How to read more books
An ever-growing list of tips that help me read more books.
Published on 23 December 2012
“You can’t learn everything from books”, people say. It’s nothing but an excuse not to read books. It’s a straw man argument, because no-one has ever claimed that you can. Or, “knowledge from experience can’t be taught in a book”. Even though that’s true, there are many people out there with years of experiences that you will never have. Some of them are very good at sharing at least some of that gained knowledge through writing. Books broaden your horizon, and deepen your insight.
With that out of the way, here are some of the tips that help me to read more books.
If reading makes you tired, gives you headaches, or is generally uncomfortable, you may need glasses.
When people tell me they don’t have time to read books, I always ask if they have time to watch tv. You don’t have to stop entirely, but only watch things that you consciously choose to watch.
Newspapers and magazines compete by getting fatter year after year, with declining quality as the result. Everything you read will be outdated tomorrow anyway. And let’s be honest: first you read the funnies, then the headers, then some celebrity news. Do you really need a newspaper anymore?
"Never read anything that isn't worth reading." — Gerald M. Weinberg
Or get two, or three. They’re cheap, small, and light. They carry thousands of books. They’re a pleasure to read, because they don’t blast bright light at you like iPads, monitors, and TV’s. Rid yourself of the romantic idea that books must be touchable, sniffable, paper objects. They’re just dead trees collecting dust in your living room, and you’ll be really sorry when you move to a new house and have to carry them down four flights of stairs. The content is what matters.
Kindle has apps for every device, and syncs your progress. When I’m standing in line in the supermarket, I read a couple of pages on my phone. I read in bed, in the bathroom, on lunch breaks, in transit, and when I’m early for a meeting.
I read when I’m too tired to read. Obviously, some of it gets lost, and I often need to reread the last couple of pages the next day. I do it because I feel that even reading only a little bit, keeps the habit alive. That’s also why I try to make sure I always have my next book lined up. Some e-book stores give you the first chapter for free, which is great way to find out if a book is worth reading.
Like many things, the more you read, the easier it gets. Even if it’s hard in the beginning, if you read daily, you’ll find that it gets easier, that you learn new concepts faster, that your brain gets more adapted to obtaining and processing information.
Keep track of what you’ve read, on sites like Kindle Reading List, or GoodReads. You can share your list, follow others, turn it into a game. It’s very rewarding to watch your reading list grow, realizing that all that knowledge is now in your head as well and makes you better at what you do.
(Update September 10, 2013:)
Nassim N. Taleb spent years reading 30-60 hours a week:
"The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether (...) The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading."
If you have a backlog of books you want to read, you can start with an easy or short one and build your way up. A finished book is a small victory that boosts your confidence, and prepares you for tougher tomes.
I’d never given audiobooks much thought, but the last few months I’ve been driving a lot, so I wanted to spend the time well. I finished my first two audiobooks – easy and short ones to begin with. I find that I’m more relaxed and focused when driving with the gentle voice of a good narrator, than with blaring radio.
(Update December 22, 2013:)
In an ideal world, you’d read (technical) books just in time, precisely before you need the information. But you can’t plan learning like that. You don’t know how much time you’ll need to read it, let alone to have it sink in. When you need information to finish a task you’re working on, a book is often not the right choice.
A better approach is to read a book long before you might need it. Learning takes time, so giving your brain ample time to process the new ideas, will give you a much better understanding. When the time comes to use the knowledge, a quick refresher will be all you need to reactivate it in your brain.
Jurgen Appelo recommends not to set a target amount of books to read. Targets lead to sub-optimisation. And how would you know what amount is ‘just right’? Focus on removing waste (he cites watching TV and drinking in bars), and on making options (have a backlog and always bring reading material).
(Update June 24, 2014:)
I’ve always felt walking was good for thinking and getting the creative juices flowing – back when I was a film music composer, that’s how I came up with my best melodies. For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying something new: every morning, I take the same 45 minute walk, while reading on my Kindle. I’m taking small farmers’ roads between the fields, so there’s no traffic and it’s safe. It’s good for your health, so it’s a double win. And if reading on the couch makes you drowsy, walking is the perfect remedy.
@tvlooy uses the Pomodoro technique: set an alarm, read for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break away from the book or screen, repeat ad lib, with the same or a different book. For the full Pomodoro experience, keep track of the finished (uninterrupted) reading sessions, and set goals.
(Update June 30, 2014:)
Although I’m sure some are valuable, don’t read books written about interesting people. Read books written by interesting people.
“This book was based on a popular article in the New York Times”? Dead give away: one idea, lots of air. “The Three Secrets to…”, “Five steps to…”: It’s pretty likely that the book can be explained in a just a few paragraphs. Sometimes, a helpful Amazon customer review will in fact summarize the whole book for you. Read that instead.
(Update July 22, 2014:)
"Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day."
(Update Feb 10, 2015:)
I don’t know how much Gerald M. Weinberg reads, but he has written over 50 books. From “Weinberg on Writing”, I’m quoting a tip on reading nonfiction:
"My own way (...) is to riffle the pages, scanning from back to front for something interesting that catches my eye, usually a picture or diagram of some sort. I start reading from there and continue until I lose interest. The I riffle again and repeat the process."
Also from “Weinberg on Writing”, similar to Taleb’s advice:
"If you decide that it's not worth finishing, do you stop, or do you drag yourself through it? If you stop, do you *really* stop, or do you leave the book partly finished, as a nagging chore in the back of your mind?"
Just remember that finishing a bad book is a waste of time and motivation. On the other hand, a great book is a window to a world you could never have found on your own. You still need to get out the door and discover that world. But that, dear reader, is out of reach for any book, and for this blog post.
(Update March 26, 2016:)
If you read a book you really want to (or need to) understand, but you’re struggling, it may seem tempting but drudging to re-read it. Find a different book on the same topic instead. Often the different point of view helps you grasp the original book.
(Update February 12, 2021:)
My friend Sigert went to music school at age 15, and didn’t learn much math or science there. Ten years later he found his passion after designing a small radio studio for the university. He wanted to become a freelance radio & music recording studio designer/advisor, but he knew he needed to get a lot better at acoustics than only relying on what his ears told him.
Sigert started reading what was essentially the bible of acoustics theory. As soon as he didn’t understand something (which happened at page 2 or so), he stopped and found a book to explain it. He worked his way back, from acoustics to waves to general physics to basic math. Then he moved forward again. By the time he got to the acoustics bible, not only was it a fast and easy read, but he was already helping clients, which he attracted through his blog on designing studios.