Reading Tips

Happy New Year to everyone. I've received some feedback on my 1720th post, Favorite Books, mainly questions about my ability to read so many books in one year. I have no secret knowledge or techniques, but I would like to share what works for me.

First, I think it's important to recognize my situation. Some of you will have more time available, and others will have less. I am married with two small children. I run my own company (TaoSecurity). I do not have a daily commute although I do travel out-of-state several times each month. I do not watch much TV, and the TV I do watch is recorded on my TiVo.

Second, the advice I give assumes you want to make the most of your reading time. You want to read as many books as possible while retaining as much as possible. You don't want to use any gimmicks like speed reading, etc. (I do not use any of those "techniques." I don't think tricks like reading down the center of a page work very well for tech books, especially.)

  • Make a plan. Set some goals. Do you want to read one book per week, per month, per year? If you decided to just "read" you'll be less efficient. I try to read an average of one book on my reading list per week.

  • Read good books that interest you. One of the emails I received said "I find it difficult to read through a lot of books (especially on security due to dryness/boring) and wish there was a way I can fight through it more easily." There is no way to quickly read through boring books. If you run into a book in your reading stack that bores you, move it aside, fast. I fell into that trap a few times last year. You'll see huge gaps in my reviews where I got stuck looking at a boring book. I was so demotivated I stopped reading rather than push the book aside.

  • Read at least a few pages every day. Even if you only read two pages per day, you'll read two average size books per year. I sometimes fall into the trap of only wanting to read in "big chunks," where I won't read if I don't have a free 30 minutes or so. Too many days of waiting for big chunks of free time turn into a week, then a month, and then you've read nothing all year! Additionally, you may find it helpful to "surge" every once in a while. Sometimes I will read several books in a row over the course of a few days. Be careful with this approach -- it's easy to burn out fast and not want to start reading again.

  • Make time to read. You'll have more success if you think about the time of day you hope to read. Sometimes I wake up much earlier than my family and read. Other times I stay up late after they are asleep. Since I work for myself, sometimes I use part of my work day to read. If you are a security or technology professional, reading should be part of your work day. I have no idea how management can expect tech operators to stay current and effective without expanding our knowledge. Every company should have a budget for a tech library for its IT staff and recognition that spending some portion of the work day reading (30 minutes would be good) is a cost-effective way to build a forward-thinking tech force. Managers who discourage reading are idiots.

  • Read interactively. When I read a tech book, I use a template like the one pictured at right. It's basically a ruler, but I've had it since I studied architecture in high school. (That's correct -- back then we were just starting to use Apple computers for CAD, so most of the time we drew everything by hand!) When I read something interesting, I underline it. I haven't used highlighters since college; I think they are messy, they often fade, and they don't reproduce well if you want to photocopy or scan a page. I make notes in the margins. I draw small triangles next to the most important points, and triangles with check marks inside for especially significant ideas. When I finish a book I thumb through it and look at my triangles to refresh my memory. When possible I also read near my laptop so I can visit URLs mentioned in the book. I also take notes on a separate pad that I use to produce my book reviews.

If you have any thoughts, please share them as comments.


Marcin said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
Awesome, thanks Richard!
H. Carvey said…
If you're (anyone) interested in Windows forensic analysis, let me know...
Anonymous said…
"Read Interactively" - I hate marking up my books, but I may try this one.. (Perhaps I'll start with Tao of NSM, since we'll be using it this semester in one of my classes, j/k :P )

I know I'm not the only one with this problem, but I tend to dwell on the first instance of something that I don't understand or read through several pages and totally forget what was covered... Do you ever have those moments, Rich?

Thanks again
Anonymous said…
I use those brightly colored post-it flags so I don't have to mark up the text. Then I go back through and take notes about the items I flagged.
Hi Marcin,

It's all about focus. It's easier to focus when you are interested in the topic and the explanations are clear, hence my second point.
Anonymous said…
This is a great checklist! Thanks for the tips.
Da Kahuna said…
Richard - Excellent suggestions. I assume the mehtods you use to mark text and go back and review the key points is what leads to the increased comprehension and retention. I have found that I have a very hard time remebering details from books I read just before going to sleep at night. But that also may be a sign of old age.

Keyde89 - I am interested in forensics, Windows as well as Unix, Solaris, and Mac OS X, but predocminately Windows as that is the standard OS for servers and workstations where I work.
Anonymous said…
Thanks very much for this post. I've been reading your blog for a couple of years now and was always puzzled as to how you were able to do so much reading.

I really like the idea of reading everyday even if it's only two pages.

I have also fell into the trap of not reading because I decided to read a particular book but it never took off (got interesting) and rather then set it aside and begin reading something else I would just not read. I don't know for some reason I would just feel guilty about not getting through the boring thing and not move on. Stupid!

Finally, I would like to read more in the evening, but my husband likes to watch TV as a family. I wonder if I could do a little reading after he's gone to bed. My only concern with that is that I will train my brain to fall asleep whenever I read. You know how that is. =)

I also like your comment about reading at work for techies. I think that is a great idea. I wonder if the management would look at that as being a slacker. Stupid!


Unknown said…
Perhaps you could attribute your points to Adler's classic: How to Read a Book?
Rob, never heard of it.
Unknown said…
Here's the link to the book @ amazon...
Max Weismann said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Engibay said…
Lately I went through on a lot of my own handwritten notes because I forgot things.

Last ebook what I read was about SONET/SDH design but gonna have to admit I almost slept on the first 6 chapters then I give up with it. It's not required for my work just like to read networking ebooks.

There are so many badly written ebooks out there nowadays it's amazing. I even doubt that all the authors have as much technical background as the book shows. It rather looks like they were made by professional book writers for cash.
Seriously now you pick ANY subject like "IPSEC VPN Design" and you will find at least 100 ebooks about it.

Back in the old days there were very few books, mostly howtos written by hackers but I swear the god they were much better than todays books.

"Read at least a few pages every day"

I'm not confident that reading more books at the time or randomly a part of them every day is any good.
You just remember less that way.

I developed my own fast reading technique. The more I care about a part of the book the more I will read from it.
When I get to a boring part and there is a statistical table or graph at the middle I just look at it for a second then to the corresponding texts on the page then move on.

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