Books are for thinking, not reading

Written by 
Nick Milo


Nick Milo

Nick Milo has spent the last 15 years harnessing the power of digital notes to achieve remarkable feats. He's used digital notes as a tool to calm his thoughts and gain a clearer understanding of the world around him.

"You don't look at me like you used to." A dusty book guilted me as I walked past.

"I uhh" I stammered, "I guess I got busy." Then the book saw what was in my hand...another book! I sheepishly ran out of the room still clutching the new book, but we could both hear the last, haunting shouts from the dusty book, "He'll forget about you soon enough!"

We have a weird relationship with books, don't we? (Maybe not as weird as mine.)

Why is it this way? Why do we so easily succumb to "tsundoku" (a Japanese word for the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed)?

It's because we know how books can make us feel. And it's pretty good.

In college, my girlfriend dumped me. I took it hard. But you know who picked me up? Kahlil Gibran and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with their books The Prophet and Flow.

In the Big Apple, New York City, the epicenter of FOMO, I found answers to my anxiety while reading page 301 of Antifragility when I encountered the concept of via negativa. A month later, I actually applied the concept by participating in Ramadan (for non-religious reasons), and I came away more resilient to worldly stressors.

Books have the power to profoundly change us. And yet, reading books seems harder than ever.

Reading needs a reset.

For many aspiring readers of non-fiction, it's become a badge of honor to showcase how many books you've read. On the surface, that's great. But it prizes the wrong goal. So let's start by getting something straight...

The goal is not to read the book.

It's to understand what the author is trying to say.

This tiny difference leads to massively different outcomes. It's the difference between reading a book, and working it. But first, let's cover the major mistakes too many of us make when reading.

Mistakes when reading

Mistake #1: Reading one-way

One of the biggest mistakes readers make is not knowing why they read in the first place. People assume that all books should be read from the first page to the last page in an unbroken sequence. It's no wonder they lose steam and abandon books:

It became a chore!

But it doesn't have to be. You don't have to be a one-way reader. If you know How to Work a Book, you'll be surprised at how relieving, fun, and fulfilling it is to let go of the limiting belief of one-way reading.

Mistake #2: Treating fiction the same as non-fiction

Fiction should be read linearly while non-fiction benefits from non-linear reading. Fiction should be savored for its own sake, not analyzed and reduced until every last drop of magic evaporates. Non-fiction is usually meant to be understood and analyzed. It's like they say in Ghostbusters: "Don't cross the streams."

Don't turn fiction reading into a form of productivity. It's not good for the soul.

Mistake #3: Thinking you need a rigid note-taking workflow

If you are convinced you need to highlight the highlights of your highlights BEFORE you actually wrestle with the material—you are making a big mistake.

It's okay to highlight, but it's better to comment, and it's best to...

...engage with the author.

Engaging with ideas is messy and often unpredictable. But that's where the electricity comes from! Once you know how best to engage with the author—by working a book—your reading will never be the same.

Reading needs a reset

For non-fiction books, reading needs a reset. So how should we think about reading? With the following:

  • Better paradigms for reading
  • Practical goals for reading
  • Profound goals for reading
  • Wiser permissions while reading
  • Better priorities while reading

Let's go through each.

Paradigms for Reading

When you approach a non-fiction book, how should you think about reading it?

1) Learning is non-linear

A book is a treasure map not a prison sentence. You are free to bounce around.

  • Bouncing around allows a zoomed out, a big picture view.
  • Bouncing around allows you to prioritize early and re-prioritize often.
  • Bouncing around keeps things interesting. It's how you get back into Flow.
2) Books are for thinking, not reading

Finishing a book means nothing and is a harmful goal. It doesn't matter if you've read 100 books in the last year.

What matters is what the book got you to think!

A book is only static when you aren't reading it. Once you start reading, a book becomes a tool for thought 🛠 because it allows conversations with the author, where you can lean forward and interact with their thoughts. This is priceless.

3) Context is king

The faster and better you build context, the more robust and enjoyable your understanding of every page you read.

  • Context allows you to relate the new to the known.
  • Context allows you to intuit patterns and make insights.

Practical Goals of Reading

When you pick up a non-fiction book, what are you even trying to do? Boiling down answers from hundreds of surveys, it becomes crystal clear that non-fiction reading has three simple goals:

  • To learn: I want to be able to learn—and learn better.
  • To remember: I want to be able to remember what I learn.
  • To apply: I want to be able to apply what I learn

Profound Goals of Reading

Beyond the practical goals to learn, remember, and apply; there is a more profound reason we read. Here is my best attempt to express it. I encourage you to adopt it or rewrite it in your own words. The meta goal of reading non-fiction is...

To understand the content well enough that it enriches the mind and empowers the person—both in the moment and in the years to follow.

Emergent Permissions List for Books

Sometimes, well actually, oftentimes we just need someone to let us know it's okay not to do something. In the LYT Workshop, we often refer to our "Permissions List" for PKM, but the value of this list applies to other areas of life—including how we read books.

Here are some book-reading permissions for you. Which ones resonate with you? Which permissions of yours might you want to add to this list?

  • It's okay not to read that book
  • It's okay not to finish that book
  • It's okay not to read in order
  • It's okay not to have tons of metadata
  • It's okay to add your own permissions to this list 👇

With these 3 paradigms in mind, we can prioritize our actions into 3 decrees...

Three Priorities for Reading

For reading non-fiction, here are three priorities you can give yourself to stay on the right track.

1) Build context

Optimize for context-building and your learning, remembering and applying of the ideas in the books you read will skyrocket.

2) Engage with the author

If the meta goal is to enrich and empower yourself, don't be a passive, disengaged reader. Be a reader who questions, who connects the dots, who laughs, who argues. Be an active part of the conversation. When you do, you'll double-down on learning, remembering, and applying—often creating—from the material you encounter.

3) Nurture your enthusiasm

What is fun will get done. When you hit a wall of text or the author take the conversation in a direction that feels like a chore (or just too challenging at the moment), learn to hijack your novelty bias by bouncing around to a section that sparks (the index is a secret weapon for this).

This is how you work a book: nurturing your natural enthusiasm in the material.


When you "work a book" with the right paradigms and priorities, you'll be surprised at how relieving, fun, and fulfilling it is.

Books are for thinking, not reading.

But here's the thing: When you're thinking about what you're reading, the reading takes care of itself.

Learn more about How to Work a Book.

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