Last time, I shared how to read (and enjoy) more books this year; this time, I’d like to share my own simple rules for reading. I guess you could say this is how I avoid freaking out about the discrepancy between how many things there are that I want to read and how little time I have. Like with all things “non-freaked out,” this is an approach, not the approach. I hope it spurs thinking and helps you get more out of the time you invest in reading, professional or otherwise.
Rule #1: When reading for fun, disregard all rules.
When I read fiction, I’m typically craving either flow or positive emotion. (Remember PERMA?) I want to lose track of time in a plot or a world, or I want to marvel at the hard work behind such craft and imagination. As I write this, I’m in the middle of Robert Heinlan’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (audiobook) ; next, I’m eager to read Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts (audio).
When reading for fun, I go for a comfortable pace, and I tend not to skim. This is the kind of reading — reading for fun — that I think choice reading in the ELA classroom is ideal for helping my students with.
Rule #2: Read actively.
For any kind of reading for which Rule #1 doesn’t apply, the goal is effective reading.
The effectiveness of a reading is dependent, first, on the amount of effort, skill, and prior knowledge I bring to it. Effort is a multiplier of skill and prior knowledge; skill is acquired through deliberate practice; prior knowledge is acquired through reading widely and (in the case of niche-ish books — teacher books, for example) deeply. All of these are “never finished” things — I can always improve the effort I expend, the skill I have, and the knowledge I bring.
To force myself to read actively, I tend to annotate in books, and I rarely read where there are distractions. Not always easy, that last bit (see Figure 1).
Rule #3: Read on purpose.
Effort, skill, and prior knowledge, like any kind of force, have their greatest effect when applied with precision. Banging a hammer randomly at a board with a nail halfway in it may eventually pound in the nail, but there will be lots of wasted force on the way to the objective.
So, if my purpose in reading, say, Kelly Gallagher’s latest book is to enjoy myself, then see Rule #1. (And yes, I’m that kind of nerd.)
But if I’m reading it to see if he’s elaborated on his thinking around articles of the week, or to hear what he has to say about teaching speaking skills, then there’s no need to read the whole book. The whole book is likely fantastic, but living in the 21st century in the most affluent country in the world means that basically everything is fantastic. Fantastic-ness, therefore, is not a good decision-making filter.
Thus, with a specific purpose in mind, I look to the index or the table of contents and seek out the information I’m after. If I come across something in my search that scratches a different itch (“Oh, that writing strategy sounds interesting”), I mark it for later (I’ll probably never get to it; oh well) or, if I’ve got the time and want to spend it, I take a side trip.
On the other hand, I may be reading syntopically (see the last Rule), in which case I’ll read his introduction and conclusion before deciding to go any further.
Rule #4: Read everything inspectionally; read few things analytically.
It’s hard, before reading a book, to even know what purposes to bring to it — and so the first purpose in reading a book must be to inspect it.
I’ve talked about inspectional and analytical reading before, and you can learn way more about these kinds of readings from Adler and VanDoren’s How to Read a Book. Or you can just get your hands dirty with inspectional reading like this: set a timer — 60 minutes, say — and get the best gist of the book you’re reading within that time. This would be a wretched way to read fiction, but it’s not bad for most books in the world.
But what is it about those books that merits analytical reading? How do we decide what those are? That really depends on your purpose (see Rule #3). Another good rule of thumb: analytically read older books.
Rule #5: Mix old with new because books with proven staying power tend to merit analytic reading.
C. S. Lewis lays this out in his essay, “On the Reading of Old Books:” 
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
I’ll admit that I’m wretched at following Lewis’ rule, but here’s the thing — he’s one of the more influential Western thinkers of the 20th century, and he wrote masterworks in both children’s literature and Christian apologetics. You may not be into children’s literature or Christian apologetics, but the fact is that when someone develops the mind to the point where they produce that kind of work, I want to know how. And Lewis says, “Read old books.”
“But Dave, Latest Popular TEDx Talk Person is really cool and she has a book! Her ideas are mind-blowing. She says Here in My Garage with My Lamborghini Guy is right and that we should all read a book a day!”
Rule #6: Don’t read books to let others know that you’ve read books.
Rule #7: Once in awhile, read everything an author has written.
Here In My Garage with My Lamborghini Guy may have done it comically, but when he says that reading = mentorship, he’s on to something. But I liken reading one or two of a prolific author’s books to attending a few of his or her workshops — valuable, but there’s not a mentorship relationship there. Yet when I set out to read all of, say, Jim Burke’s or C. S. Lewis’ books, it’s because I want those people in my head and my heart. I want to think like they think because I respect their work. In the case of Jim Burke, I love that he has stayed in the classroom while still writing so much. And so I read as much of Jim’s stuff as I can, and I hope to one day have read it all.
Rule #8: Read syntopically.
Rules #7 and #8 are what expert readers call reading projects. Rule #7’s aim is accessing a person’s way of thinking; Rule #8’s aim is answering questions that no single book can answer.
Syntopical reading is another of Adler and VanDoren’s ideas. I think of it as reading toward big, burning questions — How do kids best learn? How do I promote the long-term flourishing of my students? How do I maintain right priorities in my daily life? And so, since no single book can answer things like this, you inspectionally read many (dozens of) books. (You don’t analytically read so many books because it would take more than a lifetime — and what’s the fun of answering big, burning questions if you can’t do anything with your best answers before you die?)
When you approach reading in a syntopical fashion, you’re able to have a working knowledge of far more books than you would if you opted for the mainstream, “read every word” approach.
Or, think of it this way — if Google’s bots don’t “crawl” through a website, you’ll never see that website no matter how many queries you put into Google. Likewise, the fewer books you inspectionally read, the fewer books your brain has access to; syntopical reading maximizes your brain’s “search engine” functionality.
And that, my friends, is fun.
- I learned of the book in an Elon Musk interview. For more Musk book recommendations, see this list.
- You can find the Lewis essay, which is actually an introduction to a work by St. Athanasius, here.
Thank you to Jim Burke, who really is a dear mentor and role model to me. If you appreciate my blog, Jim Burke was one of its earliest mentors. I hope to one day have contributed to our field a fraction as much as Jim has.