“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde
For those of you who read books in public, you probably get this response: “Oh, I wish I had time to read more books.”
Maybe you get this one: “I used to read all the time—I really need to get back into it.”
There’s a weird guilt adults carry around about not reading enough. We grew up on TV shows, movies, and stories about the virtues of reading. As soon as most of us graduated from college though, we gave up reading.
Heck, I was an English major, and I gave up reading for two years.
Most people recognize that they could improve their lives and careers through regular book consumption—but that’s not what keeps most people from reading. The problem is that most people aren’t sure how to read.
We’re literate, of course (you must be if you’re reading a blog). What I mean is that most people don’t know how to read for growth. Reading for growth is as different from reading magazines or brochures as meal prep is from having a bag of chips.
Put simply, reading for growth is deliberately processing what you’re reading for long-term retention and use.
Why Read for Growth?
Comforting a grieving friend. Providing insight at a crucial moment. Offering words that inspire and encourage others to action. There’s something deeply satisfying about having the right words in the moment.
Reading for growth is what empowers all of these moments, giving us easy and effortless access to the best of what we absorb. This is the life that our teachers promised us—a life where we’re more than consumers. A life where we’re processing, thinking, and creating insight.
This blog is going to cover exactly what it takes to do all of that: how to read a book (without worrying about memorizing every little thing you want to remember); how to make sure you can go back to every single quote, idea, or story you love; and how to record the best things you read so that you can return to those parts again and again.
If you want to read books in a way that keeps the best parts in your memory for years, then reading for growth is what you need.
Step 1: Make Note of Everything That Catches Your Eye
Alright, so you have a book. Whatever it is, make sure you’re excited about it. While this approach works for books that you ‘have’ to read, it’s best if you don’t start with the seven-volume edition of The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire (unless that’s what you’re into).
What used to slow me down while I read was the impulse to memorize things that I felt were important or useful. I learned that I needed to create a way for myself to keep track of those things without losing my momentum. I would also need an easy way to return to those passages.
That’s when I found book darts.
Book darts are life-changing. They’re thin, reusable bits of metal that attach to pages where you’ve found something useful or personally meaningful. When I find a good passage, idea, or story, I attach a book dart in there.
Here’s why I prefer book darts to dog-earing pages or highlighting:
- They’re non-destructive (so if you’re a book-borrower, this is ideal)
- They hold the page like a bookmark (eat that, highlighters)
- You can mark quotes on consecutive pages without messing up the pages.
Book darts are a fast, non-destructive, non-committal way of holding your place, allowing you to continue reading—which is, of course, the point of this whole exercise.
Step 1B: Respond to What You’re Reading
If you’re already uncomfortable with how similar this whole blog sounds to reading in school, skip this part and come back to it later.
But if you want to take your reading to a deeper level, get into a conversation with your book: write your thoughts in the margins. There’s a reason that Harvard, the College Board, and countless other teachers and writers recommend putting your thoughts in the margins of what you’re reading—it promotes critical thinking.
Absorbing and processing knowledge is a give-and-take process. The first step is taking it in, but the next step is synthesizing it—putting it in your own words, having thoughts about what you’re reading. The technical term for it is “marginalia.”
This isn’t just for learning, either. How do certain scenes in Harry Potter make you feel? What do the symbols remind you of? What parts strike you as callbacks to earlier novels?
Making connections between your mind and the text is what makes the reading experience a richer journey. It’s not about memorizing the details as much as it’s about retaining the meaning. That’s what leaves us better off in the long run.
Step 2: Go Back Through the Book When You’re Done
You finished the book! Congratulations. You should now have a book filled with a dozen or more book darts (or markers of some kind) pointing out all the things you wanted to look at again.
You probably think the next step is going back through the book immediately and revisiting all your favorite parts.
You’d be wrong—the next step is actually moving on to the next book. I’m borrowing this one from Ryan Holiday: you need to give yourself a little time to process the book as a whole. Wait a couple weeks. Read something else. Catch up on whatever you neglected while you were reading.
Once two weeks have elapsed, then you go back and take a look at what you read. You might be surprised that after a couple weeks, some of what you found interesting at the time isn’t noteworthy anymore. That’s okay! You’re sifting for gold—you want the best parts, not the “pretty good” parts.
Unmark all the parts that don’t hold your attention anymore. Now you’re left with the parts that are really valuable.
Step 3: Put It in Writing
“Keep a notebook…cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” – Jack London
Once your favorite bits are ready to go, put them in a place where you know you’ll read them again. I keep my favorite ideas and passages in a journal called a commonplace book. Commonplace books are essentially ancient versions of Tumblrs—a gathering of all your favorite things rewritten for later reading.
You might be tempted to put all of the quotes into a digital format. You can, but I would urge you to write it down. Here’s why:
Multiple studies have found that students hold onto information better when they write it out longhand instead of typing it into a laptop. However, most of these studies examined the laptop as a source of distraction. When one study eliminated laptop distractions, you know what they found?
Writing things by hand is still better for long-term recall. In a study done by pychologists at Princeton and UCLA, the evidence suggests that people who type their notes are transcribing “mindlessly,” or without conscious processing. People who wrote their notes, however, were synthesizing what they were hearing. They summarized, they boiled down to key points, and they processed more deeply.
It Takes Longer & That’s the Point
Most of us avoid handwritten notes because we can’t write everything down fast enough. Turns out that’s the point—by forcing yourself to decide what’s important and what’s valuable, you’re better able to learn it instead of regurgitating it.
If you mark a long passage as one of your favorite parts, forcing yourself to summarize it (instead of copy-pasting) is exactly how it will become useful to you.
So, write down the quotes in a book or a journal (or in an app, if you’re in a pinch). Not only will you have a growing collection of your favorite ideas, but the more you revisit it, the stronger your recall becomes. Make it a practice to bring up one or two passages in conversation every day, and you’ll start to do it without even thinking.
The Case Against Kindles
I own a Kindle.
I like it, but when I’m reading something that really matters to me, I get a physical copy. Like I mentioned before, annotating and recording passages by hand is what enriches the reading experience. The physical act of writing has stronger ties to our memory than our fingertips on a keyboard, and it’s important to me that I read something deeply, not quickly.
Here’s another reason why physical books are ideal for “growth reading”:
Physical books invite you to revisit them.
Kindles are great because you can keep an Alexandrian library on a single device. Kindles aren’t great for the same reason—you can have all your favorite books on your Kindle and never see them for 5 or 6 years. They stay out of sight, cluttering up your digital space without ever calling attention to themselves again.
Is it easy to lose track of physical books? Sure, but eventually you’ll come into contact with them again. Reorganizing, moving, unpacking, repacking—I’ve reacquainted myself with old favorites multiple times a year because I change apartments. For the most part, though, books stay on your bookshelf. They’re visible and available, ready to be picked up and perused. If you take notes or mark passages, you can revisit those within a couple seconds.
My final reason:
From years of reading the Bible in physical form, I’ve learned that you end up memorizing passages according to their physical place within the book. Flipping three-quarters through the pages and looking on the left-hand leaf for that quote you like is tied to your physical memory. That’s something we lose in a digital format.
I hope you give the growth reading method a real chance. Pick a short book and try it out. Deep reading experiences aren’t just for people who read on vacation—they’re for anyone who wants to use the tools teachers and professors have been using for years.
Reading makes our lives better. I’ll repeat that ad nauseum on this blog until my fingers fall off. Just like drinking wine or enjoying good food, how we enjoy reading transforms the entire experience. Unlike food, you can choose to process only the good parts.
Slow down. Savor what you read.