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!

How Much Theory Should You Learn for Practical Skills?

I’ve met a number of self-taught programmers. These are people who make their living programming every day, but never went to school to learn how to do it.

A few of these people have expressed a mild regret for not learning more computer science. They know how to program well, but they don’t have a good understanding of some of the deeper math and theory behind the programs they write.

Which brings me to my question: Should these programmers learn more theory? Would they be better programmers if they did?

Learning Bottom-Up or Top-Down

The way a lot of self-taught people learn skills is purely through usage. Programmers start trying to program from an early age, maybe to make games or websites. Everything they learn is motivated by trying to figure out how to do something they want to do. Let’s call this style of learning bottom-up.

This differs a lot from the approach that happens in academic environments. In those settings, recognized experts decide what theoretical knowledge will be useful to students and push them to learn it, even if learning those things isn’t obviously useful to the immediate practical ends of the student. Let’s call this style of learning top-down.

Bottom-up learners only pick up the theory they need to solve the problem in front of them. If you’re learning another language through immersion, you’ll pick up grammatical rules when you need to express yourself, understand another person or notice you’re not saying it right. You don’t learn the rules in advance and then wait for a situation to apply them.

Is it Better to Learn Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

I’ve thought a lot about which approach is better for learning, bottom-up or top-down. In truth, I’ve used both. The MIT Challenge was clearly a top-down learning project, as I aimed to follow a particular curriculum rather than teach myself. The Year Without English, on the other hand, was mostly bottom-up, using immersion to drive improvement.

My feeling tends to be that in the short-term, bottom-up tends to do better. It’s very hard for anyone (even an expert) to know exactly what concepts should be learned in what order. If you learn from trying to do things and pick up theory as-needed, you rarely learn anything that isn’t useful. In contrast, much, perhaps most of the time, in school is learning things which aren’t useful.

The long-term picture is less clear, however. In the long-term, there’s probably some advantages to a top-down approach, because often there are ideas which only appear useful after you’ve learned them. A bottom-up approach misses these opportunities entirely.

This suggests to me that, if your goal is to learn a skill you intend to use, then you should start closer to bottom-up and shift to top-down only later. What would this look like, in practice?

  • Programming. Start by learning via a particular goal: making a game, website or app. Once you’re pretty good, then start to introduce more top-down theory to round out your knowledge.
  • Languages. Start by learning via immersion. Once your conversational, spend time on those tricky grammar points with a textbook.
  • Business. Start by running a business or working in it. Once you have some experience, then go back and build your theoretical knowledge (say with an MBA or self-education).
  • Art. Paint, draw and sketch a lot. When you get stuck, look for advice on your specific weakness. Once you’re decent and stop improving as fast, learn more about theories of composition, colors, art history, etc.

You’ll note that this is the opposite approach most learners use. Most learners start top-down, and only move to bottom-up strategies once they feel confident enough.

Why Learn Theory?

Of course, all of this assumes your goal is to learn a practical skill. If your learning goal is more abstract knowledge in the first place (psychology, economics, math, etc.) it’s probably not possible to learn bottom-up.

Bottom-up learning also requires more confidence and motivation. Starting directly from a real-use situation when your ability is quite low can feel daunting. Getting through that initial frustration period can overwhelm less experienced or casual learners, so for those people, taking a class which is less efficient but less overwhelming may not be a bad idea.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Do you think learning extra theory (beyond what you need to solve immediate problems) is important for a skill you know well? Are there any traps that come from learning something bottom-up first? Share your thoughts in the comments.