Nineteen tips for digesting books rapidly

—and none of them involve speed-reading

A bookshelf
You don’t need to be able to speed-read to digest a lot of books.

To become great at conversion, you need to read a lot. Over the past ten years, we have bought over 1,000 books. Some of them are about aspects relating to conversion, and some of them are about our clients’ businesses. We own eight books on home security, for example. They were valuable in helping us to grow the revenues of one of our clients, SimpliSafe, by five times.

In this article, we share our favorite tips for transferring the contents of a book into your brain. Without feeling frazzled:

Speed-reading courses train you to

  • Scan text quickly (by controlling your eye movements).
  • Interpret the text without subvocalizing the words (that is, without hearing them in your head).
  • Reduce the amount of “skipping back” (regressions).

Some people swear by speed-reading courses, but many of the courses’ claims appear to be exaggerated. The series of videos beginning with this one gives a critical overview of what works, and what doesn’t.

We have found the following tips to be more useful than speed-reading. And they don’t leave us feeling like we need to lie down in a dark room. The tips focus on locating the best information. Even if speed-reading could quadruple your reading speed, that’s nothing compared with the increase you can get by identifying the best book from thousands. And then identifying the 10% of that book that contains the key information.

How we find the best books

One great book can be more useful than a thousand bad ones. Here are some of our favorite techniques for finding the best books.

  1. In theory, book-summary services should be great. However, we’ve used several of them, and we haven’t found them useful, except maybe to reveal which books would be worth buying. Many summaries services seem to suck the life out of the books. The only one we found worthwhile was Philosopher’s Notes, which summarizes self-help books. Maybe it’s about the skill of the reviewer. The book “The Personal MBA” does a fantastic job of summarizing many business concepts, albeit not in a book-by-book format.
  2. We ask almost everyone we meet which books they found the most useful. We discount ones they have read within the last few weeks; people usually overvalue whatever they have read recently. We have noticed that the best recommendations come from a tiny fraction of the people we ask.
  3. We spend a lot of time reading reviews on (the non-US Amazon sites are less useful, because they have fewer reviews). The top review often contains a decent summary.
  4. If a book looks good, we use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature to read the table of contents, which gives us a good idea of what the book contains. (At the time of writing, allows you to ”Look inside” many books that you can’t look inside on the non-US Amazon sites.) We also use the “Look inside” feature to skim through the index at the end of the book, if it’s visible. Even though the index is just a dictionary of words, it gives an idea of which concepts get mentioned the most.
  5. We also read the front and back covers of the book, plus the blurb.
  6. We then sometimes search Google and SlideShare for “[book name] summary”, which is occasionally helpful.
  7. It can help to search for videos of talks given by the author. Some books are little more than fleshed-out talks.
  8. We then buy a lot of books—on Kindle whenever possible. Kindle offers some useful features like searchability.

How we digest books quickly

  1. We are quick to abandon a book. We treat books like they are free (which they effectively are compared to the value of the reader’s time), so we usually don’t read the whole book.
  2. We begin by reading the Kindle “popular highlights,” to see what other readers highlighted.
  3. Some books have one or two key chapters that contain the big idea, hidden within about seven chapters of padding. We study the table of contents trying to work out which are the key chapters. We know one book that contains one key sentence, and a whole book’s worth of padding. (Admittedly, it’s a good sentence.)
  4. We look at all the diagrams. In some business books, the entire book is encapsulated in the diagrams.
  5. In many books, one of the early chapters is a walk-through of the whole book—like a more readable version of the table of contents. In some books, the final chapter contains a good wrap-up of the book’s conclusions.
  6. In many books, the first paragraph of each chapter explains what the chapter will contain, and the final page of each chapter contains a great stand-alone summary of the chapter.
  7. If a chapter starts to drag, we’ll read just the first (and maybe the last) sentence of each paragraph. The first sentence usually signposts what the paragraph will contain. The last sentence often concludes what was said in the paragraph.
  8. To summarize the three tips above: In a well-written book, you can learn a lot by reading the start and end of each paragraph, of each chapter and of the whole book.
  9. It’s easier to remember information if you have interacted with it. So we tend to write notes as we go along, summarizing the book, highlighting key phrases, and treating it like we’ll never read it again (which is almost always true).
  10. We re-read our notes a few weeks later. Such spaced repetition ensures that the most important information stays in our minds. Once we’ve read a book, it stays read.
  11. Audiobooks are a great way to learn on the move (on a commute, while doing chores, or while exercising). Audio CDs are okay, but it’s hard not to lose your place, so we prefer Audible.

Happy, productive reading!

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