Digesting difficult books with Holiday's reading method

September 06, 2017 — Published in Reading, Research

Blogger and book master Ryan Holiday wrote an article in which he describes his personal way of reading books. His method builds heavily on note-taking and is optimized for recording thoughts, associations and interesting quotes during reading. These notes can then be used for further research or as writing material. After stumbling upon Holiday’s blog post, I wanted to try this method for myself.

Using Holiday’s method for reading non-fiction

What better way to test Holiday’s method for reading books by testing it out on one of his own? So I went to the local bookstore and obtained a copy of “The Obstacle is the Way”, a book about the philosophy of the Stoics. Then I followed the method as described in Holiday’s blog post. Here are my experiences.

  • Reading a summary and reviews before you read the book helps with figuring out the structure of the book. This meant I had more energy left for taking in the actual contents of the books.
  • The whole note-taking-and-highlighting made it easier for me to concentrate on the book and stick with reading. I definitely got less distracted when I was reading with a highlighter in my hand. I also noticed that I was reading slower, but I finished the book as a whole faster.
  • I think I was taking in more of the content since I was hyper-aware of the structure of the text. This definitely helped me decide which parts to highlight.
  • It is also really easy to write a short summary of the book afterwards, since all the important passages where highlighted already.
  • Revisiting my notes feels like using a shortcut to the best parts of the book. I can now ‘read’ this book within 10 minutes, which is awesome.

I chose not to copy all my highlights to little note cards, since I don’t have an immediate use for them. I can imagine that this might work great for research purposes, though.

In short: I really liked this method, especially for reading non-fiction. I might use this more often, especially when I need to read for research purposes, or when I want to write a review of the book.

Epilogue: my review of The Obstacle is the Way

After reading Holiday’s book, I must say I understand the reviewers who faulted the book for the writing style.

It is interesting that you can clearly find traces of Holiday’s research method in the book. The narrative leans heavily on quotes from famous people and other writers. Almost every paragraph follows the same structure: Holiday poses a statement and then backs it up with various quotes and anecdotes from literature/history. This can get repetitive quite fast. Some people might find it boring. I, being a big history nerd, was mostly amused by the various historical characters that Holiday uses to support his story. But, as Holiday himself says: “Read the classics.” The Obstacle is the Way is an entertaining book, but it mainly serves as a springboard to better and more original reading material.

I’m curious as to whether you, my dear readers, have tried this method and what your experiences were. Do you have a different method for reading dense material or difficult books?