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Surgical Reading: How to Read 12 Books at Once
How to efficiently get what you need out of reading, multiple books at a time.
Brian Tobal has one of the most unique and interesting reading processes I’ve ever encountered.
Surgical reading is a process I use when reading non-fiction books. I focus on locating and removing the most valuable pieces of information. This allows me to read many different books across a single topic at once.
There are a lot of hidden benefits to this approach. I can quickly get a sense of how interested I am in a book. When I’m not interested in a book I can drop it and move on to something else.
Second, I can view a topic from multiple perspectives and really understand the issues. Third, it transforms books into something more active and less passive.
Who I Am
Brian Tobal has worn a lot of hats in the education world. He's been an elementary school science teacher, a researcher and a founder.
I love startups. From a learning perspective, they allow you to fully immerse into new fields. This has informed my own personal approach to learning and therefore to reading.
So are you ready to give it a try? Go pull some book off the shelf that’s been sitting there for a while, hopefully one that you haven’t read.
Here’s a breakdown of how I go about reading a book.
The point of this process is to gain the ability to “map out’ any book in 15 minutes.
How to compound the value of reading a single book at a time.
Before I start reading a non-fiction book, I’ll take between 5-10 minutes and try to get a sense of what value it has to me and how it is structured.
Use your brain memory, a notecard, a Google Doc, or some fancy-pants note-taking system.
I start by giving the title and subtitle some thought. Authors spend a lot of time thinking of these.
For instance, take A Short History of the United States versus A People’s History of the United States.
The index is my first stop after the title. Armed with a guess of the book's point of view, I use the index to understand what topics we’re going to cover.
Look through the index, notice what topics are covered, and more importantly, at what depth. If an author is spending a good deal of pages on something, make a note of that topic.
Remember, what we’re trying to do with this process is answer two questions: what is this book about, and, am I interested in reading it?
I kind of feel like a book about animist cultures and Chuck Berry would be pretty interesting.
The Bible is full of interesting subtopics. Under “Bible,” we get some interesting subtopics:.
With “Source of Authority,” “Large-Scale Human Cooperation,” and “Power of shaping story,” it seems like the author is going to explore the Bible’s effect on maintaining social order.
In fact, Dataism isn’t a word I’ve ever seen before. I bet you there’s a good chance that’s the author’s own concept.
Any time something in the index interests me, I’ll write it down. I do this on a physical notecard or in a document. By the end of reading the index I’ll have all of the most interesting and relevant pieces of information.
I typically list page numbers when I plan on jumping to that topic. Also, page number ranges can give me a sense of how the book is laid out.
For Homo Deus, it looks like this author is trying to set up a new paradigm called Dataism. It might be related to scaling human cooperation.
Once I’m armed with a handy-dandy list of topics culled from the index, I compare my index map with the good old TOC.
The TOC shows the way the author wants you to understand the progression of the book. The index helps you fill in the types and level of details.
It looks like Harari takes a historical view of humanity as he leads us to what is coming next in his book. Harari takes a historical view of humanity as he leads us to what's coming next.
Do this for a few minutes. Build a rough map in your mind of the book.
If not, throw the notecard in the front pages somewhere (for future reference) and toss the book back on the shelf. Maybe, if you are interested in knowing more, spend an hour or two reading some of the sections that interest you. For instance,.
After I’ve contemplated the title, mapped out the book with the index and the table of contents, I typically skim the preface to see how the map that I created in my mind matches.
For instance, with Dataism and the Bible, I don't know which of these the author thinks is superior. This could be a book about evolving towards Dataism, or it could be more of.
The preface and index are indispensable to understanding what the book is about. Skimming is my friend.
There are a lot of books out there, and I don't have the time to get through them all. Forcing myself to trudge through a boring book can put my reading habit at risk.
The process can take 15 minutes or an hour. I no longer have the mental baggage of lugging around a huge list.
However, I typically pick up a book because I need to solve a problem, or I’m already interested in the topic. So, since there will be some useful knowledge nuggets within the chapters that I need, my goal now is to pull them.
So how do I get those useful knowledge nuggets?
For instance, from the index map above, do I really want to understand what the “biological poverty line” is? Or did some other topic seem more interesting?
I suggest following a topic over multiple chapters. Let curiosity and interest take the lead.
Writing in the margins and taking notes is also a huge part of this process for me. I like to draft points to myself.
Notations in a book allow you to track your thinking about the book over time. These little notes can serve the same purpose as commenting your code.
I continue to loop through pieces of the book from the index.
If I’m not interested enough to read it from cover to cover, I’ll export the “knowledge nuggets” that I did find useful, throw the note card into the book, and put it on the shelf.
This is how I break down a book to see how interested I am, and to help me locate the valuable pieces of the book to me. Often this is the end for most books. However, if I want to go a bit deeper I can either read it front to back.
If the book is really interesting I will just follow that interest to the exclusion of everything else. If you have a book you can’t put down, then it makes reading overall easier and more enjoyable.
The basic process is read, review, read, review. I do this to prime my memory with what I’ve learned in the past (maybe even just the day before).
One side benefit of a system like this is that it allows me to do a targeted review and get back up to speed on a book’s ideas very quickly. Also, if I’m reading multiple books at once, this process allows me to start knitting.
Instead, I combine each technique above, reading some of the books in the field front to back, and others more surgically, and putting it all into Readwise to reference/search. This allows me to simultaneously build out a large reference catalog in Readwise and mentally knit together all.
To start reading multiple books, I recommend using this technique across all of them, letting the indexes guide you. Write notes, highlight words, or draw tiny cats everywhere.
I use the natural gravitation toward that one book I’m interested in to catapult me into the topic. Once I’ve tired of that book for the day, I’m mentally primed to continue delving into the topic with other books in the pile.
Regardless of how I’m reading, this process has changed my relationship to my library. It’s gone from something that I use to store books to something that I continually interact with.