How to Read a Lot
I enjoy reading a lot and usually read a book a week, so the following are my tips for those who are “book curious” or just want to recapture the feeling of staying up all night to finish a book in grade school.
- Make the time. Unfortunately, life is finite, and though some of these tips will help you read faster, you still need to put the time in. That means you’ll need decide what to give up to spend more time reading. In my case, that’s other forms of media, especially video games and television. If you’re having trouble finding time, you can consider drawing up an explicit timetable for an average day and explicitly decide what to give up.
- You don’t have to read. If it’s too hard to decide what to give up, you actually might not want to prioritize reading, and that’s okay! There’s no shame in deciding there’s other things you’d rather do.
- Only read books that spark joy. This is the most important tip. It is totally fine to give up on a book; the type of people who leave Goodreads reviews actually take pride in DNFing (“did not finish”) books that they didn’t like. You don’t have to force yourself through a book just because it’s “respectable” or a classic; if you only want to read a particular genre or author, that’s great! If you insist on finishing a book you’re not enjoying, you may get stuck and you definitely won’t enjoy yourself.
- Listen to your subconscious. If a book feels like a slog, it probably is! When you find a book that sparks joy, you’ll know.
- Don’t force yourself to pay attention. It will be easier to pay attention if you only read books that spark joy, but sometimes you’ll find your attention start to drift even for books you’re excited about. If this keeps happening, put the book down; you might simply be too tired or distracted to read, and you can always come back the next day.
- Switch between books aggressively. If you’re not in the mood for a particular book, it can help to switch to another one temporarily. I’m often actively reading four or five books at the same time, switching between them day-by-day or even within a single day. If you’re worried about lost or confused, you can consider keeping only one fiction and non-fiction book active; I find fiction and non-fiction use slightly different parts of my brain and don’t interfere with each other.
- Use the library. Despite being key social infrastructure, libraries are oddly unpopular among certain classes. You can check out as many books as you want (well, up to a reasonable limit) and you’ll often serendipitously find books you’re interested in while browsing. Most libraries still have due dates, not always strictly enforced, which can give you a kick in the pants to actually finish a book. But best of all, your local library is completely free!
- Skim as appropriate. Especially for nonfiction, you don’t have to read every word. Most1 nonfiction is highly structured and repetitive; paragraphs typically move from general points to specific examples, and the key parts of an argument are repeated multiple times. You can save some time by skimming arguments or examples you’re already familiar with. Even for fiction or creative nonfiction, it’s often not worth going back if you zoned out for a sentence or two.
- Consider audiobooks. Obviously there are times when it’s difficult to read, like when commuting or walking the dog. Audiobooks are a great option for those times and can serve as a replacement for the podcast du jour; some books actually work better as spoken word. Even better, you don’t have to pay for Audible audiobooks; most library systems provide free access to audiobooks through Libby or Hoopla. Admittedly, I still disprefer listening to fiction as audiobooks, but the majority of my nonfiction “reading” involves audiobooks.
- Consider 2x speed. Most audiobook players have a setting for playback speed. Setting this to anything other than 1x is heresy to some purists, but I personally find the narration in most audiobooks to be far too slow. I actually sometimes retain information better on 2x speed for much the same reason I recommend skimming. Another benefit is that most nonfiction audiobook chapters tend to be somewhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour; at 2x speed, that’s a perfect length for a half-hour dog walk or commute.
In my experience, the difference between good and bad nonfiction is not how structured or repetitive the argument is, though that matters, but instead how smoothly the repetition reads. ↩