Why should you read more books?
Why read books at all? What are you hoping to gain?
Information to do better in your job? Entertainment to forget about your job? Or structured reading around a particular topic to build subject matter expertise for your career (or a writing project)?
Clearly, there doesn’t have to be a single reason – you can have multiple motivations – but, whatever your goals, there are many, many benefits to reading books:
- Reading makes you smarter.
- Reading makes you happier.
- Reading makes you more empathetic.
- Reading is ’brain training’.
Understanding what your reasons are for reading will help you motivate yourself to keep going.
The purpose of reading books isn’t to turn over a couple of hundred pieces of bound paper; it’s to develop yourself as a human being.
Keep those meaningful goals in mind as you undertake the hard work of building your new habit.
Yes, reading more is about developing a habit. How do you do that?
Making time to read
Once you identify exactly why it is that you want to read more books, it becomes easier to set aside time and concentrate on books rather than binge-watching Netflix shows.
You need to commit to being ‘a reader’ and carve out time in your day accordingly.
There are no two ways about it: Reading books requires an investment of your time. The more time you put into your reading habit, the more books you will read. Obviously.
I’m not convinced you get the most out of reading by cramming as many titles in as possible in the time you allocate to reading.
For example, a book summary service like Blinkist doesn’t really allow you to spend time with new ideas, explore them in the context of your own experiences, and, perhaps, incorporate them into your own life /profession.
Reading a lot is a habit. You have to remind yourself of the joys and benefits of reading and just pick up your book and read. That’s easier said than done, so here are some concrete ways to nudge yourself into a reading habit:
- Prioritise reading in your environment.
- Grab those 10-minute chunks and get lost in a book. Steven King reads in between innings at baseball games
— Schalk Burger ❄ (@schalkburger) January 8, 2016
- If you are calendar-minded, schedule regular blocks of time to read. At night. First thing in the morning. On your commute. Whatever time you can claim for reading day after day.
- Join or start a book club (online or offline). Peer pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You don’t want to be that person who didn’t read the book…
- Goodreads’ ‘reading challenge’ keeps me motivated. I like to visualise my progress towards my reading target. It’s gamified reading: Why watch TV when there’s a reading goal to attain?
How to enjoy reading loads of books
You’ve chosen to read more. Great. But always be clear to yourself on the purpose of reading any particular book. Are you harvesting for information? Or taking time to savour every word? Be clear each time you pick up a book.
I read non-fiction very differently than I read a novel.
I will read some sections very closely, but will then speed read over other, less relevant sections. Conversely, a novel, by its very nature, keeps me turning page after page so I can enjoy the twists and turns and discover the story’s resolution.
Have a selection of books ready to go in order to avoid decision fatigue. Have books ready to pick up. You need access to the right book at the right time (even if it’s a selection of books on your Kindle). Make sure you have a book that matches your interest and mood at the moment you need to choose your next book; reading shouldn’t feel like a slog.
In my experience, if you are too prescriptive about your reading list it will be harder to keep reading. Remember how mandatory books at school felt so painful to get through? Allow for a certain amount of serendipity in your reading pile: mix up genres and let yourself choose from a varied selection.
How to create your book pile? Either build your own reading list or find sources of inspiration that you can turn to. Here are some places you can populate your reading pile from:
- ‘Best’ lists: Here’s the Guardian’s top 100 nonfiction books
- University course reading lists (when they aren’t gated): go deep on a topic
- Favourite reviewers: Bill Gates has a book list
- Newspaper book sections: I pay attention to the Economist’s review section
- Event-based reading: My summer reading is usually based on the Edinburgh Book Festival line-up. (When I lived in Portland I paid close attention to events at Powell’s book shop.)
Get these books from the library – WorldCat is amazing – or set a book budget for yourself.
Or don’t set a budget. Ryan Holiday doesn’t. He sees reading as an investment in yourself. Why cap that?
However you obtain your reading material, I would recommend that you set a limit on the size of the pile. I only allow myself to have around ten books ready to read at any given time. That restriction is a further incentive to get reading; I want to be able to buy/borrow more books!
Does speed reading work?
Now that you have the motivation to read and a pile of books to get stuck into, *how* should you read them?
Speed reading seems to be the holy grail if you want to read more. But reading faster isn’t the best way to get more out of your reading.
Speed reading tactics are basically ways to skim read. If you know why you are reading, you can skim over the bits that don’t meet your objective, and that’s great.
But there is a difference between close reading and information harvesting. Be wary of sacrificing comprehension for speed.
This is where it’s important to understand why you are reading.
Some basic ways to help you read faster:
- Reduce eye strain. Paper reading: wear your glasses! Screen reading: Limit retina movement and adjust brightness.
- ‘Chunking’ is when you try to capture more information with each eye movement; 3-4 words at a time. I see this as a way to assess the context of a book. You aren’t processing; you’re seeing if the text is worth reading closer.
*To give a specific example, say you want to find out about how workplace productivity has changed over time. You find a great book on workplace productivity. But only some sections will be relevant to your specific purpose. Of course, it would be great to read the book cover to cover, but you don’t have time. Your cat needs feeding. So speed read the book to determine the sections you need to read closer. Put simply, there are many ways to read a book, and not all of them are a cover to cover close reading.*
- Read the book’s contents page and flick through the book first; let yourself know what’s coming so you have the context of the book in mind as you are progressing through it. (This obviously doesn’t apply so much to cliff-hanger novels.)
But, to repeat, be honest with yourself and understand that you are likely to sacrifice comprehension for speed. This is why it’s crucial that you are clear on what you hope to gain from reading the text.
Why speed read a fun novel when the whole point is to relax? Why speed read a foundational text that helps you in your job? Use speed reading techniques, by all means, but only when you understand the trade-offs.
Remember more of what you read
Speed reading helps you read faster; active reading helps you comprehend and recall more of the book’s content so that you can add its concepts to your intellectual toolkit.
Aim to make reading an active process rather than a passive experience, especially with nonfiction books. This might slow down your reading speed, but you will remember more and understand concepts more fully, making it easier to incorporate information into your professional life.
How to read actively:
- Mark-up your books. With a pen! (Unless you are reading library books. Do not mark-up library books. There’s a special place in hell for people who deface library books.) Make your books your own documents: The author has given you some text, now you can make it yours. Highlight, underline, star, and cross-reference. I have a huge box of red biros near my bookshelf to remind me that I can and should take ownership of my reading experience.
- Marginalia, in particular, can be a running conversation between you and the author. And it’s really fun to re-read books years later and see that conversation.
Both of the above are common forms of note taking. Other note taking techniques include:
- Writing summaries
- Repurposing information
- Questioning the author
- Identifying topics to follow-up on
- Write reviews. Even a few sentences at the end of a book help you to take stock of the main points and cement the ideas in your mind.
I’ve written another post on digital note taking if you’re interested.
Tools to help you read more books
Audiobooks are a great way to fit more reading time into your day. I use Audible.
Don’t worry; you comprehend just as much as when you read as when you listen; audiobooks aren’t cheating according to Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.
It’s easier to get distracted, though. Your eyes drift and focus on other things; will you keep skipping backwards each time? Audiobooks make it harder, but not impossible, to listen ‘actively’ and take notes. I tend to listen more to novels than non-fiction for that reason.
I do like my Kindle. Very much. It’s easy to slip in a bag. It means you can carry a bundle of books, and I feel safe when I have a bundle of books on my person. The backlight is useful. The battery life is long. The balance between screen-reading and paper-reading is something I’ve thought about a lot (here’s a post on the promise of going paperless).
It’s a little less common, but I use a reading stand. It’s a low-tech option for hands-free reading (and also doubles-up as an iPad stand). I also like to have the stand sat near me to prompt reading; with the reading stand present, my reading habit has a physical ‘prompt’ on my desk.
Other tools and habits I use to fuel my reading habit.
– The patience to read quietly is hard in our always-connected, notification-pinging lives. It’s a habit that you must work on; we are all hopelessly, chronically distracted.
– As pathetic as it sounds, I find running helps me develop the patience required to sit for a couple of hours with only a book as a stimulant.
– Remove the temptation to check your phone rather than lose yourself in a book. Switch your phone off (or use airplane mode).
– I prefer total silence, but I know many people find silence itself a distraction. You could play music quietly or use ‘noise’ apps. Try a Classical playlist or use Noisli.
– If you find it hard to stay focused, set a timer. The pomodoro technique is useful. By deciding how long you will read before you start, you take away the decision of when to stop. Use your phone, or – if that offers too much of a temptation – use a good, old-fashioned kitchen timer.
– Similar to the last habit, choose to read a certain number of pages before you sit down. Set yourself an easy minimum target and hit it. For example, promise yourself you’ll never read less than 10 pages in a sitting. You’ll often do more, but at least you keep the habit going. (See Jerry Seinfeld, ‘don’t break the chain‘).
And that’s it. Reading more is easy, right?!
Not really. But reading is a cornerstone habit that will pay huge dividends. And to extend the financial metaphor, reading a lot has a similar effect to compound interest. The earlier in your life you read, the more time your efforts have to reward you. Get reading!
Here are my book recommendations, if you need somewhere to kick-start your habit.
In summary: 6 steps to read more books
- Understand your purpose
- Build the reading habit
- Find sources of inspiration
- Balance speed with comprehension
- Read actively; take notes
- Use appropriate tools to assist your reading habit
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