How To Become A Better Reader: Get Smarter Using These 12 Strategies

If you're already consuming great books, learning how to become a better reader is the next logical step.

While it's fine to read for pleasure, successful people spend time reflecting on good books and bad books. They also put lessons learned from their reading materials, particularly non-fiction, into practice. 

This article contains 12 reading strategies that are easy to apply.

(If you're unhappy with the amount of books you're getting through, check out my guide to learning how to read more often first.)

1. Frame Reading Books As A Source Of Learning

How to become a better reader

Reading a cheap or trashy thriller for pleasure is fine if you want to switch off. A good philosophy or business book, on the other hand, should stand as a source of learning or help you solve a problem.

In an interview with the New York Times, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said,

“These days, I also get to visit interesting places, meet with scientists, and watch a lot of lectures online. But reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.”

Gates is not alone. When asked about the secret to his success, Warren Buffett told a body of students about to graduate,

“Read 500 pages…every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

But how can you get through 50, never mind 500, pages a day?

2. Acknowledge Tsunduku 

Is your bookshelf teeming with more books than you have time to read? Or do your unread books induce feelings of guilt? That doesn't mean you're a bad reader.

You're simply practicing the ancient Japanese art of tsundoku, that is, buying more books than you'll ever read. Tsundoku is an indication of a curious mind and means you will always have more books to read. Remember to take a book with you when leaving the house or apartment. 

E-readers are handy for this: buy a book in print, annotate the margins, and then read it on the go with your Kindle or other device.

3. Create Your Antilibrary

Lebanese-American investor and author Nassim Taleb believes the books you haven't read contain more value than the ones you've finished.

In Black Swan, he tells readers to beware of reading too many books from a list or personal library without replenishing their shelves with unread titles. He calls on us to build a personal antilibrary of unread books.

“The [antilibrary] should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.”

4. Read More Than One Book at Once

Become a better reader
Get smarter at reading books

I like keeping two or three books on the go. This practice enables me to switch from one book to the next without getting bored. Reading multiple books means the ideas from the first book mix in weird ways with the ideas from the second book.

The trick is not to read so many books that you find it difficult to get through them. However, if you read more than one book, you'll always have something to feel excited about picking up. You could read non-fiction in the morning, short essays and articles at lunch, and fiction in the evening.

5. Listen to Audiobooks

Audiobooks are a fantastic way of engaging with books in a different way than the written word. For starters, many are narrated by the author. I've listened to many an engaging audiobook that was bland in print.

Plus, you can listen to audiobooks while commuting to work, on the train or working out. After you're comfortable with the format, increase the playback speed to one-and-a-half  or even two times normal playback speed.

I particularly like how Amazon's Whispersync technology enables me to listen to an audiobook on my phone and resume reading it from a Kindle later on.

if you want to learn more about my recommended audiobook service, check out this Audible review.

6. Abandon Bad Books

Oprah famously recommended putting a book down after 50 pages if it's not enjoyable. I'd caveat that recommendation with “if it's not enjoyable or useful.”

Start a new book if the old one does nothing for you, and don't feel guilty about it!

Learning how to become a better reader often means cultivating the discipline to skip or pass up bad books or bits you don't find useful. 

Angel investor Naval Ravikant says he doesn't usually read a book from cover-to-cover. Instead, he skips around from chapter to chapter focusing only on the sections that interest him.

7. Join or Start a Book Club

It's one thing to say you understand an idea, but it's quite another to explain it to someone else. 

Book clubs are great for circumventing this problem, as participants must talk at length about what they liked, disliked, agreed and disagreed with. Some book clubs have a formal agenda with talking points and questions, while others are more of a casual chat between like-minded readers.

Participants may encourage each other to read books they otherwise would have skipped. You could start a book club over Zoom, WhatsApp or in-person.

8. Take Lots of Notes

Prolific readers reflect on the books they read by writing journal entries about them, creating mind maps and building up a file (or Zettelkasten) of ideas related to these books.

Taking notes is one of the best ways to increase your reading level, as it forces you to engage with the materials. This practice is also helpful for learning new words. 

Bill Gates told Time magazine he spends more time on books he dislikes and disagrees with because he writes arguments and counterpoints in the margins.

If you'd like start this habit, use your Kindle to highlight new words and then send them to your email later on.

9. Write Articles About What You Read

The written word forces an understanding of the topic at hand.

It's one thing to read the end of a great book, but it's quite another to summarize the key insights then turn them into an article that people read.

I typically mind map the key ideas from a great book or write a series of short entries about the book's key ideas in my personal Zettelkasten or Slipbox in Day One. I also try to write about ideas from the books I finish. 

10. Use Book Summary Services

Despite what people say on social media, popular book summary services like Blinkist aren't a complete replacement for reading. After all, we read for enjoyment and learning. 

However, these book summary services are beneficial if you want a refresher about key ideas from a book you finished a while ago but don't have time for re-reading.

It's also instructive to compare personal book notes with third-party book summaries, so you can assess if you missed any important points.

11. Review Book Notes And Summaries Often

 It's not enough to write book summaries and take notes in the margins of reading materials. The magic happens when you combine insights from current books with books finished years ago — it's called combinational creativity.

Thankfully, surfacing old book notes and summaries is easier than ever. The service Readwise, for example, syncs with Kindle, Instapaper and Pocket and highlights and surfaces old ones once a day for review. I like this service, as I often come across an old insight from a book I read years ago that relates to a new problem.  

12. Ask Peers for Book Recommendations

In an interview with Time, Gates cited Business Adventures by John Brooks as one of his favorite reads of all time. He said:

[Business Adventures] is a collection of Brooks’s New Yorker essays about why various companies succeeded or failed. The essay titled “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox” should win an award for most clever chapter name, and the lessons inside the book are even better. I took inspiration from it while running Microsoft.

Bill Gates

You might not be able to run your purchases past Gates or Buffett before clicking “Buy now” on Amazon, but you can use their public reading lists to inform which business books you pick up next.

Gates keeps a running list of books he recommends on Gatesnotes, while Valuewalk (or a simple Google search) reveals Buffett's choices of great books.

Learning How to Become A Better Reader: The Final Word

Anyone with basic education and the right supports can develop the reading level of a high-school student. However, good readers don't stop there. They spend time honing their reading skills beyond simple consumption.

They pick subject matter because it's educational and not just entertaining. Good readers reflect on what they read and put ideas from the written word into practice. Sure, these reading habits are more time-consuming, but they help readers internalize good ideas and discard bad ones.

And that's key for anyone who wants to become a better reader.

FAQs on Learning How to Become A Better Reader

How do you get better at reading?

You can become better at reading by reading a little bit every day. At first, it could be a short article or a thriller book. Later on, try more complicated and involved reading materials like philosophy or literature. It's also good practice to take notes about the books you read and put ideas from them into practice.

What skills does a good reader need?

A good reader should have a basic grasp of vocabulary, fluency, and basic sentence structure. They should also possess a curious mind. They must be willing to juggle competing ideas from different books and writers and disregard what doesn't work. Today good readers also need to cultivate an ability to focus, as social media, email, and the news all are often distractions from reading.

Does reading make you smarter?

According to numerous academic studies, the written word is linked to improved vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills. It can also aid with abstract reasoning abilities.

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