How (the hell) to read non-fiction

In a recent tweet thread, it became clear there’s a growing camp of readers who never get to finish reading the book Thinking Fast and Slow. To borrow the words of Richard Thaler, “Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think.”.

However, the above technique did nothing to change the fact that I couldn’t get past 90 pages. If I did try hard to reach the 400th page, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to retain all the new information. It’ll render all my efforts useless. Next comes turning that information into applied wisdom. Phew.

It begs the question of what makes us retain new information. For works of fiction, it’s only enough that you have a good imagination. The storyline will do its job to help you remember the details. In the case of non-fiction, especially those with non-linear narratives, we need to approach it with a clear strategy. That does not involve reading from start to finish.

Paraphrasing Thaler again, “Buy it fast. Read it only when you need it. It will slowly but surely change the way you think.”

One strategy I figured out is to pick chapters/ books that have answers to my most recent experiences. This is counterintuitive and goes against the purpose of non-fiction— to prepare us to face unknown real world experiences. But of what use is new knowledge if we cannot remember it for long? How do we apply it in the immediate future?

What I now do is sift through the titles of all the chapters and then select the ones that explain my personal experiences. If the whole book can explain my lived reality, it does far more good to me.

I was recommended the book Chaos Monkeys at a time I most needed it. I could easily finish the book in one sitting because it coincided with my desire to understand the engine of social media companies and not-so-nice things about tech. I was suggested to read Managing Oneself at a time I was going through an existential crisis. These are some of the books I can quote during dinner table conversations because I had internalised what they had to offer.

The essence of strategy, as Michael Porter puts, is what to not do. Going by that logic, you need to weed out non-fiction that you don’t need to read. Read what the book is about and decide if it has any relevance to your life. As a principle, I never recommend non-fiction to anyone unless I think it’ll help them better their current perspective. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to read what high achievers read. Bill Gates has all the time in the world now to read plenty of non-fiction. You and I don’t.

The reason this strategy works is because effectiveness of non-fiction, specifically the ones written by economists, management gurus and social scientists, hinge on reflection. If you don’t belong to the period of The Great Recession, you’ll never really understand the pain the people went through during the collapse of their economy. But if you recently went bankrupt due to using bad financial products, works on great recession become your Bible. Fiction does a far better job at evoking empathy while keeping you informed about subjects. For instance, I connected to the problems during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Period in India more through the fiction A Fine Balance than reading 1000-page books. I might just read Wikipedia than spend countless hours on some abstract topic that doesn’t hold relevance to me.

For instance, only if you plan to buy a car, will you look into its details and remember it until your next visit to the car dealer. If your neighbour were to randomly bring up the subject of car loans at any other point in your life, say when you’re going through a bad divorce, you’ll probably not pay any heed to it. You’ll probably be willing to hear about relationship advice.

Unless you have a burning need to answer a question or get clarity on why certain incidents happened, you’ll probably never remember what you read. It’s only in hindsight we discover insights.

Confirmation bias from recent experiences acts a superglue for this new information. Though the downside is you’ll end up reading very few chapters, or very few works of non-fiction, you’ll remember it for long. Perhaps you’ll even be able to identify these scenarios early on if they recur.


Here are some interesting perspectives from a friend and author Hari Ram Narayanan:

2 responses to “How (the hell) to read non-fiction”

  1. Often i use the ideas of some genre to other, kind of cross pollination, so one feel the book appropriately to their state of mind. Also when a book is read second it is not the first one, at least to me. Good narration. நெறைய எழுதுங்க… ☺

    Liked by 1 person

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