How We Can Read Again
5 Principles that Might Help You Read More
Hugh McGuire does a great job of asking why we can’t read today, and explaining why we need to read again. He also shares a few principles at the end, which inspired me to share mine.
I’m hardly an exceptional reader (By my estimate, I read a book every couple of weeks on average — a rate not yet comparable to folks like Maria Popova, Shane Parrish, and Ryan Holiday). But, perhaps like you, I lost my habit for reading and slowly built it back up.
Back when I was a child, my mother would take me to the library and we’d borrow dozens of books with each trip. My father would take me to Chapter’s — I’d sit down to try to read an entire book in a sitting. (Probably more of an ego thing than a frugality thing, in hindsight.) I was a voracious reader.
Then, as the years progressed, my reading plummeted. I started playing video games (Starcraft would take up 3–5 hours every day). I started spending more time with friends and on MSN Messenger (remember that?). I discovered that I could watch movies online. YouTube happened. I left the house more. I spent time reading textbooks (ugh). I went to college. I stopped reading and gradually picked the habit back up a couple of years ago.
Here are some things I noticed as I picked up the habit back up, which you can also do if you really want to read again:
- Always have a book with you. (It makes you more patient with late people as well.)
- Talk about books with friends, join a book club, or start soliciting recommendations. (If you’re to get started with recommendations — my close friends follow Zuckerberg’s list, I’ve gotten quite a few good suggestions from Ryan Holiday’s newsletter.)
- Grind through the book till you get to the “aha moment”. Don’t be afraid to quit a book after 50 pages or so if it doesn’t resonate with you.
- You can read in small bites, but not nibbles. Give a book at least 10 pages per sitting. Occasionally go back a few pages to regain context.
- Write your thoughts down. A book is a conversation, not a lecture.
- Be patient. Voracious readers are built over months (years!), not overnight.
- Instead of watching reality TV after dinner, read books. Save reality TV for the gym.
- You don’t have to choose between fiction and non-fiction. You can learn from both.
- Re-read books and go over your old notes. You probably won’t want to do it, but rediscovery is a nice feeling (and you won’t realize how much you forgot).
If you’re curious, I’d love to explain myself a bit further:
Grind Through to the “Aha Moment”
Many books have “aha moments”. Similar to how startups like Facebook focused on 7 friends in 10 days, and Twitter focused on having a user follow 30 people, you have to focus yourself on getting to the aha moment of a book. It’s smooth sailing after that.
Some books have pretty early aha moments. For me, books like Musashi and The Antidote come to mind. Aha moments are different for everyone, and with every book. Here are examples of aha moments that I had to grind through a bit — but were extremely rewarding (spoilers ahead):
- The Count of Monte Cristo. I started this my first night in Beijing. At the time, I didn’t really like it. All these French names were difficult to keep up with, and I was feeling alienated in Beijing, and I was only reading Monte Cristo because I couldn’t fall asleep. It was awful. I got through 200 pages my whole trip. Right when I got back to Canada, I decided to pick up where I left off and give it another 50 pages. Edmond Dantes meets Faria and breaks out of jail. Whoooooooaaaa. And the final 900 pages absolutely pulled me through. I finished it in a week. I could not pick it up in the morning because I wouldn’t be able to put it down.
- The 48 Laws of Power. I’ve owned this book for years but never fully went through it — instead, I’d pick it up every so often, reading a law here and there. Reading it cover to cover was a different experience. It really hammers homes how important relationships are, the principles of power, and how people might regularly use it against you. The laws are comprehensive and each accompanying story has many important details — but after the 8th or 9th law I was hooked.
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. This was a slightly longer book than I was used to at the time, but it was totally worth it. After going through around the first 100–150 pages, and Walt’s first company goes bankrupt, the story really takes off.
I couldn’t pick these books up in the morning, because I knew I wouldn’t get anything done during the day. That’s how potent books can be. Once you hit the aha moment, you have a couple of days to binge read and maintain it. If you leave the book alone, its magnetic pull will disappear, and you’ll have to read another dozen pages to get your groove back.
I suggest giving a book around 50 pages before you totally quit. Hey, maybe you just don’t get along with the author. As Ryan Holiday says, life’s too short to not enjoy the books you’re reading.
Give It At Least Ten Pages in One Sitting
If you’re just picking up a book, it takes a few paragraphs to really settle in. Ideally you’ll have the time and energy to get through at least 10 pages in one sitting. When I read a book in 1–2 page increments, I don’t really get much from it. It takes a certain dosage of a book to actually make an impact. For me, it’s around 10 pages. Authors need your attention to share examples and ideas in order to make a point. Consuming it in parts smaller than that takes away from the experience.
Talk Back to the Author
My mom and dad both told me to mark up books. I was always hesitant to, something about writing in a book just felt weird. Aren’t we supposed to preserve our possessions and keep them as new as possible?
Anyway, I took a pencil and started underlining and marking up passages. Hey, it was a pencil — so I could erase it if necessary. That helped me engage with books on a slightly deeper level than just seeing words.
One day I came across this idea where a book should be like a conversation between the reader and the author (I’m pretty sure it was How to Read A Book). And it just clicked. I realized that for me, books were too much like lectures. I could talk back. I started writing and making notes in the margins.
I can’t believe how different reading became once I actually started writing stuff in my books and writing down my reactions. It made the reading experience so much more immersive. I wrote about other ways to enhance the reading experience here. I find it difficult to read without a pencil in hand to write in the book.
As you indulge in the fine art of marginalia, heed Geoff Dyer’s warning in Port Magazine:
…I realised that owning and annotating had become a substitute for absorbing. Reading my own books in my own home — and marking them up as I did so — had itself become a way of avoiding reading (in the sense of complete immersion and active interrogation). This was a skill I now needed to recapture, because this essay of Mann’s turned out to be an absolute cracker.
Practice and Invest
Give yourself time to pick up the habit. Be patient with yourself. Pick up no more than two different books at once.
Try buying your books, so that you can mark them up. You’ll also know that you put money down for this cost — which turns into a highly-rewarding investment as you start reading or refering to them. If you neglect them, it’ll break your heart to see them unused (or sitting in the Amazon box), whereas a book from the library might just elicit a shrug and half-hearted “Meh, I can read it later.”
If you’re on a shoestring budget, here are some ideas on how you can get books for cheap (or for free!).
Also, remember Umberto Eco’s antilibrary. You don’t have to read every single book you buy cover to cover.
Friends are crucial to building new habits. It’s a lot easier to go to the gym knowing that you’re meeting a friend. You’ll get a chance to catch up about the week and spend time together, but it’s also much more difficult to back out. Cancelling takes effort! And if you flop on your partner regularly, you’re going to get called out. Reading works just like the gym.
My friend started regularly reading several months ago. He asked for my recommendations, studied some of his own, and picked up one or two books at a time. He slowly made his way through them. He would read outside, read when he was working out, or read during breaks at work. We live in different parts of town, so I’m not literally reading with him.
When we meet up around once or twice a week, we share and discuss ideas that we picked up from books. It’s didn’t start as a formal thing, it just found its way into our conversations. Now, a natural question that comes up is, “What have you been reading?” I’m determined not to have a shitty response.
When you read, books naturally intertwine themselves in your life. But it’s fun to cross-pollinate ideas, and compare reading patterns and subjects. Admittedly, in my mind, there’s also a bit of a competitive element in it — I at least have to keep up with my friend! The challenge gets me going when I feel tired or inertia has halted my reading for a few days.
I can’t tell you how happy I was when he bought me a book (“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz). He shares recommendations now, I’ve taken him up on many. They’re pretty good.
On a side note, never lend your books out. If a friend asks to borrow a book, just buy it for them (or at least make the offer). Yeah, it costs money, but if it’s rewarding your friend will remember you in the future. It will pay off for both of you. And you get to keep your copy, which has all the first impressions and notes that make it so valuable.
How Do You Read?
Much like how growth and design teams study apps to make them more addictive, I think it’d help for readers to share how they read and enhance the experience. What do you like to read — and how do you do it?
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Herbert Lui is the Creative Director of Wonder Shuttle. He is a former writer for Lifehacker whose writing has appeared in Fast Company, The Globe and Mail, and The Huffington Post.
Herbert Lui on Twitter.