How to Read More Books

A couple commenters, in response to my semi-regular reading list, have asked me how I manage to read so many books. Reading more books seems to be a goal for many people, so I thought I’d briefly share my approach.

Why Read Books?

Before I start, I’d like to state firmly that I don’t believe books are necessarily better than reading blogs, listening to podcasts or watching television and movies. All mediums have the potential to be enlightening or insipid, so you don’t get points just because your media consumption tends to be text.

That said, books tend to have certain strengths that are harder to replicate in other formats. For starters, books tend to be long—movies, articles and podcasts can usually only give a brief summary of a book. So for depth and breadth, books tend to win out both for facts and fiction.

Reading books is also one of the formats people struggle with most. The patience required to read books is harder to come by in our world of non-stop distractions and entertainment.

Difficulty itself doesn’t make something worth doing. But if books are worth reading, and they have some qualities hard to find in other media, then that might merit more effort to read more. If only because whatever virtues social media or television have, people seem to have no problem consuming them.

How to Read More Books

1. Have More Good Books

I used to feel guilty about having unread books lying around. If I bought a book, and didn’t read it, that was a waste of money. I should really finish the books I have before I buy new ones.

That attitude is counterproductive. The best way to read more books is to have lots of good books to read. The easiest way to stop reading is to get stuck on a book you aren’t in love with. Because the book is difficult, you’ll avoid reading and the habit of reading will start slipping away from you.

My solution is to have at least 5-10 unread books at my home at all times. (Note: I used to do this with library books when money was more of a concern, so this strategy needn’t be more expensive.)

2. Don’t Finish All Your Books

I like to finish books. It’s nice to feel like you’ve gotten the full idea and experience the author intended.

I don’t like to feel pressured to finish books. Pressure to finish translates to a less pleasurable reading experience. If done to excess, this can quickly make reading a chore you choose to do as little as possible.

In addition to my unread pile, I have dozens of books I started and never finished. That’s okay. Even reading part of a book is better than having read none of it. I’ve also gone back and finished many books after leaving them on my shelf for months.

3. Always Have Books With You

Some people ask whether I prefer ebooks or paper books. The truth is I like both—for different purposes.

For sitting at home and reading, I prefer paper. There’s something satisfying about holding a paper book, being able to flip the pages and put it on your shelf when you’re done. The experience of reading isn’t purely reducible to the information content on the pages.

However, if I’m traveling or out of the house, I prefer digital. I used to have a Kindle, but didn’t like carrying it places. Now I use the Kindle app on my iPhone and I keep a couple ebooks there for long commutes or plane rides. Now, I never have a reason not to read.

4. The More You Read, The More You’ll Enjoy Reading

What if you don’t like reading any books? What if you can’t seem to finish any book you start because after thirty pages you’re wondering if you can just wait until they make a movie version?

My feeling is that reading is an effortful skill that doesn’t come automatically to most people. Sitting and reading for long durations is quite unlike watching a movie or listening to a podcast. Even if you are completely literate, even a tiny amount of effort required for reading can tire you out before you read a full book.

However, I do think there is a solution. If you read more, you’ll get better at reading. Getting better at not only the cognitive task of literacy, but also with not getting distracted and sitting for longer periods of time. As you get better, reading will become more and more enjoyable.

5. Find Smart People, Read Their Reading List

Most books aren’t very good. Quite unfortunately, it is hard to judge a book by its cover.

This is particularly true of nonfiction, where you don’t only want to read something that is intellectually stimulating, but also something you hope is true.

My solution is to follow people smarter than me (through blogs, Twitter, etc.) and add books they mention to my Amazon queue. As long as they weren’t specifically panning the book or rejecting its thesis, there’s a good chance that the book is of good quality by taking this approach.

Side note: For those curious, some of the “people smarter than me who make occasional book recommendations” category include: Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander, Cal Newport, David Chapman, Ben Casnocha and Robin Hanson.

6. Have Both Ambitious and Fun Books

Ambitious books are deep, intellectual books you would be proud of yourself for having read. While in university, I got Infinite Jest for that reason. I did finish it, and it was thought-provoking and inspired. But it was also exhausting and had me turning to the dictionary more than any English-language book I’ve ever read before.

I think it’s good to read ambitious books. But if you only get ambitious books (or worse, you force yourself to finish them before reading fun ones) you’ll kill any potential joy for reading you might have.

So always have “fun” books—light, easy reads that make you feel good in addition to weightier tomes. That way you can switch between styles depending on whether you want challenge or relaxation and never give up the habit of reading.

7. Make Time for Reading

Most of the suggestions I’ve made involve reducing the friction to having a prodigious reading habit. But nothing beats having uninterrupted stretches of time when you can get reading done.

The unfortunate truth is, if you don’t read now, you may feel like you don’t have any of these chunks of time. And you might be right. After you’re finished work, you may feel too tired to start reading a book and you’d prefer to watch television or browse Facebook.

However, if you do read, you probably notice many stretches of time when you’re able to get some reading done. During your morning transit ride. Part of your lunch hour. A longer layover. Before bed.

My sense is that reading, like exercising, is something difficult to add in through willpower, but often easy to do when you’re already in the habit. That means that, if you’ve already been reading regularly, it’s fairly easy to continue. But it also means that if you aren’t reading at all right now, you may need to invest some time for it to start.

When I first started reading lots of books over ten years ago, I wrote about it on this blog. The main strategy I used was to temporarily cut my other media (at the time, mostly television) and make up for it with more reading. It was a bit uncomfortable at first, but it did the job. I was able to build a habit of reading lots of books that carries on today with fairly minimal effort.

What are your strategies for reading more? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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  • William Tarbush

    I cut off the TV habit years ago. I realized I fall asleep watching movies more than I cared to do. Reading keeps me interested. When I get bored (or sleepy) while reading, I get up and do something else. I think this allows me to finish books a lot more. Also, I read blogs, but I prioritize them alongside books. This allows me to put books first.

  • William Tarbush

    I cut off the TV habit years ago. I realized I fall asleep watching movies more than I cared to do. Reading keeps me interested. When I get bored (or sleepy) while reading, I get up and do something else. I think this allows me to finish books a lot more. Also, I read blogs, but I prioritize them alongside books. This allows me to put books first.

  • Good points, Scott! Thanks.

    I guess the most important point is number 7 – making more time for reading. 🙂
    It’s also good to know that you don’t need to finish every book.

    My strategies are that I read 2 or more books at a time (not simultaneously). I always read an inspiring book during my morning routine, and a biography before bed. During the day I read how to books.

  • Jonas Salzgeber

    Good points, Scott! Thanks.

    I guess the most important point is number 7 – making more time for reading. 🙂
    It’s also good to know that you don’t need to finish every book.

    My strategies are that I read 2 or more books at a time (not simultaneously). I always read an inspiring book during my morning routine, and a biography before bed. During the day I read how to books.

  • Jarred Wright

    Great and timely post. I was just thinking about this the other day,

  • Jarred Wright

    Great and timely post. I was just thinking about this the other day,

  • Audio books from Audible have been the key to me reading way more than I used to. You can also save one quarter of the time if read at 1.25 speed!

  • Stephan R

    Audio books from Audible have been the key to me reading way more than I used to. You can also save one quarter of the time if read at 1.25 speed!

  • Ahmed

    Reading in different topics is very important too as it make people discover areas of their interest they would not know about

  • Ahmed

    Reading in different topics is very important too as it make people discover areas of their interest they would not know about

  • Lendy

    In 50 years ago,a famous man always read off the book before reading a new book.So that he read many books.But I think his books are all great and world is change.It isn’t it.
    I like you very much,thank you.

  • Lendy

    In 50 years ago,a famous man always read off the book before reading a new book.So that he read many books.But I think his books are all great and world is change.It isn’t it.
    I like you very much,thank you.

  • bupster

    I have to say this is the one part of the advice you give out that I do find a bit alien – my problem is the exact opposite! I read so much it tends to eat into the rest of the things I have to do, and I’ve ended up having to treat it like TV or daft websites, and limit myself – otherwise reading is all I would do!

  • bupster

    I have to say this is the one part of the advice you give out that I do find a bit alien – my problem is the exact opposite! I read so much it tends to eat into the rest of the things I have to do, and I’ve ended up having to treat it like TV or daft websites, and limit myself – otherwise reading is all I would do!

  • Safi Ahmed Memon

    Very interesting article. Its true that nothing beats a long stretch on a weekend as opposed to a daily habit of say 20 minutes.

  • Safi Ahmed Memon

    Very interesting article. Its true that nothing beats a long stretch on a weekend as opposed to a daily habit of say 20 minutes.

  • I appreciate your suggestions. I travel a lot and so 99% of my reading is digital. I always carry my tablet. I have many books on it and always have multiple books in progress. The common themes that I see in other lists, along with yours is to always have multiple books, and to be OK with not finishing a book.
    I always have multiple books in progress and I finish most books that I start. As you said, there is a sense of accomplishment when you complete a book. At the same time, it is freeing to now feel like you have to finish a book that has you bogged down.

  • Gregory Woodard

    I appreciate your suggestions. I travel a lot and so 99% of my reading is digital. I always carry my tablet. I have many books on it and always have multiple books in progress. The common themes that I see in other lists, along with yours is to always have multiple books, and to be OK with not finishing a book.
    I always have multiple books in progress and I finish most books that I start. As you said, there is a sense of accomplishment when you complete a book. At the same time, it is freeing to now feel like you have to finish a book that has you bogged down.

  • Travis T

    Enlightening,sagacious, and philosophical post!

    Appreciate your intelligent and unorthodox thoughts: “The best way to read more books
    is to have lots of good books to read. My solution is to have at least 5-10
    unread books at my home at all times. I don’t like to feel pressured to finish
    books. Pressure to finish translates to a less pleasurable reading
    experience.”

    You seem to have an-in-depth understanding of human nature — emotions,
    dispositions, desires, and traits that often pull human beings in different and
    contradictory ways….

    What I find compelling in your writing is that it embodies the ineffable and
    quasi-amorphous qualities of the Dao, or the Way. You are very adept and
    nuanced in suggesting that instead of forcing oneself like a salmon swimming
    against a strong upstream current, one should try to be malleable in forging
    one’s own path while taking into account of one’s natural impulses…..

    And like Voltaire, a number of points you have made appear to be parallel to his idea
    that “the secret lies in accepting one’s fate while striving continually
    to improve it.”

    According to a book entitled The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the
    Good Life, written by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, a contented,
    fulfilling, and productive life may come to fruition by being in alignment with
    the Way. The Way “is the path that we forge continually through our
    choices, actions, and relationships. We create the Way a new every moment of
    our lives. The Way is not a harmonious ‘ideal’ we must struggle to
    follow.”

    I see you not only as a great writer with intelligent and illuminating ideas but
    also as an insightful life coach! Travis Truong

  • Travis T

    Enlightening,sagacious, and philosophical post!

    Appreciate your intelligent and unorthodox thoughts: “The best way to read more books
    is to have lots of good books to read. My solution is to have at least 5-10
    unread books at my home at all times. I don’t like to feel pressured to finish
    books. Pressure to finish translates to a less pleasurable reading
    experience.”

    You seem to have an-in-depth understanding of human nature — emotions,
    dispositions, desires, and traits that often pull human beings in different and
    contradictory ways….

    What I find compelling in your writing is that it embodies the ineffable and
    quasi-amorphous qualities of the Dao, or the Way. You are very adept and
    nuanced in suggesting that instead of forcing oneself like a salmon swimming
    against a strong upstream current, one should try to be malleable in forging
    one’s own path while taking into account of one’s natural impulses…..

    And like Voltaire, a number of points you have made appear to be parallel to his idea
    that “the secret lies in accepting one’s fate while striving continually
    to improve it.”

    According to a book entitled The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the
    Good Life, written by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, a contented,
    fulfilling, and productive life may come to fruition by being in alignment with
    the Way. The Way “is the path that we forge continually through our
    choices, actions, and relationships. We create the Way a new every moment of
    our lives. The Way is not a harmonious ‘ideal’ we must struggle to
    follow.”

    I see you not only as a great writer with intelligent and illuminating ideas but
    also as an insightful life coach! Travis Truong

  • Do Viet

    Great! Thank you so much!

  • Do Viet

    Great! Thank you so much!

  • f1yegor

    do you use goodreads.com?

  • Awesome article love the counter-intuitiveness of some of your thoughts. Been reading so much more and it really does make a difference.

  • FollowSuccess

    Awesome article love the counter-intuitiveness of some of your thoughts. Been reading so much more and it really does make a difference.

  • layzon bazan

    this was the best replied to anything I ever read. Thanks a lot for that pleasure, You should be writing a post too

  • layzon bazan

    this was the best replied to anything I ever read. Thanks a lot for that pleasure, You should be writing a post too

  • I know this is a tip a lot of people give, but I stopped doing that since it is not the same experience as it is recorded at the regular speed. We would never watch a movie even a little fast. One tip that has helped me a lot is to set aside a good book that you will only listen to when you go for a walk. You can get two things done consistently.

  • Jay Oza

    I know this is a tip a lot of people give, but I stopped doing that since it is not the same experience as it is recorded at the regular speed. We would never watch a movie even a little fast. One tip that has helped me a lot is to set aside a good book that you will only listen to when you go for a walk. You can get two things done consistently.

  • Scott Young

    Sometimes. I should use it more.

  • Scott Young

    Sometimes. I should use it more.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks, I’m currently working (very slowly) through the Chinese version of the Dao De Jing, but I should get some modern commentary books as well.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks, I’m currently working (very slowly) through the Chinese version of the Dao De Jing, but I should get some modern commentary books as well.

  • Scott Young

    Agreed. My last vacation I finished three books–having more time is definitely an asset for anything in life, reading included.

  • Scott Young

    Agreed. My last vacation I finished three books–having more time is definitely an asset for anything in life, reading included.

  • Scott Young

    Well in that case you may want to apply effort to fill the gaps. Maybe you want to push yourself to read a particular type of book, or take online courses, or practice more skills instead of passive learning. There’s no right answer, and I think reading books forms a good part of a general habit of self-education.

  • Scott Young

    Well in that case you may want to apply effort to fill the gaps. Maybe you want to push yourself to read a particular type of book, or take online courses, or practice more skills instead of passive learning. There’s no right answer, and I think reading books forms a good part of a general habit of self-education.

  • Scott Young

    True. I’ve written a lot about my ideas about *what* to read. For this post, higher volume was the intended goal.

  • Scott Young

    Sometimes. I should use it more.

  • Scott Young

    True. I’ve written a lot about my ideas about *what* to read. For this post, higher volume was the intended goal.

  • Scott Young

    Sometimes. I should use it more.

  • Alan Hook

    How do you feel about talking books, Scott? Unabridged sort is my preference – hate to find I’ve missed something:).
    Audible are good, but not very cheap, but there are other providors and many libraries now have talking books too. I used to travel about an hour each way to work and could easily get through 12 to 15 books in a year that way that I wouldn’t any other way. Enjoyment is down as much to narrator as book content of course. But I’ve only been disappointed by the narrator once or twice.

  • Alan Hook

    How do you feel about talking books, Scott? Unabridged sort is my preference – hate to find I’ve missed something:).
    Audible are good, but not very cheap, but there are other providors and many libraries now have talking books too. I used to travel about an hour each way to work and could easily get through 12 to 15 books in a year that way that I wouldn’t any other way. Enjoyment is down as much to narrator as book content of course. But I’ve only been disappointed by the narrator once or twice.

  • ahmad

    I think one more important thing to consider is to have a place at home that you can use for reading

  • ahmad

    I think one more important thing to consider is to have a place at home that you can use for reading

  • Keri

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only person who always has unread books on the shelves! I’ve often wrestled with having unread fiction on the shelves because it seems to waste space. But I eventually realized that what I really want most is the *potential* to have something new to read. I now view unread books like our stash of food and water: they’ll get us through rough times!

    One benefit to reading that movies and podcasts don’t impart is improvement in grammar and spelling and writing. The more you read, the better your own writing tends to become. Reading blogs is hit or miss, since some blogs have bad grammar, bad organization, lots of typos, etc., while some are clean and professional. I’ve seen an alarming increase in the number of typos in books these days, so even if something is commercially published, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but generally speaking, most commercially-published books will impart good grammar. More often than not, I write something “because it sounds right,” not because I break down the sentence structure to figure out if my verb and subject agree. If you read enough, you’ll get to know grammar that way–intuitively.

  • Keri

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only person who always has unread books on the shelves! I’ve often wrestled with having unread fiction on the shelves because it seems to waste space. But I eventually realized that what I really want most is the *potential* to have something new to read. I now view unread books like our stash of food and water: they’ll get us through rough times!

    One benefit to reading that movies and podcasts don’t impart is improvement in grammar and spelling and writing. The more you read, the better your own writing tends to become. Reading blogs is hit or miss, since some blogs have bad grammar, bad organization, lots of typos, etc., while some are clean and professional. I’ve seen an alarming increase in the number of typos in books these days, so even if something is commercially published, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but generally speaking, most commercially-published books will impart good grammar. More often than not, I write something “because it sounds right,” not because I break down the sentence structure to figure out if my verb and subject agree. If you read enough, you’ll get to know grammar that way–intuitively.

  • Zoey

    This was so useful and inspiring, Scott! I’ve been reading way too many blogs lately, and I haven’t been making the time to read actual books. As you said, there’s nothing wrong with blogs, but books should not be left behind because of the distracted world we live in. I feel re-energized and convinced that your approach will make reading less daunting. Thank you so much!

  • Zoey

    This was so useful and inspiring, Scott! I’ve been reading way too many blogs lately, and I haven’t been making the time to read actual books. As you said, there’s nothing wrong with blogs, but books should not be left behind because of the distracted world we live in. I feel re-energized and convinced that your approach will make reading less daunting. Thank you so much!

  • Tony Adams

    Thank you sir for your great advice. I also love book reading and your’s this information will help me to read more books.

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