Reading fast and a lot: I do and you can too

“How come you read so many books?”.

This question is posed to me all the time. And usually, I have the same answer — I shrug, smile and give a non-committal response. Now, I realize that’s not really helpful; so, I am going to lay bare some truths from my perspective.

I will address this topic in four different sections:

  • How do I read so many books?
  • Reading Fast?
  • How to Read?
  • And, What to read?

I do realize this article may sound condescending, patronizing, supercilious and, maybe, all of these things to some readers. That’s not my intent, though. I know that there are better, faster readers out there who can draw more insightful connections and conclusions than I can (GoodReads is the great leveller). But, this is my attempt to distil my experience and learning in a form which, hopefully, helps you (the reader) and others.

How do I read so many books?

To put things in perspective, I read 302 books in 2015, 267 books in 2016 and would have read about 138 books in 2017 by the time this article is published (sometime around end of June 2017). If we assume that the average book took at least a couple of hours to read, then that works out to around 600 hours spent in 2015, 520 hours in 2016 and 276 hours in 2017. That is a lot of time to spend on a single activity. How is this possible? Well, the answer is simple.

I love reading.

Reading is my default activity. When I am eating, I read. When I am standing in a queue, I read. When I don’t have anything to do, I read. When I go to bed, I read. These reading sessions can range from a minute to marathon periods of multiple hours. In fact, the short bursts far outweigh the marathon sessions nowadays due to, well, real life. But, these short bursts actually add up to a lot of reading time.

What I don’t do which others do is watch TV, browse aimlessly and indulge in mind numbing chat sessions. I think the stats for watching TV are something like 10 hours per week per person. Imagine if you could actually take away at least 10% of that time to read something. In a year, that adds up to around 50 hours or about 25 books. (And of course, I don’t read while driving).

A variant of the question which sparked this article is “how do you read so fast?”. This is a nice segue to the next section.

Reading Fast?

Yes, I read pretty fast and this definitely helps with the volume of books I consume. How do I read fast? I did not attend any speed reading course or do not skim through books. The real answer is

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Some people have a mistaken notion that reading is something they possibly couldn’t do. If you are one of them or you know someone like that, please disabuse them of this idea. Reading is a skill like any other. The more you practice it properly, the better you get at it.

I have been reading since I have been a toddler. So, obviously, due to the amount of reading I have done, I have become fast at it. There is no magic bullet or some secret of the force. It is the result of sheer hard work and dedication.

Now, reading fast does not mean skimming through the contents. As you read more and more, you start to read phrases and sentences. When we were in primary school, we used to read letter by letter. As we became adults, we started to read word by word. The next logical evolution is to read phrases and sentences. And this is the main driver behind being able to read fast while comprehending the text.

This skill is something that can be gained at any age. If you start reading now and stick to it diligently, you will find that reading becomes easier and your speed increases. I have not even included the other benefits of reading; I will come to that later.

How to read?

Now, how do you read? Most people in my circle, unfortunately, read books (even fiction) like how they studied text books in school. This is a very poor way of reading since it converts the pleasure of reading into a mind-numbing drudgery. Leaving aside the gems, most books revolve around one or two concepts. Understand them and know when you must come back to the book. This is true, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction.

Every book will have something unique to say in a unique way. Learn to identify the uniqueness. For example: I read Jeffrey Archer’s “Kane and Abel” some 20 years back. Do I remember the broad story line? Yes. Do I remember each and everything Jeffrey Archer wrote in it? No. But, I do know that if I want to read a good racy thriller based on Murdoch, this is the book to go back to. And I also remember enjoying Archer’s writing. That is all that needs to be carried away. You need to enjoy the characters, dialogues, plot, world building, etc. in the moment. You don’t have to take away everything that happens in the book. Anything that needs to be taken away will stick in your mind automatically.

This is the one thing I want to communicate from this article.

Enjoy a book in the moment of reading.

That warm after glow from reading a great book will come automatically. If the book was good enough to keep you occupied, you will be thinking about it. There is nothing more you need to do.

Ok. Now that I have convinced you that reading is sexy and fun, how do you get better at it?

How to get better at reading?

Before I pick a book for reading, (in fact before it comes into my reading list itself), I check the ratings of the book. I rarely go through the reviews since I do not want to be biased but I might do so at times when what I have heard does not match with its rating. Most of this activity is through GoodReads. I am also very conscious of the subject matter (fiction vs nonfiction, fantasy vs sci-fi vs thrillers, humanities vs the sciences etc.) since I do not want to read multiple books on the same topics consecutively. This is an excellent way to avoid reading fatigue. It also acts like smelling coffee beans when testing perfumes, because the individual merits of books tend to stick in your mind if the subject matter is different.

The first action I take before reading a book, is to scan the Table of Contents to understand the structure of the book. Sometimes, I do this after reading the preface and introduction. This helps me in two ways. The first is that it crystallizes the logical progression of ideas in the book in my mind. The second way it helps me, is in pacing myself.

I, usually, read a book at least twice. Earlier, I was doing it for fiction but nowadays I reserve this exclusively for non-fiction and exceptional fiction material. The first read is done to understand what the author is trying to convey and to identify key points in the text. I mark key sentences and paragraphs. I, then, spend some time understanding what was said and, in my second read, go through it in detail.

At the end of the second read, I either write down the synopsis or review the book. The process of distilling the information and presenting it in my own language helps me in understanding the book better. It is at this point that I usually rate the book and read the reviews that other people have written. This gives me different perspectives on the book and opens up new ways of thinking.

A great alternative to reading books is to listen to their audio versions. This is good especially if you have a long commute. And if you can back this up by reading the actual book, there is nothing that beats this experience.

Next Steps

Start reading. It doesn’t matter if its fiction or nonfiction. It does not matter if it is English, your mother tongue or any other language. It does not matter if it is a physical book or an eBook. It does not matter if it is related to your job or not. It does not matter if it’s a short story or a graphical novel.

What matters is that you pick a book you enjoy. And start reading. and continue.


Originally published at Digital Amrit.