My Reading Habits

How I manage to read 60 books a year without being a speed reader.

Since posting my 2014 books read list, (along with 2013, & 2012, etc.), several people have asked “how I manage to read so many books in the year.” I don’t have handy advice at the ready when they ask, but it’s gotten me thinking a bit about it, along with my larger reading habits. Here are some tidbits of insight into my reading habits, both for books and other things.

So here you go. Eight minutes of reading about reading. These are the tricks that work for me. Thanks to my boss Pedro for reminding me to finally write this.

ABR. Always Be Reading. This is huge. People assume I’m some master speed reader (see below) — I’m not. The single biggest way to read a lot of books is to always be reading. On your commute. Before bed. At lunch (oh, the joys of a lunch alone with a book). I still do my civic duty watching the requisite TV shows (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc) and seeing the important movies to be seen. (Never mind, you know, having a job or a family). It’s not about reading at the cost of doing something else, it’s about reading when you aren’t doing anything. You’d be amazed at how often you can sneak in a few pages. Baby napping? Read a page. Also, drunk subway reading is the best.

Set a goal. If you were to go back and look at my 2009 reading list, it has almost nothing on it. Maybe 2, maybe 3 books. I had, previously, set myself a goal of reading the entire issue of The Economist every week. That literally took up all of my time. While it was wonderful to be the scintillating life of a party talking about the wacky antics of Alberto Fujimori (that guy gave me endless talking points), I found something was missing. So I set a new goal: to read, on average, a book a week, or 52 a year. It doesn’t work out to exactly a book a week, but the goal keeps me on track.

Don’t try and read what you, or others, think you should read. This one is huge. Reading is a curious pastime. If you think about it, the relationship between the consumption of various entertainment mediums and your friends is kind of interesting. I believe each medium lands in a different place along a personal-social scale. That is, some of types media consumption are profoundly personal, while other types are more social. With the socialization of the web, we don’t often think about this. There’s always been some effort at socializing reading (think book clubs), but the web, Twitter and, especially, Goodreads, have furthered this. Yet at the core, I believe reading is a more personal activity than, say, listening to music, watching TV or going to movies. If each of my friends put out a top ten list of their favorite movies or albums of the year, for example, I believe that with most friends I’d share several albums or movies. But when even very close friends post their year end reading lists, I find there’s often very little overlap. My good friend Rachel and I only share a couple books, while my friend Diana and I, for example, share only one, that she recommended to me. That’s okay. I still added several books from each of their lists to my reading list. My point is this: if I were to spend my time trying to read the books my friends, or the press, or the public, or Twitter wanted me to read, I’d not enjoy reading as much. Some types of books just don’t do it for me, no matter how much I should like them. If something is hugely important to me to read, I’ll slog through, but I’ll bookend it on either side with something I want to read.

It follows, then, that Guilty pleasures are totally okay. Fantasy, sci-fi, romance, whatever floats your boat, read away! Some of the works of great literature, today, were guilty pleasures in their day, and some of today’s guilty pleasures will become timeless classics. I believe, too, it’s better to be reading something rather than reading nothing.

However, Don’t be afraid to branch out. This is especially important if you’re still trying to get your reading habit going. It’s a lot like finding a career. We don’t always settle into what we think we should be, or wanted to be when we were young, because we have since been exposed to new experiences. Exposing yourself to new types of books increases the likelihood you’ll find something that captures your attention.

Don’t be afraid to quit a book, but do so sparingly. If some book isn’t doing it for you, it’s okay to quit reading it. But I’ve found that persevering often reaps rewards. A good rule of thumb is to only quit a book after you’ve gotten a third of the way, or even half of the way through. Also, I try to only quit 2–3 books a year, tops. More importantly, after I’ve finished a book, if I don’t think it was worth my time, I adjust my reading list and opinions to avoid reading books I think might be similarly displeasing in the future.

Different media for different environments. There are times it’s not practical to read a book. You might only have a few minutes. There are also times where a physical book is better to read on than your phone, or your kindle. Have media of all types at hand, if you can. I have a great Instapaper queue, and if I’m having a super fast lunch, or if my subway ride is only a minute or two, I’ll probably just read an Instapaper article.

Different material for different environments. The biggest problem in getting a good book reading habit going was, for me, was trying to figure out how to also accommodate long-reads from magazines that I felt like I had to read, for personal or professional reasons. It’s very, very difficult to keep up with the latest New Yorker profile on Samantha Power or Angela Merkel (both of which were excellent, by the way) and also manage to read books. Have different environments for both, and stick to the system. My solution? I only read magazines on the toilet. Books everywhere else. It works. Amazingly well. I’ve also been experimenting with only graphic novels before bed, but it’s not working out so well.

Embrace digital. The Kindle is amazing. Several years ago, at the dawn of the Kindle age (oh, that sounds so important), my friend Noah Brier told me he read way more ever since he got a Kindle. Since that was right around the time I had set myself a new goal of reading more books, that was all the encouragement I needed. It was a life changer. This is coming from a man that read Mason & Dixon, in hard cover, entirely on the Boston T. That hurt. Physically. The joy of hundreds of books in your pocket, virtually weightless. God, I must be old, but it still feels like magic. Recently, a good friend, my age, stunned me when he told me he read the first four volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire on his iPhone. That is amazing. But it works for him.

Reading speed doesn’t matter. I’m not some speed reader. I don’t read particularly quickly, and I don’t employ any skimming methods. I read every word, and I make sure I comprehend it. If anything, I’m too methodical, and there are times I think to myself “I could really skip this part, I get it already” — especially in non-fiction. But I don’t skip. I read it all. As an aside, I am obsessed with Spritz Inc’s Reimagined Reading app. With it, I can comfortably read over 500 words per minute. Alas, it’s not super widely implemented yet, but, god. The day it exists on the Kindle? I will be in heaven.

Avoid distractions. Turn off the wireless on your Kindle, or read paper. I keep my wireless off on the Kindle so I don’t click through too much to Wikipedia articles (the internal dictionary usually suffices). I’ll read background Wikipedia material later. I actually own a Kindle specifically so I don’t read on my phone or iPad, where I am too prone to distraction. This is, of course, a luxury, to have a separate, additional, reading device. If you’re using your phone or your tablet, turn off the wifi, and turn on the do not disturb functionality.

Give audio books a shot. They’re not my thing, but I can see the appeal. Listening to an audiobook counts as reading. Most of my exercise is walking on a treadmill, so I read my Kindle, but I’ve recently been experimenting with books on tape on my iPod while walking out in the world. It’s nice. I worry it’ll cut into my music-listening time (a whole other, not unrelated, time management issue), but I get the appeal. Whatever works.

Take notes or highlights. I’m not sure why, but once I started taking notes and highlights in my Kindle books, I started to read more. I believe it makes you more engaged. At first, my highlights were only profundities — little passages that seemed completely genius and shareable. Now, I highlight all sorts of things: funny quips, little two-word turns of phrase I’m impressed with. Things I want to remember — and, notably, references to other books. Recently, Amazon introduced a neat feature where if you highlight a single word and look it up, it will save all of those words into a list for you. This is a great vocabulary development tool.

Which leads us to the tenet build a reading list. Have a list. Always be re-sorting it. Keep it varied. Mix it up. If you’re reading a long, dense tome on economics, bang out a young adult novel afterward. Right now I have about 80 books in my queue, and I’m constantly rearranging them (most recently because of Rachel’s reading list and books on there I’ve been meaning to read for years). If you finish one book, pick up the next. I like to read a single page of a new book as soon as I finish the last book. This way, I’m committed to reading another book. Protip: There is an insane amount of $1 or less out-of-copyright books on Amazon. This year I read the complete works of Conan Doyle and Jane Austen on my Kindle. For a combined price of $1. Amazon also offers many books on a borrowing basis to Amazon prime members. I keep a dedicated Amazon wish list of these books.

One book at a time, or many books at once, either is okay. I used to obsess about this all the time. Now I just don’t worry about it. I have one book by my bedside (100, by Bill Drummond), that I’ve been working on for two years. So what. I’ll finish it some day. I’ve put down a book, read a whole second book, and picked up the first one again. Readers talk a lot about this, and what the best approach is, but I find that whatever works, works.

There you go. Let me know what works for you. Always looking to improve my approach. I hope this helps.

PS: If you enjoyed this, I’ve written a companion article, My Book Writing Habits.