FAQ: How do you read so many books?

I’ve had a number of people comment on my slightly ridiculous rate of book consumption recently (you may have noticed if you follow the notebook blog that I read multiple nonfiction books per week), and ask how I do it.

Well, it’s very simple (which is not the same as easy):

  1. I read very fast.
  2. I spend a lot of time reading.
  3. I only read good books.

Much of this happened somewhat organically, so I can’t necessarily offer great advice on how to do the same, but I’ll try to share some things that have worked for me.

Read Very Fast

This may seem obvious. Yes, the secret to reading a lot is to be fast at reading, that is true for all the obvious reasons. The less obvious way that this is helpful is that it makes reading cheap – you can experiment around it, you can use it to test things, and you have a fast feedback loop.

The first one I can’t offer that much advice on. I just read this way, it happened naturally.

Some friends built The Reading Gym for testing your reading speed and learning to improve it. I don’t know how well it works – when I tried it it broke because it didn’t expect an initial test result of more than 900 words per minute.

I’ve heard good things about Break Through Rapid Reading, but not strongly enough or from people I know well enough that this is anything more than a “Here’s a thing you can try if you want” suggestion.

A trick that it occurs to me might work well is to learn to do reading where you’re not actually trying to read the text, only asking questions about it – start with some written material and a question you want to answer about it, and try to answer that question in less time than it would take you to read the whole thing. You could ask semantic questions (who is mentioned in this article?) or even purely syntactic ones (find all occurrences of this word in this article). 

The reason I suggest this is that this sort of nonlinear scanning reading seems to be the main key to how I speed read, and I believe is how people do it in general. It also has the nice property of being a single skill that you can focus on in isolation.

The main advice I’d be willing to definitively offer here is that whatever your reading speed is, make sure you have a good estimate of it and how that plays out in practice. Being able to predict how long a book will take you to read is very helpful.

Spend a lot of time reading

Also fairly obvious I think. If you read more then you will read more.

There are a couple of things I have found help with getting myself to do this:

  1. Physical books over ebooks. I like physical books, and they create more of a pressure on me to read them. I try to make sure I am carrying at least one, sometimes two, physical books with me at all times.
  2. Squeeze reading in between other things, e.g. I get in a good hour or two of reading per day from commuting.
  3. Try to use reading as a default downtime activity, in preference to other things like watching TV, checking Twitter, etc.
  4. The trick of putting the bookmark at the beginning of the next chapter that I mentioned in Local Goal Setting is good for keeping me reading without getting side tracked.
  5. Making a conscious effort to return to a book if I ever put it down mid chapter.

Of course the real things that allow me to spend a lot of time reading are:

  1. I have tolerably good mental and physical health, or at least it’s all bad in ways that don’t stop me processing information.
  2. I have no dependents.
  3. I don’t have a real job and can spend days where I wouldn’t otherwise be very productive due to illness, bad sleep, etc. reading instead and catch up the time later.

I can’t really offer advice on how to replicate that experience.

Only read good books

This section is the one where I probably have the most useful advice, as it’s instrumental in how I’ve gone from reading about one non-fiction book a month to reading about three per week.

The number of books available to you read is vastly greater than your capacity to read them, even if you read fast and extensively. I recommend solving this by not reading the very large percentage of those books that are bad and otherwise not worth your time.

Saying I only read good books is a bit disingenuous. It feels true, but it requires rather specific interpretations of the words “good” and “read”. A more accurate explanation would be that I am engaged in a constant process of evaluation of whether a book is still worth my time, and if it is not then I stop reading it.

I use roughly the following evaluation criteria:

  1. Am I going to get something valuable out of reading (or continuing to read) this book? Useful insight, enjoyment, and having a book you would recommend to others are all examples of something valuable here.
  2. How much effort is finishing this book likely to be?

If the effort is greater than the reward, it’s time to stop reading, and it’s probably time to get rid of the book (see the next section).

This sometimes involves a bit of “pregaming” reading where I’m not exactly reading it but I read some of it (say the introduction) and maybe flip through the book a bit. Useful questions to ask at this point are whether it’s well written and whether there’s something in it that you’re looking forward to.

It’s also worth doing a page count. Long books are higher effort, so require a higher standard of proof of value.

I use roughly the following rules of thumb:

  • If the book is under a hundred pages I’m probably just going to read it. I can do that in two hours, no problem. I can always stop if I hate it.
  • If the book is between one and two hundred pages it’s worth spending a bit of time determining if it’s worthwhile, especially if it’s not that well written.
  • If the book is more than three hundred pages I am very unlikely to read it if it’s badly written. If it’s well written then I hold it to a higher standard of value but am still willing to read it.
  • If the book is more than five hundred pages then I basically want someone signing a promise in blood that it’s worth my time to read it.

Note that four hundred pages is not an especially long book. It could be argued that two hundred pages is an unusually short book, and one hundred pages is a very slim volume indeed.

There is a very simple reason for this discrepancy: Most people writing books are full of themselves and do not respect your time as a reader. Granted that some long books are long because of the amount they pack in, but generally speaking I find that you need to be doing a lot with your book to justify even three hundred pages, and you should probably be doing less with it.

(Note that I do not count reference books and other books that are not intended to be read cover to cover in this).

 In terms of judging value, the following questions I think are useful to ask:

  1. Am I enjoying this book? It can still be worth reading if the answer is no, but if the answer is yes then by all means keep reading it.
  2. Who would I recommend this book to? If the answer is “nobody” then it’s probably not that useful.
  3. How will my life change as a result of reading this book?
  4. What new thing will I understand as a result of reading this book?

Answering these questions can help you understand the value you’re getting out of the book, and from there you can decide whether it’s worth the effort.

Some good rules of thumb on the process:

  1. You should be able to determine within five minutes if it’s worth reading the first fifty or so pages.
  2. You should know within a chapter or two (say 50ish pages) if it’s worth reading the rest of the book.
  3. If you get through the first half of the book and you don’t feel your time has been well spent so far, it’s unlikely to be worth reading the rest of the book.

If a book fails to clear these thresholds, stop reading it.

As well as resulting in reading better books, I find this process helps a lot with the other two. A good book is much easier to spend a lot of time on than a bad one. If the book is not engaging you, you will find it very easy to remember other things you could be doing instead. It’s also easier to read quickly – if it is poorly written then you will struggle and read it more slowly as a result.

The important thing to remember with this part of the process is that you have no obligation to read a book. If a book is failing to be interesting or useful, why are you still reading it? There are better books you could be reading instead.

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