Developing a "non-reading" practice

As Mortimer Adler describes in How to Read A Book, there are in fact many types — modes, mindsets, practices — of reading!

And as Pierre Bayard makes clear in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, there similarly exist many types of not reading!

The idea of learning from books without, you know, necessarily reading them all the way through in the sense we usually think of when we talk about reading, is a big influence on this very site. The “antilibrary” as a concept I find powerful largely for how it makes me aware of a wide variety of books and consider how I can examine and learn from far more books than I can ever possibly get through.

How to actually do this? In part, it requires admitting to yourself you can’t read every great book that catches your eye, and also that you should probably stop reading mediocre books part-way through (a hard one for me, a die-hard completionist). It also means probably keeping a list (or lists) of books, perhaps thinking about taking notes on all kinds of books, generally just looking at and talking about them a lot, etc.

Do you have any particular ways of “non-reading” that you’ve found helpful? Mental strategies? Tools for triage? Note-taking rituals? Anything that helps you cope with the constant cascade of certifiably curiosity-compelling codices?


Ha, I learned how to do this in college and it’s the one skill that I use most often professionally. If a book is well-developed you can take pretty much everything you need to know from the front (and maybe also back) covers. You can get a fuller picture by reading the acknowledgements (which tells you a scary amount about where the author is coming from) and table of contents. Then maybe the intro and conclusion. If you need to be able to really know what you’re talking about, you can read the first chapter.

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On getting the gist of thesis: For trendy non-fiction, you can usually get a pretty good outline of the book by searching for author interviews and talks on YouTube or podcasts. Example: I never read Michael Pollen’s “How to Change Your Mind” but I heard him on so many podcasts that when I skimmed the physical book recently I realized I recognized all the ideas almost chapter for chapter. +1 @ellyblue many of these books say the important things they’re trying to say in the intro and conclusion.

I also depend on thoughtful professional synthesizers like Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, and book reviews from The New Yorker, NYT Book Review, Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, etc. Incidentally, if anyone has more book review sources from less elitist/old guard-y institutions, I’d love to hear about them!


Great outline for quickly yet systematically glossing a book! I always try to read cover description and TOC; acknowledgements seems like an underrated source for quickly learning more about the context.

I also really like skimming reviews on Amazon / Goodreads to get a broad sense of others’ top takeaways and impressions. Also like the “look inside” feature on Amazon both for reading a few pages of the intro, and getting a sense of overall layout / structure.

Of course plenty of older books just don’t have much of a web presence, whether on Amazon or reviews in general…but that’s a big part of what makes used bookstores so fun, coming across things you’d simply never find or be able to learn about otherwise!

In fact I do! This one is the first that comes to mind —

A selectively comprehensive, objectively opinionated survey of books old and new, trying to meet all your book review, preview, and information needs.

So much good stuff here…both rigorous, and highly opinionated. And a LOT of reviews! As far as I can tell it’s one guy’s labor of love, many years in the making. Good inspiration for me as I work on this site :slight_smile:

I really like the best / top rated section. All kinds of interesting books, many I don’t know anything about. I see they some other great lists (which I have yet to thoroughly peruse!) on most obscure, most unusual, and most underappreciated books that have been reviewed on the site.

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This is interesting — Scribd, a reading subscription platform, has a new feature called “Snapshots” which are basically editor-produced summaries that you can read in 10-15 minutes to preview a book.

Some explanation here and current selection on the site here.

Seems they have “Snapshots” for ~500 books to start. While the selection looks better than similar-ish services I’ve seen (thinking of like old school “executive summary” business focused ones) it does, as you’d expect, seem heavy on newer, popular, nonfiction books.

There are plenty of similar things, of which Blinkist seems to be the market leader, but this one seems interesting because it’s integrated with an actual book subscription service so you could read the summary and if you like it then also go read the whole book.

A couple reasons I’m skeptical / ambivalent about this kind of thing:

  • It feels like it could be a replacement for actually developing the skill of how to skim a book and suss out the important bits yourself, a la the “levels of reading” described in How to Read A Book
  • It also may encourage a kind of reading-as-productivity-hack mentality that can be at odds with actually savoring and enjoying books…I do think quick superficial reading has its place but can be taken to the extreme, and may bias readers toward what’s easy rather than what’s good

What do y’all think, are book summary services good? bad? depends on context?

I know for Kindle purchases Amazon usually has a “send a free sample” option to let you read the first chapter or so. I don’t use that personally…does anyone find that helpful? Seems different than the whole-book summary thing, but similar purpose I guess!

I don’t dislike the concept in general, but personally I prefer a really good blog post where you get the sense of a human personality digesting a book, with some interpretation, analysis, etc. rather than a dry churned out summary.