I read a lot. Two months into 2017 and I have read around 40 books so far.
There was a point in my life where I read 25 books per week. And no, I do not speed read or read summaries or listen to more than a handful of audiobooks. But I’m aware that this is something unusual; most people read little or even not at all.
So, this is an explanation of how I manage to read so much. Like anything, it is a skill which can be improved through specific techniques and careful practice.
The way I see it, there are three main components to achieving this. They are:
- Willingness- actually wanting to read as much as possible.
- Access – removing all barriers which make it difficult.
- Techniques – uncomplicated methods I have developed through experience.
Let’s break those down.
Reading has to be a priority. This is a no-brainer, yet it’s easy to forget. You cannot outsource, simplify or ‘hack’ everything in life. To read a book, you have to actually sit down and read the damn book. All the way through. There is no way around this, whatever anyone says. Reading book summaries or watching 5-minute animated video explanations is not the same thing. If you want a quick injection of information like that, read a blog post or news article. The point of a book is that it is (usually) long. The author has worked hard to craft a narrative which a reader is lead through towards a conclusion. Minimising that into a few bullet points is borderline offensive to them. Extreme speed reading is a gimmick which only works for a few people with unusual capabilities. It’s just not possible to devour a book in seconds.
The second part is access.
Again, this is somewhat obvious and again, it gets ignored. The secret to building any good habit is to make it as easy as possible. In this case, that means always carrying a book. Always. Ideally more than one. Or thousands if you have a Kindle. Books do not discriminate. There is no difference between an ebook, a library book, one borrowed from a friend or a brought paper copy. As Lemony Snicket (author of A Series of Unfortunate Events) said, never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. I usually carry at least 2- one challenging one and one more digestible one.
What matters is that you have it with you at all times. This makes it simple to read during spare moments when people otherwise reach for their phone. I do a lot of my reading this way. On buses, while waiting for meetings or appointments, whilst eating, when I’m early somewhere. I can sometimes finish a whole book in a day just from using these snippets of time. This part also requires having constant access to new books. We are lucky today for how easy that now is. I borrow from the library or family most of the time but buy if I cannot find a particular book. It is always worth the £3-5 a book costs on Amazon. I then give away, resell or donate those I don’t want to keep. My personal library is small, yet perfectly curated. If a book is over 70 years old (give or take), it may have entered into the public domain and be available for free as a legal PDF. This is how I get many of the books I read.
The third part is the techniques you use to read faster whilst still enjoying it, by understanding better and focusing clearly.
I’m aware that this is the juicy part of this post, so keep in mind that the first two points are far more important. These techniques will help you to read faster and remember more, though they will not create more time in the day. This is not a magic bullet or a ‘life hack.’ Here are some I use and have done for years.
1 – Practice honing your focus in general. No one can expect themselves to jump from reading 150 character tweets and 9-second videos to full-length books. One of the ways I do this is through timed daily language practice on Duolingo. I use this time to work on comprehending and typing French translations as fast as possible. Remaining 100% focused for a set period of time each day has had a huge impact on my ability to pay attention. There are many other ways to do this. Meditation, writing essays and memorising vocabulary are all useful. We cannot control how much time we have, but we can control our focus. I recommend two books for this. Deep Work by Cal Newport transformed the way I work and I cannot recommend it enough. The Productivity Project by Christ Bailey taught me a lot about the value of attention management over time management. Both should be mandatory reading for every human who wants to do anything meaningful. If you only take one thing from this post, it’s to read both of these. They have made me a better reader, as well as improving many other areas of my life.
2 – Cultivate a set of relevant mental models. This is an ongoing process for me and always will be. Mental models are tools for rapid cognition, understanding and decision making. The ones I find most beneficial when reading are; Occam’s razor, cognitive biases, systems thinking, normal distribution, Pareto’s principle, survivorship bias, confirmation bias and so on. Farnham street is an excellent resource for understanding them. It takes very little time to get a grasp of these and the understanding is there for life. When I read, I apply these to anything I am struggling to process. This is needed because I tend to read complex non-fiction books which require a lot of effort. If you read easy, ‘page turner’, pre-digested books then this isn’t required. `
3 – Develop a broad understanding of key theoretical perspectives. Every time I learn a new one, I am amazed by how useful it is while I read. The basic sociological theories everyone should understand are; feminism, colonialism, structuralism, Marxism and the various waves of those. It’s also helpful to understand ideas like ideology, symbolism, narrative and communication. Picture these as lenses to view what you read through. A good way to practice this is to take a walk, pick out random sights and apply a chosen to theory to it. If your understanding is deep and broad enough, this should be possible in almost all situations.
4 – Stop overloading your brain with information at other times. Treat your ability to focus on something vital and sacred – because it is. For me, this means not watching TV, never playing games and spending minimum time on social media newsfeeds. Of course, this also means more time for reading too. I take reading seriously as it is a form of training for my central work (writing.)
5 – Allow time after reading for processing the information. My favourite way to read is at the gym. I’ll read while doing cardio, then mull over it during strength and flexibility work. Or I’ll read while on a bus, then reflect on it as I walk to my destination. I suspect this is one of the reasons I can digest books at such a fast rate. I think about the contents afterwards, not while I am reading.
6 – Learn how to stop subvocalizing. This is the voice inside your head while you read. Most people read the words to themselves in their head as they go. We learn this as children, to let us follow a story. It’s a bad habit which tends to linger into adulthood and is what slows you down. I only learned recently that this is an actual speed reading technique. I taught myself to avoid this years ago out of my own desire to read faster. There are a range of methods for this – research and try some out. Myself, I use(d) simple brute force to silence this. Through practice, I have learned to process information without the need for subvocalizing. Doing this is not at all easy, though worthwhile if you manage it.
7 – Prepare yourself with some general contextual knowledge before reading. This need not be more than reading the introduction or Wikipedia entry. If I want to dive deep into a book, I read some academic papers and reviews. Interviews with the author are also useful. Avoid resources for students like Shmoop- they are not fact checked and are often opinion based. Building an understanding of the content speeds up your comprehension and therefore speeds up your reading. Context is vital for comprehension.
8 – Enjoy it. Reading is not a chore. It’s one of the most exciting and enjoyable things anyone can do in life. To fall in love with books, try reading Walden by Thoreau. The chapter ‘reading’ is paradigm altering when it comes to loving books. In it, Thoreau writes that ‘books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.’ He also asks ‘how many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?’ Also, read On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. Yes, I recommend that book in every post and there is a reason for that. Remember that it is not necessary to read at a crazy speed or get through insane numbers of books. Committing to as much as you can is what matters.