I have a mini-confession for you: I love bookstores.
Actually, that’s not entirely true: I am crazy for bookstores.
They exert a gravitational pull on me like a black hole pulls in a photon and obliterates all signs of its existence, putting a stop to time. My brain goes ooooh as I see all the shiny new books and browse the little treasures. I vanish into a sea of stimulus, novelty, and discovery.
But with the ecstasy there also came the agony of not being able to read all of these insanely cool books. When would I find out about Operation Mincemeat, the successful British disinformation campaign against the Nazis? Or master the physics of cooking? Or delve into the 900-page lives of John Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton (thanks a lot, Ron Chernow)? I would add them to my Amazon “Interesting books” list, which someday my future self would no doubt tackle all 640 titles thereof.
And then, there were the 100+ unread books in my own library. They occupied three shelves in my bedroom, covered by a towel so I would feel less guilt when I passed by them (true!). Visitors assumed that it must be something shameful I was concealing. They weren’t wrong. My name is Ali, and I am a non-read-book hoarder.
One of these books sitting there diligently gathering dust was Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Prof Daniel Siegel (ebook & print). I remember purchasing it enthusiastically several centuries ago, fully intending to read it right away. And then picking it up again a year later and getting to page 40 before putting it back on the shelf again, where it could capture dust and radiate guilt.
One day, I picked it up, looked at the purchase receipt doubling as a bookmark (still on page 40), and realized the book had been on my shelf for six freakin’ years. Out of a mixture of pique and embarrassment, I just decided to drop everything and read the damn book.
Holy cow! Here was a book that provided a whole new framework for mental health. It was enlightening, revolutionary, revelatory: chaos and rigidity as the pathological ends of the mental health spectrum, and integration as the desirable mean.*
That epiphany made me realize the magnitude of the treasures hiding in the open on my bookshelves and reading lists. I fully appreciate Umberto Eco’s point about the benefits of the antilibrary of unread books, but this was getting ridiculous. Page 40 boy no more; I was going to read more. If I read 100 books a year—just 2 a week—I would not only go through all the unread books on my shelves, but also be able to read all the other books I was hankering for.
So in 2016, I read 100 books. In 2017, 132 books. In 2018, I set a goal of 156, and ended up reading 170.
According to Pew Research, the average American read 4 books last year. If you’re reading this now, I’m assuming you really like to read books, but somehow just don’t. And whether your annual book count falls closer to 4 or 400, you’d like to increase it. This article will help you do that.
Before you make any rash decisions about not being able to do this because 170 books wtf man, some unfair advantages that enable me to read a lot:
- I have designed my life to make writing and reading books my job. Your probably have a different job.
- I read 2-4x faster than average, thanks to some mixture of talent and training.
- I use my fallow time to read (see below).
- I’m a single, self-employed man without children, wife, or lawn care duties, so I have chunks of uninterrupted time.
In 2015, I read a mere 48 books, and thought that was a lot. If you had told me I’d triple that number in a few years, I would have asked you to share what you were smoking. But I believe that by applying the strategies I’m about to enumerate, you can easily double or triple your yearly book count—even if you have a 9-5 job, spouse, and 2.3 children. These strategies work with the life you have right now. My goal is to help you jettison your excuses into low earth orbit so you get to enjoy reading all those books you’ve always wanted to read.
Ready? Let’s do this.
1. MAKE READING BOOKS A CONSCIOUS PRIORITY
Right now, the main reason you’re not reading as many books as you want is not that you can’t, or don’t have the time. It’s that you have not made it a priority.
In the meantime, you have made other things priorities that you value less than reading, consciously or not. Noodling on social media. Reading random online articles that you encounter on said social media. Posting photos of your cat, dog, kid, or food on social media. Watching TV. Attending bullshit work meetings. Marathon video game sessions. Pulpy magazines. And did I mention social media? Yeah, social media.
I hear ya—if you don’t attend the bullshit meetings, you can get fired. But the rest? If you want to get serious about reading more books, it’s time we make book reading a conscious priority. As in, this means a lot to me and I’m going to make it a permanent part of my life. As in, I only get 460,000 waking hours in this life, and every minute I spend doing one thing I kinda like is a minute I can’t get to do the thing I really like. As in, I love reading, dammit, and I’m going to make it a priority.
Once you make this shift, from reading only when all the other important stuff is done, to reading being the important stuff, from giving it the dregs of your time to making it your prime-time activity, everything changes. And really, short of your relationships and life-sustaining activities, what’s more important than learning?
One more thing before launching into the rest of the strategies: Go easy on yourself. Remember that reading is a joy and a privilege. We live in this totally bananas time in history when we have access to unlimited books for free or nearly so. In the Middle Ages, books were expensive enough to be priceless, and no one but the elite had access to them. Later, people like Voltaire and Charles Dickens had to choose between food and books. So instead of thinking must read more books high-achieving reading Hulk smash and making it one more thing to be competitive and neurotic about, think whooaaa I get to read.
A privilege and a joy. Let’s get started.
2. SCHEDULE DEDICATED READING TIME
The #1 way to signal to the universe your intention to read is to schedule it in your calendar. You mean like along the grocery runs, picking up the kids, and bullshit meetings, doc? Why yes! That’s what we do with important stuff: we put it on the calendar. That’s how we make it a priority that gets done.
If you’re not serious about reading, we can stop right here and spare you the remaining 3000 words of this article. But if you are serious, and reading is a joy and a privilege for you, let’s get some time blocked out for you. Like, right now. Get your calendar, and block out at least three 30-minute reading sessions for this week.
I have my dedicated reading time first thing in the morning, after showering and meditating. That way it gets done, and any additional reading time during the day is just gravy. I recommend that you select a time slot that you can stick to on a regular basis: right after lunch; right after putting the kids to bed; before everyone wakes up, whatever. Just make it consistent.
If you can do 3 days a week, do that. If you can only 1 day, do that. The point is to improve from where you are right now, and build on it later. For now, I just want you to show an upward trend. If you’re spending zero time reading, any dedicated time is an improvement. Even one single page in the morning. And once you do get started, you’ll find that adding more time gets even easier. I have total faith in you. Let’s go, you bookbeast you.
3. RE-ALLOCATE TIME
I used to be a semi-serious poker player. Sessions would gobble up acres of time: 4-8 hours for an evening cash session; entire days for tournaments. Once I stopped playing poker, all that time could now be spent doing something more worthwhile, like reading.
What’s the poker in your life—your big time-suck that returns little on the investment, the guilty pleasure that’s maybe more guilt than pleasure? Is it watching TV? Playing video games? Noodling on social media? Surfing Wikipedia? Whatever it is, realize that you’re already spending that time, so the “I don’t have time” excuse is bullshit. Now consciously decide to re-allocate that time to reading instead. If you’re serious about reading, here are some tactics:
- Get rid of your TV entirely if you have one. It’s easily the most pernicious time-waster in every household. I haven’t had one since high school, and seriously have no idea how people get anything done when 400 channels just sit there and say it’s Shark Week again and pretty much always watch meeeeee, for which I have no defense.
- Cancel your Netflix subscription. After you watch the Wild, Wild Country documentary. Damn.
- Get rid of your video game console. Unless you’re 13 and under.
- Install the News Feed Eradicator extension to your internet browser.
- Install website-blocking extensions to your browser, like RescueTime and StayFocused.
- Delete all compulsively addictive apps from your phone: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Just do it. You won’t miss them, and trust me—anything else you do is better than spending time on those apps. Especially reading. This could reclaim you 20-90 minutes a day, depending on how addicted you are to those apps.
- Get the Goodreads app for smartphone or tablet. It’ll help you read more books. And follow me there if you want to hear about my book recommendations.
Even if you do just one of these, you can easily recover 30-60min of daily time to devote to reading. Which raises the question: How much can you cover in 30min/day?
The average educated adult reads at a speed of about 300 words per minute (wpm). That’s 18,000 words per hour. Let’s say the average serious book such as The Tao of Dating is around 280 pages and 70,000 words (ebook, print & audio).
If you read half an hour a day, that’s around 180 hours/year, or 3.2 million words. That’s 46 books, yo! On just half an hour a day!! More than 4 standard deviations above the American mean of 12 per year!!!
I’m running out of exclamation marks here, but the point is that the little bits of time add up. Book reading is an investment—unlike, say, all that time spent on social media, games and other compulsions. And you don’t have to quit all of your time-suck guilty pleasures to become a champion book reader. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, 30 minutes represents just 3% of your waking hours. Can you commit just 3% of your time to doing something you not only love, but that also brings massive positive returns to your life? Seems like a decent deal to me.
4. USE FALLOW TIME
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “I don’t have time to read,” I’d have many dollars. So we need to send this excuse to its swift and everlasting demise by proving that there’s all kinds of fallow time in your day that you can repurpose to reading time.
a) Commuting to work. One day when I was visiting my friend Ben in Chicago, he was kind enough to drop me off to my meeting on his way to work. I asked him if he listened to any audiobooks on his 20-minute commute. “Nah, it’s not enough time for me to get into anything.” Are you kidding me? It’s the perfect time!
The average American commutes 25 minutes to work each way, for a total of 50 minutes a day, five days a week. That adds up to 12,500 minutes a year (which, by the way, is totally bananas, and probably making you all kinds of miserable without your knowing it, which I will talk about extensively in my Happiness Engineering book. But I digress). If you commute by bus or train, you can read 53 books in that time (1 a week!). If you drive, you can listen to audiobooks and, at 8-10 hours per book, get through 20-26 of those. This is a substantial—nay, gargantuan chunk of time, bigger than your 30min daily reading allocation!
b) Waiting in line. Stuck at the DMV or passport office? Waiting for your turn at the hair salon, or for your oil change to finish? These are perfect times to get in a nice chunk of reading. Each one of them may not be much, but put together, they add up to a lot. To make this work, ABAB: Always Bring a Book. Or read on your smartphone’s Kindle app like I do, which means you’ll always have 5 million books on you.
c) Running. I’ve gotten through many an audiobook while running. It helps if it’s a lighter read, say a memoir like Amy Poehler’s hilariously heartfelt Yes, Please (ebook, print, and audio), vs a computationally complex read, like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (ebook & print), or Behave by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print), which is, incidentally, the greatest book I’ve ever read.
d) Traveling. Airport bookstores have noticed: people read while traveling. I use earplugs to minimize distraction, improve concentration, and save my eardrums. Reading on Kindle means I don’t have to carry extra weight on board. Those 5 million books can take up space.
e) Right before falling asleep. Bedtime is a good for a few more minutes of readage. I keep a non-taxing, not-too-exciting book bedside. A thriller will keep you up, so you may want to choose something less stimulating. This is how I slogged through the overlong but still excellent Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers (ebook & print). Some elephants are best eaten one bite at a time.
5. GET INTO AUDIOBOOKS
I listen to an audiobook every time that I go for a run or get on a treadmill. This kills two birds with one stone: it allows me to consume a cool book, and it makes me more motivated to run so I can listen to a cool book! I noticed that the better the book, the more likely I was to run. Feel free to borrow that motivational technique.
Less fun than running is driving in California, but a good audiobook can soften the sting. The 60-minute slog from Santa Monica to Downtown LA was an opportunity to listen to more of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, the greatest audiobook and memoir I’ve ever listened to, and Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, also the greatest memoir ever.
Depending on how much running and driving I’m doing, I get through 1-2 audiobooks a month. You can listen to them during your commute, run, walk, or other low cognitive-load activity that does not involve heavy limb-shredding machinery. I subscribe to Audible’s monthly audiobook program, which is exactly the right amount of audiobooks for me. At $14.95 a month, it also saves me a bunch on the mind-blowing Great Courses, which usually cost several times that.
The key to listening to audiobooks while driving is to turn the book on immediately, regardless of the length of drive. Even those 10-minute jaunts add up. I’ve been doing this for so long that I honestly have no idea whether my car radio works or not. What times could you be enjoying listening to an audiobook?
6. READ BOOKS, NOT ARTICLES
I swear I’m not looking over your shoulder right now, but if you’re reading this sentence, it’s safe to say you read articles online. So if you’re already spending time reading something, make them books, not articles (present company excepted). Articles are like bubble gum; books, like main courses, meals, or whole harvests.
This means chucking both magazines and online pieces. I do read some articles, especially those in The New Yorker, the world’s greatest magazine. However, I have made a point of reading books instead of articles, and never reading news if I can help it.
Wait what, no news? You choose to be ignorant about your world, doc? See, I subscribed to The Economist for over 15 years, and still think it’s great. But one day, I realized my waist-high stack of old issues was the equivalent of, like, 50 books. As much as I appreciated The Economist’s diligence in keeping me abreast of developments in Congo (still warring!), the Middle East (still quarreling!), and world economy (still fluctuating!), I realized that it was mostly a cloud atlas, obsolete as soon as it was printed.
Sub sole nihil novum, said some wise man with much better Latin than mine, and he had a point. There’s nothing new under the sun; news should justly be called olds. One thing is up; another thing is down. The names change but the story is the same.
Unless you use the news to take action (e.g. enlist for military service, run for office, evade a hurricane or dump bad stocks), then it is literally useless to you. And, while we’re on the Happiness Engineering website, I’ll remind you that most news is negative and designed to make you miserable. Reading good books about stuff you actually care about will make you much happier in the long run.
7. READ A LITTLE FASTER
So we calculated that reading for 30 minutes a day at 300wpm translates to around 46 books a year. It follows that if you increase your reading speed, you stand to read even more books.
Let me say here that I don’t believe in “speed-reading.” You can scan the words faster and faster, but there’s an upper limit beyond which you’re just skimming text without understanding anything.
That said, most of us are reading at far below the upper limit of our speed. You can stand to increase that speed by moving your eyes across the page faster. Train yourself to do that by following a finger or pen across the page, and gradually increasing the speed up to your limit.
There are also apps to train you to read faster. I recommend that you use them not to read books, but to train yourself to move your eyes faster. One app is Quickreader, which highlights text at the speed you specify. I suggest you use it to overclock your brain to read at some absurd speed like 2000 wpm, which will go by in an incomprehensible blur. After that, dial back to some fast-but-not-ridiculous speed like 750wpm, which feels leisurely in comparison. But that’s over double normal reading speed! High-five, homie.
Another useful app is Kindle’s WordRunner, available on Kindle Fire devices and Kindle for Android apps (but not the iOS Apple Kindle, for some strange reason). This app runs words by in one spot at the speed you specify. Once again, practice overclocking your brain at some stupidly fast speed. Then go back to reading a normal book, only faster than you did before. I dropped $50 on a Kindle Fire 7 just so I could get this feature.
To improve your speed without having to download any new software, go to the Spreeder app, paste some practice text, and go to town. And if you want to get really serious, the same company makes software for $80 called 7 Speed Reading that will increase your reading speed. I found it a useful training tool which helped me improve my eye-fixation speed, and to get rid of some bad habits like back-skipping.
Also note that you will read different books at different speeds. Computationally complex texts that require thought and processing may take 2-5x longer to read than the average book, while a pulpy novel or memoir may take half the time. Remember that it’s not a race in any case: you still want to enjoy the book and absorb its contents. A joy and a privilege!
8. READ ONLY BOOKS YOU REALLY LIKE
When a book is fun and compelling, I read it quickly. When it’s boring, pointless, or poorly written, it takes forever. So you know what I do now? I only read books I really like! Crazy, I know. But you’d be shocked and amazed how many people feel like they need to get through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as if it’s some badge of honor. Life’s too short, yo!
Even at 150 books a year, I’m going to get through at most another 6000 books in this lifetime. That’s not even 0.1% of what’s in the Library of Congress, so these books had better be awesome.
There are enough stupendously great books out there such that you don’t ever have to read a crappy one. If partway through, you find a book tepid, you have my blessing to abandon it for something that’s great. So check out the Amazon and Goodreads ratings and reviews, and stick with the great stuff. Here are some lists of the best books I read last year: the most useful, most important, and just plain insanely great.
This is one of the reasons I’m starting a podcast called The Ideaverse, which showcases truly extraordinary, mind-bending, life-altering books. Sign up on this website to be notified when it launches.
9. TRACK YOUR READING AND SET YOURSELF A CHALLENGE
One way of signaling to the universe that you’re getting serious about reading is to set yourself a reading challenge: “In the next year, I will read 24 books.” Then keep track of your reading on your smartphone’s Notes app or some notebook.
The management god Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” Now that you are measuring your reading, you have a much better chance of improving it. An app like Goodreads allows you to both track your reading and set a public challenge. Having the challenge out in the open adds a smidgen of accountability which may make you more likely to adhere to it. And, let’s face it, how else are you going to brag about all the cool books you read? Especially ebooks, which do not show up on any shelf.
CONCLUSION: HOW ARE YOU SPENDING YOUR LIFE?
Not so long ago, I made a list of things I really enjoyed doing—the things that make life worthwhile, y’know? On the list: attending classical music concerts, running, dancing, cooking, socializing with friends, reading, traveling, and a bunch of other stuff that I strangely was not doing very often. Huh? I had time, and I could afford the activities. But somehow I was spending my days doing other things far less fulfilling. Forces other than myself had decided how I would spend my life, and I had tacitly consented.
So I made a deliberate choice to do more of the stuff that made me happy. And now, I’m happier! And devouring books like some gigantic book-devouring termite from outer space (much cooler than a wimpy little book worm). If there’s a book I want to read, I put it in the queue and know I will get to reading it soon enough. I don’t have to do this. I get to do this. A joy and a privilege.
I hope this article also impels you to take stock of how you are spending your time, and to deliberately incorporate into your life the activities that bring you joy and meaning. If reading is one of those activities, test and see which strategies in this article work for you, and report back to me! And if you have effective strategies of your own, please share them in the comments.
Read on, my fellow super space-termites,
PS: Most of the product links in this article are affiliate links. This means that every time you purchase through those links, you support the blog by having several shiny pennies deposited into my Amazon account. That allows me to buy more great books (currently about 20 a month) and tell you about them. I am infinitely grateful for your support!
*Dan Siegel should be at least as famous a psychiatrist as Sigmund Freud, with the difference that Siegel’s work actually makes sense, helps heal people, and is backed by science. Freud, on the other hand, is only one letter off from fraud.
Read faster: I got this software called 7 Speed Reading in 2014, and found it useful. It has drills for gradually increasing your eye-scanning speed, your wordspan (the number of words you can take in per eye fixation), and other stuff that will make you read faster. It’s sophisticated software, and it worked for me.
Great books: If you are interested in reading some truly excellent books, here are the top 13 from what I read last year. You may have noticed by now that I only read nonfiction. For full reviews of each, go here.
- Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio).
- Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print).
- On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print).
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio).
- The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print).
- The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print).
- The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams (ebook & print).
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio).
- Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses.
And the two greatest books I’ve ever read:
- Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Tied for my Greatest Book Ever.
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to have liked it, too.