As you may have noticed, it's nearly impossible to store all the contents of a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, into your mind. Most of us read in a way that is mentally comfortable; a good speed that allows us to follow what the writer is saying without contemplation of the hidden subtleties that lie between the lines. Some of us write notes along the margins, highlight relatable phrases, and perhaps even bookmark sections with sticky notes. But in order to let a book's contents become an addition to our minds, we must "chew slower" to let the book digest better into our being.
While reading Farnam Street, one of the many sources for my writing inspiration, I came across an article titled, "How to Read A Book". In it the author outlines the main premises behind Mortimer Adler and Charles Doren's book.
Essentially, there are four types of reading:
Elementary reading is reading in the most primitive sense. Akin to reading at a grade-school level.
Inspectional reading can either be skimming sections of a book (i.e. first few pages, random pages, table of contents, preface, etc) or reading without halting at questions you may have or concepts you may not understand. This is essentially reading to get the gist of what a book is about without delving below the surface. Only basic understanding, if any, is extracted from the latter form of inspection, and it's what most people do. This works well for fiction books where the only goal is to relax and forget about the world, but when you're working with a non-fiction book, or worse, a self-help piece, you will gain next to no value if following this reading technique.
Analytical reading is analogous to wine tasting, whereby you first smell the wine, and then you let the drink flow into your mouth with the full knowledge that you will first experience the wine, feel the thickness and its body, and contemplate on whether it meets your expectations. Once satisfied with what you've tasted, you allow yourself to swallow the beverage. In terms of literature, this means slowing down, thinking about the writer's intentions, and trying to outline the major parts of the book in a succinct manner.
Syntopical reading is the most expansive of all four types of reading, and perhaps the most rewarding. Here lies the true way to read a self-improvement book. With this methodology we must write down questions we would have about the author's theories and find alternative responses to what one book has laid out by reading other books of the same subject. Recall that an author is a human just like you and I. Hence, he is by no means perfect, and by the complexity of the world, there are many solutions to even the most focused of subjects. In the context self-help literature, you must actually be willing to stop and attempt the things that the author is doing. If you proceed without deep contemplation, and an attempt at internalizing the advice, then the author's instructions are in vain. You have to pretend as if the writer were lecturing you, and as any self-respecting teacher would expect, you should be writing down key concepts and be willing to try them out.
So next time you pick up a self-improvement book. Expect a hard read, irregardless of whether the book is small, if you expect to gain results from the advice that lies within.