How to Read Many Books
And tips for reading them well
Since 2015, I’ve read 72.4 books every year on average through the end of 2023 and have written periodically about them, along with brief reviews. After publishing my summary of books read in 2023, the estimable Sam Bowman asked me for tips to read more. This is a common online topic. Many of my tips focus on maintaining a high level of motivation to read voraciously. Below is my list of edited and expanded tips from my X thread.
Have a job with a long commute on public transportation. Just from that, I get 1-1.5 hours of reading time a day. Don’t waste time with email or doomscrolling when commuting on the train or bus.
Read every night before going to bed, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. At a minute a page, that’s about 7,300 a year or about 20 books right there. You’ll sleep better after reading if you get to bed at a normal time, and it’s a great way to knock out more pages. The risk is that the book grabs you and you stay up late, or the book mentions a topic that you want to explore on ChatGPT, which will also keep you awake.
Read when doing light aerobic exercise. I use an elliptical most days for 20 minutes to 1 hour while reading my Kindle. The tradeoff is that reading during exercise reduces my absorption of information, so I usually read lighter books and fiction while exercising so that tradeoff matters less.
Only read books that you like. Even if it’s a topic you think you should know about, read the well-written and informative books on it. Don’t waste your time on bad “classics.” Reading shouldn’t be a chore; it should be a hobby and a source of pleasure.
Be “ruthless,” as Tyler Cowen says. Be quick to set down a book. If it doesn’t grab me, I usually set it down after 20-30 pages. Some of those “bad books” may have great chapters or passages, but they aren’t worth reading overall. Just read those sections – but don’t count them as a book you’ve read.
Always have a pile of books that you intend to read. I use my Amazon wish list as my Kindle pile; I have a stack of physical books on my bedside table and another at work. If I finish a book and can start another, I don’t hesitate to pick one up. And don’t feel bad about skipping a book on the pile, some of my books have been there for years and I really should move them off, but one must maintain one’s aspirations.
Read book reviews, listen to podcasts from reviewers you trust, and be open to reading suggestions from people who have good taste. Those are ways to identify new authors, especially. Also, trust Amazon’s recommendation algorithm, Amazon ratings, and Goodreads. I used to be snooty and think my tastes were radically different from others, but my tastes aren’t radically different from those who are interested in similar topics. ChatGPT has also given me some good suggestions. Use technology, it is your friend.
Pay special attention to nonfiction classics that have stood the test of time and still receive rave reviews. They are usually popular for a reason. For instance, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is excellent, well-written, insightful even when wrong, and a classic rightly praised over the centuries. The unabridged edition I read was about 3,000 pages long, but you can understand why it’s popular in the first few pages.
Read multiple books at the same time. Even excellent books have relatively boring sections. If you’re in one of those, pick up another book you’re reading to keep yourself entertained. I’m usually reading at least two books at any given time and sometimes many more. I’m currently going back and forth between Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and Paul Kriwaczek’s Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization.
If you find a particular author you like, read several of their books until you find one that you like less. If there’s an author you don’t like, avoid them even if they write a book about a topic you enjoy. Almost all the time, the author won’t write about the topic in an entertaining way . Also, you can ask ChatGPT to recommend authors similar to authors you currently enjoy and it sometimes returns good answers. Use technology.
Cluster books you’re reading by topic. For instance, maybe you’re interested in ancient Middle Eastern history. Read several books on that topic in a row (Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, etc.). It reinforces what you learned. It also is a great way to find disagreements between authors. It’s often difficult to figure out which expert is correct on a topic you know little about, but knowing about controversies helps you to more deeply understand the topic by 1) Identifying the big controversies, 2) Identifying patterns and methods of disagreement, and 3) The sources of disagreements. Cluster read until the quality drops off. Admittedly, I used to be better at this.
Use Audible to complement reading, not to substitute for it. Listening to nonfiction is usually a bad idea, but listening to novels is fine and enjoyable. Use Whispersync for Voice to seamlessly switch between Kindle and Audible. Fiction is easily enjoyable when listened to, while listening to nonfiction is usually not. Again, technology is your friend.
Don’t be ashamed of the “bad” genres you enjoy. I’ve read a substantial amount of science fiction and alternative history over the years. Ninety percent of those books are poorly written, and the climaxes are mostly predictably garbage . . . but I still like them. The joke about Harry Turtledove’s books is that every family eats chicken every night for dinner. But the diamonds in the rough are worth it. Read what you enjoy.
Try a book club. I tried it once, and it did boost my reading for a time, but it’s hard to meet with a book club when you have a job, family, and everything else. Find those friends of yours who like to read and share book suggestions, discuss them, and compare. This is easy and natural if you’ve found a good book.
Mix your forms of media. If you read a novel and liked it, watch the movie version. Sometimes, the filmmakers will interpret the book differently and convince you that your initial take was wrong. Sometimes, you come away convinced the filmmaker didn’t even read the book (I’m looking at Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers). It was fun to watch Troy after having reread The Iliad. The movie version was so much worse for many reasons, but partly because the gods weren’t characters, and they are essential for the story to really work. But then again, how do you insert the gods into a movie without it being goofy to a modern secular audience?
Leave any tips you may have in the comments.
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