get to read many books.

Although I believe books are goldmines of learning … not every page should be read, always. Most non-fiction writing is written in a modular format where you can dig in to chapter 9 without having much context from chapter 3.

Look at the Table of Contents and go right to where you’re most interested or see a solution to a problem you’re having.

Reading the Introduction helps a lot with context. And trust me, context is very important. So if you’re not clear on something, back up.

But you don’t have to read every page to gain a knowledge of the subject. Oftentimes I seek the starting chapters and arguments because I already agree with the author and get straight to the application.

4. Share what you’re learning.

The best way to take what you’re learning is to use it in your personal and professional life. But I also think that having to communicate it to others crystallizes you’re learning. So if you’ve read something worthwhile, share it through a blog post, give a personal recommendation to a friend over lunch or in the breakroom, or keep a running public list of what you’re reading.

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OK, go get eating some books!

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3 thoughts on “How to Eat Books: A Guide for Power Learning

  1. Appreciated your post, I have only recently started to not fully read books. I found a few books that had a big impact on me and continued to read only to have that impact wear off due to later chapters being …. less invigorating.

    Larry Winget has said that if you get one idea from a $20 book, then that is a great deal. I’ve now started to do this too and once I start to feel the book decline, but I have a good take away already, then I’ll stop ready and pick up the next one.

    For sharing I rarely (if ever) have put it up on my blog (I don’t object to this at all), but I do enjoy GoodReads. Getting emails (others might consider it spam) from GoodReads about what my other “friends” are reading is enough social influence for me to keep up the habit.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for this. I almost mentioned GoodReads but don’t use it enough (although now it’s an Amazon company too).

      I would agree — a $20 investment for one takeaway is indeed a brilliant investment that you use over and over and over.

  2. Cory,

    This was very helpful. I often find myself pushing through chapters that don’t interest or relate to me because I feel like I’m “cheating” myself and the author.

    I’m very limited with time to read and can’t take in enough! I love reading and learning and this really helped relieve some stress buddy.

    Thanks for the great insight!

    Patrick

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