I've devoured a few books per week for several months now, and this hearty intellectual diet has taught me some things about how to read—specifically, how to read for better writing.
This is my process.
1. My selection of what to read involves reading book jackets and book reviews for any other authors who are considered similar to ones I already know I love. These breadcrumbs keep me on the trail of what I like, which tend to be works that blur the line between nonfiction, memoir, essay and poetry.
2. With particularly delightful works, I create an Evernote document for the book to copy down any passages, sentences or ideas I like. More often than not what I copy down is the length of a full sentence or paragraph, verbatim.
3. My criteria for which passages I copy down: ones that sound beautiful, express a moving idea with remarkable insight or lyricism, or that demonstrate a writing skill I am trying to study (like good use of self-referentiality; unusual metaphor; simplicity).
4. I try to read a book in as few sittings as possible so the train of my intellectual engagement with the work and the author's mind can be a continuous stream. I am looking for immersion. So I will stay with the book until I'm done if I can.
5. If I truly don't like the book, if something in me doesn't resonate or say "wow," I don't hesitate to slam it shut and return it to the library or bookshelf. Life's too short to read books that aren't for you.
6. I am a nitpicky and unsophisticated reader in that I don't bother with books I think I "should" read. I just gravitate towards the ones that mysteriously beckon so I can let my soft animal body love what it loves. I trust that my taste is guiding me down a reliable course of study and delight, and this never fails me. Sometimes I'll find that the books I gravitated towards a month ago are now distasteful and simplistic to me, not challenging enough or too much of the same. This lets me know my instincts are evolving and thus reliably progressing (hopefully???).
7. I love the books that challenge my wits and stretch my brain a little, even while delighting me with familiar tricks and topics. The whole aim of all this isn't leisure; it's learning.
8. Even if I want to and even if I have time to, I don't usually let myself read books back-to-back without pause, e.g. two books in a day. If I finish one book and would rather keep avoiding my writing by moving onto the next, I let my brain rest a little for the rest of the day so the previous book's nutrients can incubate and digest. I don't always follow this rule but I try. (Note: I'm not superhuman in my reading speed so much as inclined towards books that are short and fragmented and often quickly ingested. It would be a wholly different matter if my tastes leaned towards Proust or Franzen or something equally colossal.)
9. I keep a long list of books I want to read in Evernote. Every single time an author I love mentions their favorite authors or poets in an interview or article or essay, every time I find books that look interesting in the bookstore or library, I note it down by taking a photo (when lazy) or writing the name & author down in a list in my phone. This ensures that I always have something to move onto when I'm done with something I love. Even if I'm too voracious to ration the most promising volumes, I can keep the list expanding endlessly this way, since each newly discovered book or author unlocks doors to more.
10. After I'm done with a book (especially if I really liked it), I'll read several reviews of the book as I can to see what has been written about it in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Salon, people's personal blogs even. Though I'm a little attached to the idea of maintaining the purity of my own individual response to the work without letting others' opinions contaminate it, it helps to learn how people talk about books. This helps build my vocabulary for articulating my own thoughts and feelings about books, since often my initial reaction to a book is a swirl of tangled feelings and thoughts that are straining to find expression.
11. The book reviews also give me a context for what the cultural gatekeepers (I'm looking at you, Paris Review and New Yorker) consider "good" or "bad" literature. This isn't so I can adopt a more pretentious taste but so I can contextualize the current locus of the zeitgeist. I want to be able to understand what other people respond to and think of as "highbrow" or "lowbrow" or "trash" or "brilliant" so I can situate my own taste on these spectrums, which aids in my continued search for more books by equipping me with enough literacy to articulate my own taste.
12. I usually borrow books from the library or read them at the bookstore since my favorite local bookstore is also a cafe, this makes it easy to pick a book and stay there for a few hours drinking coffee. The reason I don't buy these books immediately is because 1) I'd go broke REAL fast if I bought as many books as I read and 2) I consider most books, even ones I like at the time, not worth owning.
Once in a while I will, after having already read the entire book, buy a copy because this lets me support my local bookstore (and goodness knows they need it) and because it lets me have something I love on my own bookshelf at home for study and a sort of strange book worship. I have one small bookshelf dedicated to only the books that have made me want to be a writer, and seeing them all together like that every day is a special reminder to myself of where I want to go and who I am indebted to.
So there you have it. (A hearty applause to the probably two people who bothered to read this list out of sheer love for me; you the real MVP). The reason I've developed such a process is because I care about these beautiful works and want to honor them; because I am on a mission to improve my writing pretty much forever; and because I am constantly plagued by the feeling of being behind on the whole skillful reading/writing thing. I am playing catchup, but with complete joy and gratitude for the journey.