The Importance of Reading


Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to anything else. Simple as that.”

Recently, I read some wonderful advice from blogger Ryan Holiday about how to ‘punch above your weight’ when it comes to reading.  As someone who understands the value of reading, I thought I would pass this along to you with my own ideas thrown into the mix. I agree with Ryan that the best teachers in the world are tough books!  Unfortunately, many people don’t have sufficient faith to challenge themselves and stick to the familiar and easily digested books.  While these will bring pleasure, they won’t stretch your mind in the ways necessary to achieve your potential.

Holiday describes the approach this way:

For me, that means pushing ahead into subjects you’re not familiar with and wresting with them until you can–shying away from the “easy read.” It means reading Feynman over Friedman, biographies over business books, and the classics over the contemporary.

Ryan’s advice is very wise, and so I pass along my spin on his main points:

1. Remember you are reading for yourself now and not a school exam.

Don’t read with the mindset you developed in school.  No-one is going to test you on the details.  The main thing is to develop an understanding of the authors’ main message.  What is the Big Idea that under pins the book? Details can be found in Google but ideas remain in your brain.

2. Ruin the Ending

This initially surprised me but as a teacher I know it is the second and third reading that really teaches the message, and so I could see the sense in this technique.  One you have Googled an outline of the book, it frees your mind to reflect on what you are reading.  Two useful reflective questions are:

  • What does the author argue?
  • Do you agree?

I would also argue that anyone wishing to develop as a thinking person should carry a small reflective journal into which they record their reflections on a regular basis.  My technique is to date the left page and write my reflection and what stimulated it.  I leave the right page free for revisiting and reflecting again. I also timetable at least one hour per week for reflection.

3. Read Reviews

Read the reviews from quality newspapers, journals or well-known critics.  Entire journals are devoted to articles reviewing texts.   Read these journal reviews to select reading material, and then see if you agree with the critic as you read the book.

4. Read the introduction.

This will help set the scene and usually contains useful contextual material that will help you to understand why the message is as it is.

5. Look up Stuff you don’t know!

Yes, this will slow the reading process, but you are not at school anymore and your purpose is to “read to lead” not read for enjoyment.  You are trying to read tough, worthwhile books because you want to develop your intellect, not because you need a bed-time story!  Besides, the You Tube documentary you find to explain ‘the industrial revolution’ or ‘emancipation movement’ will build brain cells, too.

6. Record great ideas!

This is why you have a reflection journal.  Record the quotation and jot down the ideas it stimulates.  You are reading to challenge your own thinking, remember.

7. In two weeks read the book again.

I can’t agree more with the idea of re-reading a book after a period of reflection.  Your brain will have been processing in the interim and rereading will reinforce your understanding.  Holiday suggests using a stack of file cards to handwrite passages that inspire or spark thought during this second reading.  He files these in themes in file boxes.  This is the technique I used to get my master’s degree and I’m convinced enough to go back to it now for my Doctorate.  The computer is easy to use for note taking, but hand-written notation cards reinforce ideas in a way typing simply cannot.
Research has found again and again, that nothing beats hand written notes and manually coded ideas for deep understanding and recall.

8. Use Reference lists to find your next read.

This is absolutely how my literature review is progressing in my doctorate.  I tend to select the author most quoted in the text or the author whose quotations I have been stimulated by.

9. Use these ideas!

Use the ideas in work reports, in conversations, in your own blogging.  Make the words and ideas yours through use.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca said:

My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application…   … and learn them so well that words become works.

10. Create a To Read wish list

Amazon is great for this.  You can even send the wish list to family come present time!

Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to read a book.  Reading helps us to stay aware of where the world is headed so you might plan your career and future accordingly

Finally, Holiday reminds us of the worth of the vast library of texts mankind has accumulated;

I think there is more wisdom in the timeless books of the last 5,000 years than a conference or two–if you do it right and push yourself.

I couldn’t agree more!  Go find your Quake Books- the books that will shake you to your core!


By Sue Burvill-Shaw


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