The crowning achievement of your intellectual life. The expertly manicured, meticulously curated piece of furniture that serves as the testament to who you are and what you value…or, maybe it’s more than one piece of furniture.
For me, it’s four.
I have the shelf over the TV displaying my latest reads. The container above my desk is full of creativity primers. The stack on my nightstand are all waiting to have their spines cracked. And of course, there’s the gigantic catchall in my living room, showcasing the spectrum from college textbooks to trashy fiction.
My only fear is that someone might ask me about a particular book on one of these shelves, one that I haven’t read in a few years…or a few months…and I’ll have to admit that I’ve completely forgotten what it taught me. Or ask myself if it even taught me anything at all.
Looking at my bookshelf and feeling a little embarrassed and pathetic, I realized I needed to retrain my brain. I needed to learn how to read — not just how to take in words on a page — but how to go a level deeper and get real value from my books.
I’ve spent the last year on this reading journey and discovered nine secrets along the way. Nine secrets that have enabled me to read and retain more. Nine secrets you can apply today, even if you’re a slow reader or really busy.
And no, you don’t have to become a speed reader.
1. Read every day.
The typical American reads 5 books a year, which is pretty pathetic. If you read just 10 pages a day , you’ll have read 3,650 pages in a year, which comes out to around 13 books. And yet, so many people waste time coming up with reasons why they can’t read rather than using that time productively.
If you want to read more, you have to make it a priority. Schedule nonnegotiable reading time on your calendar.
2. Replace chapters with paragraphs.
Chapters make a book less daunting, but each one requires a significant time commitment to get through. Readers with 15 minutes to spare will social media scroll rather than read a book because they know they don’t have enough time to get through an entire chapter.
But books are also broken into paragraphs, which are much shorter. When you use paragraphs as your progress metric, you’ll suddenly find that you’re able to fill any short break by reading.
3. Buy books.
Yes, there are free public libraries, but R yan Holiday does a great job explaining why buying trumps borrowing.
“You own them. They are there, physically, in your house. You cannot forget about them. A different app is not one click away. You can see patterns. You can gauge your progress. You can show off your efforts (and you should–reading is something to be proud of). You can look for what you need, find it on the shelf and satisfyingly say “Ah, here it is” and find the exact passage you marked for this purpose.”
You can’t take margin notes in a library book. You’ll never remember your last kindle purchase. And spending money on books compels you to actually read them.
If you thought college was worth the investment, then you should be eager to spend your money on an education that won’t put you into debtor’s prison.
4. Always carry reading material.
No matter how many (or few) books I’m reading at a given time, I’ll always have something on my iPhone Kindle App.
Sometimes, I break my own rules. Sue me.
If a friend shows up late for coffee or my bathroom break goes a little long, it means a book is just one tap away.
5. Create a BookQueue.
Those guys who run Netflix are pretty smart — they let you create a queue of movies and TV shows so that you never have to touch the remote, much less leave the couch, when you’re using their service. You just add things you want to see and presto, you’re watching them for hours at a time.
You can steal that brilliant system for books. I have a long list of what I want to read next, and every few weeks I’ll order 3 or 4. Those go on my nightstand under my current read(s). They’re like little gifts I can’t wait to open.
6. Take margin notes.
In high school, my history teacher warned us of the “twilight zone,” that place you go when you reach the end of the page and have no idea what you just read. His advice — always have a pen in your hand. Underline key passages, write margin notes, star your favorite quotes.
Taking notes isn’t just for school anymore. The process will ensure you stay engaged and actually learn something, rather than just moves your eyes across the page.
7. Create your commonplace book.
Another helpful tip from Ryan Holiday, the commonplace book (which I wrote about here), gives you something to do with all those notes. Go back through your latest read and transfer key points and memorable quotes onto notecards, then sort them by topic for future reference.
Pro Tip: Write these notes by hand — it’ll help you retain the information better than typing.
8. Mix it up.
My frequent reading topics include history, creativity, and cultural criticism. Each new book deepens my knowledge of those subjects, but breadth is equally important.
In 2016, my goal is to read one “challenge book” a quarter — a new subject, a different genre, a book “above my level.” It’s just as important to know a little about a lot as it is to know a lot about a little.
9. Rate your reads.
After I finish a book, I can’t wait to pull up my Goodreads App and give it a rating (1–5 stars). It may seem like it’s just for fun, but rating a book forces me to think critically about what I’ve just read. Was it well written? How much did I learn? Did it hold my interest and why/why not?
Considering these questions makes it easier to choose my next read and helps refine my taste.
The five book per year average is pretty pathetic, especially when you consider there are hundreds people who read even less than that. Being “a slow reader” or being “too busy” are unacceptable excuses. Make reading a priority — it’s the best, most tangible, most lasting way to expand your knowledge.
Invest in books. Invest in your education. Invest in yourself.