How can you improve your reading comprehension, read faster, balance reading with living life, stay focused while reading, and improve long-term retention? Inquiring readers want to know.

Books Men Should Read had the highest newsletter open rate, received the most comments, and was the most popular post to appear on Danger & Play.

Since we are hardcore readers, it makes sense to talk more about reading. What are your tips to improve reading comprehension? What is your reading strategy?

Listen to the latest Danger & Play Podcast to learn how to become a better reader (SoundCloud; iTunes). Scroll down for the show notes and full transcript.

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How to improve reading comprehension and retention:
  • Write about what you read. Do a 250-500 word book report.
  • Use bullet points and quotes, like in 7 Lessons From Sua Sponte.
  • Don’t re-write the book.
  • Write an executive summary.
  • Use audacity. Send those executive summaries to industry leaders.
  • Treat a book as a conversation with a brilliant man, not as a lecture.
  • Read fiction like it’s non-fiction.
  • Think of words as calories. You are feeding your brain good nutrition when you read good books.
  • You will perform better when your brain is given proper nutrition.
  • Argue with the book as you read it.

How many books should you read at one time:

  • Read as many books at a time as you like.
  • Find the Big Idea out from each book you read.
  • Take your time.
  • I’ve spent nearly two years reading Musashi: An Epic Novel of the Samurai Era (Amazon).
Some books on my bookshelf:
  • Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Amazon).
  • Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage (Amazon).
  • How to Feed a Lawyer: And Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground (Amazon).

Danger & Play
Podcast #047:
How to Read Great Books

D&P:

Hello, this is Mike from DangerAndPlay.com and today we’re going to talk about reading.

I never thought I would do a podcast on reading. It seems a little bit counterintuitive but you men are hardcore readers. And that isn’t a guess, that isn’t a hypothesis. That is all proven by the data.

We can know that you’re hardcore readers based on just looking at the data. For example, if you look at email newsletter subscriptions industry-wide, the open rate is around 2%. The click rate is around 3% or 4%. The Danger and Play click rate is 17.8% which is good and the open rate is 48.2%.

When I sent out a newsletter talking about my book recommendations, the open rate was 60% and the click rate was 32.7% which is really high. That’s almost twice as high as the normal click rate for the newsletter and 10x better than the industry standard.

The most popular post in terms of it didn’t receive viral traffic or no weird SEO good luck from Google was Books Men Should Read and it also has the most number of comments at 105 comments.

Some specific reader questions about reading have come in, so maybe that’s how we’ll structure the podcast. Here is the way the questions re framed:

“It’d be cool to hear reading tips such as how to read faster, how to balance reading with living life, how may books to read at a time, how to stay focused while reading, etc.”

Another reader writes in:

“I’m writing to ask you what your strategies for reading comprehension and long-term retention are. I’ve been reading a lot more nonfiction lately, but I find it hard to apply what I read.”

Those are great questions.

Let’s tackle the first one which is how do you comprehend what you read. The best way to do that is to write about what you read.

I believe that every man should have a blog. Not necessarily a blog that you are trying to build a huge readership with but I think that you should write for an hour a day or half an hour a day or 5 minutes a day if that’s all you have. Because writing forces you to focus your thoughts and it also lets you know if you understand something or if you don’t. Imagine you read a book from this perspective: “I’m going to write a 250-500 word summary and I’m going to post that online.” Could you do that?

Well that’s your answer right? A friend of mine taught me that trick years ago.

He said “Write a 250-500 word summary almost like a book report on every book you read.”

I did it years ago and man I wish I had kept them. Because it would be really cool to have a collection like that.

Now I sort of use the blog to write my book reports. A good way to do this is to go online and type in executive summaries on books. An executive summary is where you take a large book and you break it down into a short report. You want to use quotation marks and bullet points. Your goal isn’t to rewrite the book. That’s where I think the idea of writing a book report about a book sounds arduous because you imagine writing a 10-page college paper and you don’t want to do that.

All you want to do is summarize what this book is about and what are some key points to take away. If you want you want an example of that, read the one I just wrote: 7 Life Tips from Sua Sponte the Forging of a Modern American Ranger. That’s just a quick little executive summary and all that does is, gives you, the readers an idea of what the book is about and then you can decide if you want to read it or not. You can say “Oh this book sounds cool or ehh I don’t really want to read that book.”

Now if you’re a real hustler and you have some audacity, you can write these executive summaries and sent them out to people whose attention you want to get. One problem busy people have is that they are busy. Imagine you know someone in the industry you’d like to work in. Maybe you’d like to have a meeting and you send them “Hey could I take you out to coffee for 10 minutes?” Is that going to be effective?

Well how about you use a little bit of audacity:

“I know this guy he’s into such and such books. I bet you he hasn’t had time to read the last 3 books about this subject. I’m going to write an executive summary on each of those books. Then I’m going to send him an email. Hey Joe Smith, I know that you are interested in World War 2 history. I just read this book on Stalin’s Gulags and wrote a quick summary that I thought you might enjoy.”

Imagine you send that right? Not only that, now you’ve seen that you’re interesting and have something to talk about that that person would find interesting. Wouldn’t that be a lot more effective than saying “Hey man can I meet for coffee?” People get a thousand offers to meet for coffee every day.

You could start a blog. I don’t know if this domain is available but you could say 52 books in 52 weeks. There was a meme circulating a couple years back, you read a book a week. Well I don’t know if you could read a book a week but you could try it. 52 books in 52 weeks and start a blog about it. That would be a cool blog.

Well speaking of 52 books in 52 weeks, that is unfortunate. I just went onto GoDaddy. I paused the microphone for a minute to see if 52booksin52weeks.com was available and it’s not.

I went to the webpage and the webpage looks like garbage. It looks like somebody just bought it and they’re kind of squatting on it. But anyway, that’s how you want to start thinking right: how can you retain knowledge? Think on those terms, 52booksin52weeks.com or you can say 52blogsin52weeks.com. Just start thinking more creatively and more widely. And that’s the way you can make these books more relevant and cooler to you.

And again, when you write these executive summaries, quote and bullet points. You’re not trying to re-write the book. The book is the book. You’re just saying, “Hey, here’s something that might interest you.”

In terms of how you can make it apply to your life, I’ll give you a perfect example. Read it, highlight, and synthesize it with other things that you’ve read and try to find some kind of an analogy. I’m, for example, reading Patton’s book on war it’s called War As I Knew It (Amazon).

There’s a section there on bravery and courage where he says, “If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows not fear, I’ve never seen a brave man. All men are frightened, the more intelligent they are the more they are frightened. The courageous man is the man who forces himself in spite of his fear, to carry on. Discipline, pride, self-respect, self-confidence, and a love of glory are attributes which will make a man courageous even when he is afraid.”

Think about that. I could do a blog post and say, “The 5 Attributes of Being Brave,” or “The 5 Attributes of Being a Man from General George S. Patton.” Discipline. Write a paragraph on discipline. Pride. What does it mean to have pride as a man? What does it mean to have self-respect? What does it mean to have self-confidence? What does it mean to have a love of glory?

Then you could maybe talk about historical characters like Achilles. Achilles had an undue love of glory and that’s what cost him, so could too much of a love of glory harm you? And again, why am I thinking about Achilles? When I read books, I’m always relating everything back to other things that I’ve read.

Another example, and this is the very next paragraph, it’s called his critique on battle fatigue. Battle fatigue is post-traumatic stress disorder and I think most people would disagree with Patton and that PTSD is actually real and Patton didn’t believe it was, so let’s just put that aside.

Here’s what he says: “The greatest weapon against the so-called battle fatigue is ridicule. IF soldiers would realize that a large proportion of men allegedly suffering from battle fatigue are really using an easy way out, they would be less sympathetic.”

In other words, we could talk Patton on shaming. Shaming sanctions, how does it work, does shaming people work, does shaming people motivate them, when can you shame people too much, when is shaming appropriate? That’s what we’re doing, we’re just thinking “Oh OK this is a book on Patton on war” and we’re thinking about ways to make it applicable to real life. By we I mean I am. And that’s how you need to start thinking when you’re reading a book.

The way that you do that is to start in the frame of, “What if I was going to summarize this?” Let’s say we had a Danger & Play book club. And everybody, in order to get into the book club (maybe we’d open up a chat room) had to submit a 250 word summary of the book of the month. Well what would your 250 word summary be? What bullet points would you pick out?

And then it would be kind of cool if 10, 15 guys got together. Then you could see what was the overlap and what wasn’t the overlap because everyone would kind of have a different take. Maybe the book meant a little something different to you or maybe there was something in the book that resonated with the story of your life. And then you could say “I read this in this book and it reminds me of a struggle I went through.”

And that’s how you want to start thinking, and that’s how you comprehend it because you make things relatable to your real life.

Your best source of knowledge is your experience and your real life. So when you want to read a book, “well how does this relate to what I’ve observed personally? Is it true or is it false? I kind of agree with that, but I never thought of it that way. Maybe he’s right about this. Maybe I’m lying to myself about that.”

And when you do that, you are actively engaging in conversation with a book. A book isn’t a lecture, it’s conversational. Just like these podcasts I do, if you actually listen to the podcast from a meta-perspective you’d realize these podcasts are conversational. I don’t get up here like a professor and hold court and just put up my points. We’re having a conversation. And that’s how you want to read a book is that you’re having a conversation with the author.

“I think he’s off on this point. I think this is a good point though. Well if I talk to so and so about this book here’s probably what I would tell them. And If I were going to tell this guy that I really want to get in touch with about this book here’s what I pitch to him.” Because maybe that person you want to have coffee with is going to have a different perspective than you and then you want to think, “Well how can I sell this to him and that perspective?”

If you do that, you’re going to remember the book and you’re going to comprehend what you’re reading because you’re making it relatable to your real life.

As to the question, how can you read faster?

I think you should read slower. I’ll post an essay from Nietzsche on slow reading and I think people read a little bit too quickly. I think that a book isn’t a race. And if you’re in college or something and you have to race then maybe that’s a different story. But I think that you should take your time with books. I think you should enjoy it. I think it should be deliberative. And like I said, I think it should be a dialogue. Because my favorite book, I’ve been reading this book for almost two years now, it’s called Musashi. And it’s a book about my favorite historical figure Miyamoto Musashi who was the greatest samurai warrior and perhaps the greatest warrior who ever lived. And it’s a fictional account of his life, but the way it’s written it sounds like you’re just with him. And I’ll read a chapter of that and then I won’t read it for a month. And then I’ll read another chapter and then I’ll read it for another couple of hours.

There’s so much wisdom and insight in that book that I just “Oh wow, I’m going to stop.” So I’ve been taking two years to read this one single book. And it isn’t because I can’t plow through 1200 pages, I think I’m on like 700 pages so given today’s books that’s more like 3 or 4 modern day books.

But why would I want to hurry through the book? I want to read it, and again, I’m having this conversation, this ongoing conversation. I was at a Zen garden the other day actually at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena and I was looking at the flowers and I appreciate flowers more because of this book about Musashi. Because Musashi wasn’t just a skilled swordsman, he was a skilled calligrapher. And there’s quote from the Book of Five Rings, his nonfiction book on the philosophy of a warrior which is “The way of the warrior is a two-fold way, that of the pen and the sword.”

Think about that. There’s a part of the book where he runs into these various characters and he starts to see the craftsmanship in pottery. He can tell that a great samurai warrior for example built a certain clay pot because of the way the pot was spun. And then there’s another time he becomes obsessed with someone because he finds a rose and he looks at the stem of the rose and he can tell by the way the rose was cut that it was a master swordsman who cut that. He thought, “Well who could make such a slice? That would be a killing slice if you hit a man like that.” And this is a rose so then he has to find the great samurai who cut this rose.

So then I’m at a Zen garden and I’m thinking about Musashi and I’m listening to the water and contemplating and I start wondering, “Why am I at a Zen garden? Why is there such a thing as a Zen garden? How can going to a garden and listening to water and looking at various flowers and the shapes of rock formations and buildings, how can that be Zen?”

active meditation zen gardens

But it is kind of Zen right? Then you start to think about that Musashi book. So I don’t have any problem comprehending Musashi right? You read a book and you just engage the world now, so much more actively. If you read something at Danger & Play or whatever and you think, “Mike kind of said this, I wonder if that’s right?” And you just observe the world. “Well he made a point about posture, how’s my posture?” Because you are engaging yourself.

“Oh well when I actually do improve my posture, my mood does improve. I am more confident. Meeting girls is easier. More girls come to me because I have my chin up and I make eye contact.”

That’s how you comprehend all this stuff.

You just start actively engaging the world and you treat the world like a dialogue. You become an active participant in the real world.

And when you walk, boom, thoughts just rattle through your head. And if you’re not careful you’ll go crazy because you’ll have too many thoughts going on in your head at once.

And of course all that relates to the reader’s question “How do you balance reading with living life? Books are a man’s greatest gift to you. Some man or woman sat down and said, “I’m going to put all of my ideas onto paper and I’m going to edit this. I’m going to hire an editor to edit it, and I’m going to think about this and I’m going to edit this. I’m going to delete this, delete that.” And there’s a conversation right? Again, don’t be passive. It’s a conversation. Books are life, even a fiction book. For example that book Musashi is fiction, but read it like it’s nonfiction.

I read it like whoever wrote this is a master of Zen. How did he even come up with this? How did he come up with these stories? Instead of reading these stories as just fiction, I read them as parables. Like Biblical parables or Aesop’s parables.

There is no way to balance reading books with life, books are life.

Books are my life man; I love them more than anything. I would go crazy if I didn’t have books because you are talking to the smartest people at their peak. It’s not just somebody threw something out there, if it’s a good book. It’s like “Wow this is a person’s A-game and he’s not telling me things, this is a conversation. I’m engaged with this person. I’m connected to this person. “

So there is no need to balance it. It’s just amazing.

So how many books to read at a time? As many as you can. Don’t stop reading a book until you get one idea out of the book. To me if I buy a book and I spend $15, $20, or $30 on it and I get one idea out of that book, to me that’s $30 well spent.

On Kindle books are $9.99, $14.99. If I read a book and get one idea out of it, that’s awesome. I got one idea for $15 and this idea could potentially change my life. Even if that single idea doesn’t change my life, it’ll relate to all these other ideas I have and it’ll make me smarter because you have to think of books like calories and nutrition.

A lot of guys say, “Oh Mike you’re fluent and how do you come up with this stuff and are you going to run out of ideas?” The answer is I’m not that smart. I’m not any smarter than you guys. I’m just obsessed with reading and when you read you are taking in nutrition. I sometimes read so much that my hands shake and I drop the book, like I get exhausted. Like it’s a set of squats at the gym.

And when you do that you are taking in calories. Think of words as calories. You can take in empty calories, trashy websites, negative websites, sports websites, sites that make you angry. That’s calories right? That’s dessert. Now there’s a time and place for dessert. It isn’t like you can live off of chicken and broccoli all day. But you have to think of the words you read as the calories you consume and you treat it accordingly. “This is a dessert website. This isn’t what I want to build my brain out of. I want to build my brain out of meat and vegetables and juices and kale and salad and almonds and olive oil and macadamias and 100% cacao and I want to build it out of Modafinil and nootropics and to do that you got to get into the big books.”

And you just treat them like calories. And sometimes you’ll say, “Oh I read this book and my head hurts.” Yeah. Good! It should. It absolutely should hurt your head when you read a good book and that’s how you know you’re reading a good book. There’s no crime in putting a book aside. You read a book, you get a good idea out of it, and put it aside.

I’m looking at a bunch of books on my shelf. They are almost all on my kindle now but I’m looking at a book called “How We Decide” and it’s a book on choice theory. Thinking Strategically is another book. There’s a book called Click, I forget who wrote it, I want to say the Leaf brothers.

They wrote one of my favorite books which is called Made to Stick. So I actually read all of Click. Eulogy of Lawyers by Jacob A. Stein which is sort of a bunch of collected essays on what is it to be a lawyer. The Care and Feeding of a Lawyer by Evan Schaeffer who’s a very smart lawyer. I haven’t read all that. I skipped around on it. “This is good. This is good.”

The Magnesium Miracle, Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. So Click wasn’t by the Heath brothers, I’m not sure. Anyway ignore that rambling.

The point is I have a bunch of books that I haven’t read all the way through. I read then and I think “OK that’s good idea.” And then I put it down. Then I’ll go pick that book up later. For example, I forgot I even had Decisive by the Heath brothers who I really really like. So I’m going to go read. I’m going to put this podcast down actually and when I’m done with this and upload it to SoundCloud.

Oh, I have the Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage. So Bryan A. Garner is an incredible lexicographer and an incredible student of language so when you read his dictionary it isn’t like “A – aardvark, aardvark is a whatever.” It’s more like the history of the aardvark or what is a coma splice? There’s a whole essay on a comma splice. And he also has a dictionary of modern American usage which I have and I have that on my Kindle.

And I’ll just read it because I know that if I read Bryan A. Garner it’ll make me a better writer because again it’s the calories. If I feed my brain the nutrition and good calories, I need my brain to perform from a writing standpoint to write a blog post and do this podcast, my brain is going to perform because I fed it the good calories.

Now if I don’t feed the brain good calories and I read the junk websites and the junk books and the junk magazines, then how is my brain going to perform? It’s not going to perform at its optimal function.

So hopefully you can see there is no need to balance reading with living life. Reading is life. Read as many books as you want at the same time. IF you want to stay focused when you’re reading, engage. Read my post on the Power of Active Engagement. Engage with the book. Argue with the book in your head. Say, “No this guy’s wrong or this guy’s right.” Take out your pen and write notes in the margin. When I’m on my iPhone and I read books I take a screencap and “Nahh I don’t like that or I’m going to write blog post about that. This is good.” Highlight it. Destroy and mutilate your books with opening and closing and writing in the columns and writing in the margins and the ink is soaking through.

And if you do that, you’re not going to have trouble staying focused because you are actually engaged in it because you’re treating it actively.

So those are some of my thoughts on reading, I have a lot more. Let me know your thoughts on reading. If you have any questions, post them. As you can see, I get very excited talking about reading because I’m very enthusiastic about knowledge and learning and trying to understand the world better and trying to become a better person and a better man.

So let me hear your thoughts.

  • How do you read?
  • How do you balance reading with life?
  • How do you comprehend what you read?
  • What are your reading tips and tricks?

So until next time, this is Mike from DangerAndPlay.com