Reading Non Fiction Books The Right Way

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One of the problems we face is of information overload. We read books, handouts, newspapers, magazines and Internet articles and are expected to have instant recall of the right information at the right time. But do we read books the way we should.

One of the problems we face is of information overload. We read books, handouts, newspapers, magazines and Internet articles and are expected to have instant recall of the right information at the right time. For students effective reading is of critical importance.

Students at top b-schools have to read more than a hundred books during their course. So how do they ensure they get the best out of their reading?

But first let us understand what’s wrong about how we typically read non-fiction books.

How do we typically read?

We take a book, sit or lie, (maybe with the TV or the radio or the music system on) and read it from cover to cover. If there is less time (like the night before the exam), we read faster. Our minds wander off and we rudely pull ourselves back from that seductive wonderland, cursing the exam or the deadlines. We get irritated, do not brook any disturbance and feel a sense of achievement when we have finished the book. We remember something about it the next day but within a week, it is gone.

If we are more active, we sit upright and we highlight sections of a book. This gives better focus as our hands are busy, and at the end of it we have a fluorescent, highlighted / underlined book. But when we need the information and we read the highlighted paragraphs, do we know what we highlighted and why? We also realise that we have highlighted 50 % of the book. Do we know which book to refer? And if it was a library book?

If we are even more active, we make notes. Start from the first page and assiduously copy salient paragraphs. Better than highlighting as we are actively writing and therefore cannot daydream. Since we are copying, we are reading a paragraph twice or thrice and slowly. If time is short, we make notes faster (illegibly). Sometime we are in-the-zone and we make notes of the book without even knowing what we are writing. Reminds me of lectures – same process – at the end of the lecture, lots of notes but no remembrance of the lecture.

When I read my notes (if I can decipher my handwriting) I have no clue what it was about.

Ah yes, the internet! How can I forget the proliferation of e-books and search engines. So now I can search for anything I want, whenever I want. Does it help? When was the last time we were able to get stuff that was relevant? And if I am in an interview, do I say, “Hang on guys, while I get the answer from my mobile phone!”

Why can’t we really read?

We need to participate actively in the reading process (as opposed to passively be awash with information), analyse and categorise the data in real time such that the information makes sense and we are focused enough to retain this information in our mind, actively looking for cross references, coincidences, linkages so that the concept stick.

We need to have a some sort of Knowledge Management System (hey! stop groaning) that allows us to keep the information in a readable, recallable format such that if we look at our notes, we can grasp the concept in its entirety, recall the salient features and delve deeper due to the references and cross references.

Sounds like an awful lot of work! Might as well just read and hope for the best. But think about the following plausible scenario:

Placements are round the corner and the chaps coming for an interview are jaded lot who just came from a set of colleges like ours, who want to go home and who need a reason to flunk us. So they ask the first candidate (poor him), a question about the latest fad, say, ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ and our colleague’s mind freezes. Man, he had just read that book and now he doesn’t remember a thing!

When he comes out, all of us crowd around him and in a daze he tells us about the interview. All of us power up our laptops and Google for ‘Blue Ocean’. Of course, this question is not asked again in the interview, but something similar and equally arcane is.

In my 20 years of experience I must have read an average of 1 non-technical book (not to mention manuals and other stuff pertaining to the job) a month, which comes to 240 odd books (actually a lot more) but for the life of me, I don’t remember most of it. That was a colossal waste of time and money.

Bottom line, if I cannot recall what I readArticle Search, there is no purpose in reading.

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