Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Upgrade your Reading

I’m a voracious reader.  To me, there is nothing better than curling up with a good book and escaping into the world it creates.  There is something really special about how literature can transport you through time and space – to jump into the shoes of a character and go on an adventure that is not limited by our narrow conception of reality.  It’s magic.

Non-Fiction also holds a special place for me because of how valuable knowledge can be.  Reading up on topics that interest you can be the greatest advantage you have over your competitor because the more you open your eyes to – the greater your capability to make the optimal decisions at the crucial time.  The fact that you can spend R200 and gain access to a lifetime’s work of research on a certain topic – blows my mind.  Information truly has become democratised and it is easier than ever.

In both camps, reading is very important to me and that’s why I tend to post reviews of what I have read on this blog.  Those reviews are my attempt to synthesise the key cornerstones of the book and to provide insight into what the author was trying to convey.  To be honest, it’s more about me – than you as the reader.  Although I know they do add value for the reader, they provide a much more concrete value proposition for me.  It forces me to reflect on the book and pull out the golden nuggets that I want to implement in my own life.  It’s a good habit to get into.

However, I think I can go further.

The Most Passionate Reader I Know

I was recently watching a web show called ‘Inside Quest’ where host Tom Bilyeu was interviewing a role model of mine – Ryan Holiday.  Ryan works in media and book marketing but more importantly, is a tremendous writer.  His books are incredibly engaging and they speak for themselves.

(Treat yourself)

What’s more relevant for this post however is his reading habits.  In the interview he talks about how he takes notes in his books – in an attempt to pull the knowledge out of the pages and put it to work.  (Jump to 08:58)

Watching this gave me pause for thought.

As a book collector (I dream of having the most epic private library one day!) I have always had this strange aversion to writing in my books.  I don’t know what it is – but “defacing” such a valuable possession seemed out of the question to me.  I wanted the book to remain pristine and looking just like new.

Now speaking to fellow readers, my aversion to this isn’t unique.  I know very few people who feel comfortable getting the pages dirty, so to speak.  In simple terms, the overwhelming sentiment is that books are meant to be read, not to be written in.  Maybe this traces back to school rules and that habit has stuck, but nonetheless – it remains to this day.

Now, Ryan disagrees.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Ryan makes a great point when he suggests that if you aren’t making notes, you are not synthesising what you are reading and thus that wisdom remains within the pages.  Instead, in order to implement what you learn or are exposed to in a book – you need to pull the wisdom out of the book and into your mind.  That is what function the notes serve.

It struck me by surprise because it was so logical to me.  It baffled me as to why I hadn’t been doing that already.

  1. I was going to keep the book for my collection, so there was no need to keep it in good condition – it was mine to use and abuse.
  2. I always would rack my brain trying to remember a quote or concept from a book I had read and would always regret not noting it down.
  3. I would record notes for blogs and other things I read, but not books.

It just made no sense.  My preconceived idea that writing in a book was bad meant that I wasn’t getting full value from what information was being presented to me.

In fact, as I thought about it – it dawned on me another trap that I often found myself in.

My ‘to-read’ shelf is forever growing and in an attempt to get through it, I would often fly through a book – just to get through it.  It is tempting to turn it into a numbers game and just read to be able to check it off a list.  When you do this – you don’t fully engage with the topic and you lose the purpose of why you were reading it in the first place.

I would even argue it is a form of intellectual procrastination.

We need to engage with the information we consume.  This is crucially important in today’s age where information is plentiful.  The quantity of information you consume is no longer the benchmark for intelligence.  It has shifted to the quality of your understanding and how you can transfer that into normal day-to-day life.

Every problem you deal with right now, has been written about.  It has been debated and discussed and argued for in hundreds of different situations.  All of that wisdom is sitting in the books that we have written as a human race.  By reading these and pulling that wisdom out, you are literally standing on the shoulders of giants.

Making Notes in My Book

So in an attempt to improve the quality of my reading, I have started making notes in my books – in order to pull the wisdom out of the pages and so I can refer to them later.

Here is how I have started making notes (inspired by Ryan Holiday).  This definitely won’t work for everyone but it should give some helpful guidelines.  You need to find what works for you.

  1. As you read, underline cool quotes and write small notes in the margin.
  2. If you make a note on a page, reference that on the blank page at the front of the book along with any relevant keywords that those notes relate to.
  3. After reading the whole book, revisit those notes and engage with the quotes you enjoyed.
  4. Write yourself a short book review aiming to succinctly encapsulate what the book meant for you and what you are going to implement in your life.

This may seem laborious (and that's the threat that I will deal with next) but the method is lifechanging when it comes to actual practical advice to start living towards.

Avoid making reading a chore

The only danger of getting into this habit is that it can make reading feel like a chore.  The most important tenet is to cultivate a real love of reading.  That love of reading will give you the motivation you need to make time in your busy day to sit down with a book.  Reading often gets postponed for more ‘urgent’ things, even though I would argue that it’s the most important activity in order to push yourself forward.

So if making notes diminishes that enjoyment – then it’s not worth it.

Ways to safeguard against this include:

  • Read fiction periodically purely for enjoyment. Whether that’s a classic novel or the latest teen vampire romance story – indulge in your guilty pleasure on a regular basis.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to make notes, just for the sake of it. If nothing stands out to you in a particular chapter, draw a line through the chapter title and move on.
  • Use diagrams or pictures to remind yourself of the key points, don’t only rely on notes. Do whatever you need to trigger your memory of the concept.

Where to now?

I hope that for the readers out there who were like me and refused to write in their books – this post will make you reconsider.  I encourage you to test it out with one book.  Go wild!  Fold pages, write all over it, highlight, circle – whatever you gotta do.  See if it works for you and then decide what to do going forward.

Trust me, it will make a tremendous upgrade to the quality of your reading.

If you do try it, I would love to hear how it goes.  Leave it in the comments or email me at