I typically plow through books. Whether fiction, memoir, professional development, or self-help, I start, and I keep reading until I’m done. I don’t take a lot of time to process.
A few weeks ago at work, I participated in a salon, which is basically a fancy word for book club. As part of the salon, we read books on the same timeline and discussed them in writing via our internal blogs. I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and Think Again by Adam Grant. While I was interested in the material of the books themselves, what I was most interested in was that we’d be reading them slowly. With time to digest. We read one chapter per week.
This was new for me. I’d never read this deliberately or slowly before. I didn’t want to read ahead, so each week, I actually stopped at the end of the designated chapter. And since I did not allow myself to keep reading, my brain had to do something, so I’d think about what I’d already read.
I used the time that I wasn’t reading ahead to read writing books using this same slow reading approach. I started reading a page a day in the Little, Brown Handbook and a chapter a day in the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan Garner (the chapters are short). I was delighted each day by how much those texts overlapped and complemented each other, and by reading slowly, I was able to make connections between them. I also used them to help me with my salon reading, and to practice writing for work.
This all came together most usefully on the day that both Little, Brown and the HBR Guide covered summaries. Summarizing may be what I struggle most with in writing for work: I always want to explain too much or give details that are fine for the body of a post but are too much for a tl;dr. Summaries need to only capture the most important elements: the point of the piece. The takeaway. This part is challenging for me, to pull out the relevant bits and only the relevant bits.
But as I read my writing books in the spaces between salon chapters, I sat with my notebook and tried to capture, in two to three sentences, the essence of the chapter I’d just read from Deep Work or Think Again. It was hard! But the practice helped me revisit and absorb the material as I tried to explain my understanding of it in my own words.
After finishing those books, I decided I like this approach for non-fiction: to read slowly, then summarize. I’m still not satisfied with my ability to summarize, and I want to practice. I’m reading a book called How to Take Smart Notes now — slowly — and it’s funny because the book hammers on how critical it is to explain the gist of a lecture, book, article, or meeting in your own words if you actually want to internalize knowledge and learn. If you’ve ever tried to teach before, you’ll know that it forces you to face gaps in your understanding when you try to explain something to someone else. Summarizing, or taking notes in your own words, is the same as teaching: it’s impossible to do if you don’t understand it yourself.
I continue to practice reading non-fiction slowly. To help with summarizing and getting the gist of what I read, I preview each chapter to pull out the headings and know what to expect from the structure. Then I read. Then I attempt to summarize. It’s hard for me. I’m still not great at summarizing. But reading slowly is a fun way to learn new stuff while also trying to get better at a form of writing that’s hard for me.