Quickstart guide: how to efficiently read technical books

Author Davor Tvorić
Category Development
Date Oct 29, 2019
7 min read

Reading non-fiction, technical books should be an important activity for every developer and reading them efficiently is a skill that can be trained and acquired.

Have you ever wondered why you can’t retain focus on non-fiction books, or why some knowledge just dissipates after a period of time? In this blog, I’ll briefly explain why that happens, and then I’ll show you the steps I take to get as much knowledge out of technical books, as well as why it treat it as a project.

Why even bother with reading (technical) books?

First of all, I would like to explain my stand on reading non-fiction books. I’ve read numerous reasons from both types of developers – from those who don’t see the point in reading books, to those who read a couple of books every month.

Those who don’t read books often state that by the time a specific programming book comes out, the version of the software covered by the book becomes old. It’s also far easier to find resources on the Internet and, since you’re developing, you might as well use your computer for all of those things. When you’re Googling for something, there are many sources you can get your results from. You can’t get that from a book.

I partially agree with some of the mentioned points – I don’t think that we should observe things from such an objective standpoint, but rather realistically think about them. Non-fiction books should not be the only source of learning. They should complement the resources from the Internet, as well. If a new version of a software is released, you can try to assess if it makes sense to learn about the previous version. If it doesn’t, just skip that book. There’s no point in wasting time on something that you can’t actually utilize. You probably don’t do anything before you first think about it, so why should you read a book just because someone told you to?

Rick & Morty - don't be sheep gif

From my standpoint, knowledge from most books can be categorized. For example, timeless technical books that were written by authors with a lot of experience in the field can help you learn about a topic with great detail. Ideas contained in them will prove invaluable for your career, and not just the task at hand.

What you get out of them really depends on the topics and the books themselves, but also on what you’re actually expecting to learn from them.

Technical books and online material should complement each other

As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s wise to use any learning source that is available to you. Those can be online tutorials, videos, articles, mailing lists, books and many more.

Anything that is of good quality, despite the format, should be considered.

I don’t think anything should be excluded just because there is a lot of material. Some video courses may take a long time to finish, but you do it in small chunks at the time. It’s exactly the same with books.

How to decide which books should you read?

It’s a common issue that we lack time to do all of the things we want to do in our lives. That’s the reason we try to follow some sort of a schedule to keep up with everything. The schedule we come up with probably devotes a period of time to learning. If that time is not spent efficiently, we might feel that we’ve wasted time and that we could’ve done more. So, before efficiently reading a book, we must efficiently choose which book we will commit ourselves to.

Belle Library Books gif

Here a couple of aspects you need to keep in mind when you’re choosing the right book:

  1. Before deciding on a book, the most important thing is that you’re interested in the topic it covers.
  2. Depending on the complexity of the book, you might need some prior knowledge – if a book deals with advanced theory, you could get overwhelmed with terms and procedures you don’t quite understand.
  3. If a book is complex, it’s a better idea to learn about the topic somewhere else and then revise if the book is still worth reading.
  4. After you’ve chosen a book, make sure you check the table of contents and see if the book deals with the matter in a way that enables you to gain knowledge from it.

By following and repeating these steps, you will confirm that your time will not be wasted.

How do I read non-fiction, technical books?

I try to read as much as I can. When I’m not reading a technical book, I always have other books that I can relax and read for fun, as opposed to work-related technical books. But the process differs between technical books and fiction.

Reading fiction is usually much faster and simpler. I still Google for terms I’m not familiar with, but that’s about it.

When I read technical books, I treat it like a project. I designate a certain amount of time for that, remove any distractions and fully focus on the task at hand. The most important thing for me is keeping notes. I have noticed that I retain more knowledge if I involve myself in other ways besides reading. And I seriously write anything in there – if I had some questions, some ideas to improve my current projects, mental maps or pieces of code…

It’s important that you don’t just copy the material from the book, but try to rephrase it and really think about it. This may take some more time to do properly, but it’s worth the effort. The other technique I use when reading technical books is the pomodoro technique. Because I can easily lose track of time and start losing my focus, the pomodoro technique helps me a great deal here. Just having a light break can do a lot for you!

Reading technical books - writing down notes in a notebook

And as a last point, I might give up a technical book if I no longer see the point in reading it. If it doesn’t provide the knowledge I expected or it seems to repeat itself, I don’t feel ashamed that I lose motivation to finish it. That just means that I can find a new book that will do the opposite for me.

Does this really help?

It really does. At least for me. I’ve tried reading books with and without taking notes, and I can see a visible difference. I have an easier time remembering information because I didn’t just passively read the text. It might have been a more interesting book, but I doubt that.

The fact that you prepare for reading and keep notes that represent your thoughts at the time is irreplaceable. You see, even just rereading your notes might spark some new ideas in your mind.

What the actual reading process looks like?

I am currently reading The Pragmatic Programmer. I have designated an hour after work for reading this book. As I said, I remove any distractions that might occur in this period. Therefore, I put my phone somewhere else and make some tea beforehand. The only “distraction” that I allow myself is some quiet music. I can work with music in the background and I won’t lose my concentration because of that.

Reading technical books - macbook, notebook, cofffee and pens on a table

I’ve heard and read a lot about The Pragmatic Programmer, but I’ll still look at the table of contents and see if there are any specific chapters that interest me.

Well, this doesn’t look too helpful. I can get a glimpse of what will happen in some chapters, but I don’t have any concrete questions. I will continue with the book because I really am interested in the topic.

Now, this is the time I start my pomodoro timer. I don’t have an app, I just use the first thing I can find on the Internet. The default 25/5 setting works fine for me, so I don’t change it. In these 25 minutes, I don’t worry about my reading speed. I read at my own pace and take as long as I need to thoroughly understand the material. This is especially true when I run into a code example.

During this period, I will take any notes I deem necessary. I’ve tried writing shorter notes in the past, so I save a bit of time, but after a while I don’t even know what I meant to say with my notes. Longer sentences just work better for me. And so do drawings, mentals maps and other things I’ve mentioned. I don’t just read, I keep thinking about how this can be used and if I’m satisfied with the explanation it has to offer.

I don’t think I can offer any solid tips on what to write down besides the things you found interesting or you didn’t know at all. Even if it’s some basic stuff that I should already know. That’s why I write it down, after all. I also have my laptop beside me to – in case I need to Google the terms that I don’t understand. As a side note, I don’t write inside of my books because I like having clean books.

Reading technical books - book and a notebook with notes

I will repeat this process until I finish the book, or decide that it’s no longer worth to read it all the way through.

Finally, after I finish the book, I always go through all of my notes and try to offer new ideas I might have now. If a book was particularly interesting, I will probably read it again in some time to solidify my knowledge or learn something I missed the first time.

Most important things to take from this article

In this blog, I shared a lot my own opinions and experiences related to reading in general. The main point is that this process is always changing. I’ve tried some activities which didn’t work out, so I ditched them.

You should strive to find the things that help you, not hinder you. My process may not be ideal for everyone, but hopefully, you can pick up a thing here or there.

Here are a few things that most of us can agree upon:

  1. Find a book that’s interesting to you
  2. Decide what your goal is
  3. Take your time
  4. Split your reading time into shorter chunks
  5. Write meaningful notes
  6. Read actively
  7. Review your notes

Thanks for reading and if you’ve found something that you agree with, feel free to share the article!

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