The Secrets To Reading 200+ Books A Year

I read a lot.  It's now half way through 2017 and I have read about 110 in my own time, plus at least 40 for work. 

There was a point in my life where I read 25 books per week. And no, I do not speed read or read summaries. I also remember what I read in great detail. That's no exaggeration. I recently wrote an essay using information from a book I read eight years ago and, when I fact checked, I had remembered everything correctly. I'm not in possession of any unusual powers of comprehension. I have just figured out what works and what doesn't. 

 But I'm aware that this is something unusual; most people read little or even not at all. 

So, this post is an explanation of how I manage to read so much. Like anything, it is a skill which can be improved through specific techniques and careful practice. I have also written about how to fall in love with reading,  how I remember what I read, why you should read more (a lot more), and why schools should teach how to read properly.

The way I see it, there are three main components to achieving this. They are:

  • Willingness- actually wanting to read as much as possible.

  • Access - removing all barriers which make it difficult.

  • Techniques - uncomplicated methods I have developed through experience.

Let's break those down.

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien - an extraordinary book. 

Firstly, willingness. 

Reading has to be a priority. This is a no-brainer, yet it's easy to forget. You cannot outsource, simplify or 'hack' everything in life.  To read a book, you have to actually sit down and read the damn book. All the way through.  There is no way around this, whatever anyone says. I read faster than average, but only slightly. 

Reading book summaries or watching 5-minute animated video explanations is not the same thing. If you want a quick injection of information like that, read a blog post or news article. The point of a book is that it is (usually) long. The author has worked hard to craft a narrative which a reader is lead through towards a conclusion. Minimizing that into a few bullet points is borderline offensive to them.

Extreme speed reading is a gimmick which only works for a few people with unusual capabilities. It's just not possible to devour a book in seconds. I know how to speed read, but I only use it for academic papers or when I am looking for specific information. 

A French philosophy bookstore- heaven.

The second part is access.

Again, this is somewhat obvious and again, it gets ignored. The secret to building any good habit is to make it as easy as possible. In this case, that means always carrying a book. Always. Ideally more than one. Or thousands if you have a Kindle. Books do not discriminate. There is no difference between an ebook, a library book, one borrowed from a friend or a brought paper copy. As Lemony Snicket (author of A Series of Unfortunate Events) said, never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. I usually carry at least 2- one challenging one and one more digestible one. 

What matters is that you have it with you at all times. This makes it simple to read during spare moments when people otherwise reach for their phone. I do a lot of my reading this way. On buses, while waiting for meetings or appointments, whilst eating, when I'm early somewhere. I can sometimes finish a whole book in a day just from using these snippets of time. This part also requires having constant access to new books. We are lucky today for how easy that now is. I borrow from the library or family most of the time but buy if I cannot find a particular book. It is always worth the £3-5 a book costs on Amazon. I then give away, resell or donate those I don't want to keep. My personal library is small, yet perfectly curated. If a book is over 70 years old (give or take), it may have entered into the public domain and be available for free as a legal PDF.

Reading a lot is not expensive. My 200+ books a year costs me around £600. If that still sounds like a lot, bear in mind that I do not spend money on any other forms of entertainment. I don't buy music, have a Netflix account, go to the cinema or anything like that. 

One of my all time best-loved books.

The third part is the techniques you use to read faster whilst still enjoying it, by understanding better and focusing clearly.

I'm aware that this is the juicy part of this post, so keep in mind that the first two points are far more important. These techniques will help you to read faster and remember more, though they will not create more time in the day. Here are some I use and have done for years.

1 - Practice honing your focus in general.  No one can expect themselves to jump from reading 150 character tweets and 9-second videos to full-length books. Reading requires intense focus, especially for dense, lengthy or challenging books.

 There are many other ways to do this. Meditation, writing essays and memorizing vocabulary are all useful. The practice of reading can be somewhat meditative. Whenever I first sit down with a book, my mind initially wanders every few seconds. I keep pulling it back and after a while, I become fully focused. The longer I read for in one sitting, the more focused I am on it.

We cannot control how much time we have, but we can control our focus. I recommend two books for this. Deep Work by Cal Newport transformed the way I work and I cannot recommend it enough. The Productivity Project by Christ Bailey taught me a lot about the value of attention management over time management. Both should be mandatory reading for every human who wants to do anything meaningful. If you only take one thing from this post, it's to read both of these. They have made me a better reader, as well as improving many other areas of my life. If you don't have much time to read, improving your focus is the perfect way to finish more pages in less time.

2 - Cultivate a set of relevant mental models. This is an ongoing process for me and always will be. Mental models are tools for rapid cognition, understanding and decision making.  Farnham street is an excellent resource for understanding them.

It takes very little time to get a grasp of these and the understanding is there for life. When I read, I apply these to anything I am struggling to process. A small number of fundamental models underly everything. Learn them and you'll start seeing them everywhere.

3 - Develop a broad understanding of key theoretical perspectives. Every time I learn a new one, I am amazed by how useful it is while I read.  Picture these as lenses to view what you read through. A good way to practice this is to take a walk, pick out random sights and apply a chosen to theory to it. If your understanding is deep and broad enough, this should be possible in almost all situations.

For example, the first time I read The Palm Wine Drinkard, I was confused and had no idea what was going on. So I switched my perspective and looked at it as a post colonial text. Immediately, the book made sense and was enjoyable. This has worked for many others. It's important, however, to avoid fitting a book into an inappropriate perspective or mental model. 

4 - Stop overloading your brain with information at other times. Treat your ability to focus on something vital and sacred - because it is. For me, this means not watching TV, never playing games and spending minimum time on social media newsfeeds. Of course, this also means more time for reading too. I take reading seriously as it is a form of training for my central work (writing.) Most people spend hours a day watching TV. If you actually want to read more, cut it out. 

5 - Allow time after reading for processing the information. I suspect this is one of the reasons I can digest books at such a fast rate. I think about the contents afterward, not while I am reading. I take frequent breaks, rarely reading for more than an hour at a time. After finishing a book, I go through it again to make notes, draw diagrams and transcribe key parts. 

6 - Prepare yourself with some general contextual knowledge before reading. This need not be more than reading the introduction or Wikipedia entry. If I want to dive deep into a book, I read some academic papers and reviews. Interviews with the author are also useful. Avoid resources for students- they are not fact checked and are often opinion based. Building an understanding of the content speeds up your comprehension and therefore speed up your reading. Context is vital for comprehension. This is even more important for books which come from cultures you are unfamiliar with, or older books. 

7 - Enjoy it. Reading is not a chore. It's one of the most exciting and enjoyable things anyone can do in life. To fall in love with books, try reading Walden by Thoreau. The chapter 'reading' is paradigm altering when it comes to loving books. In it, Thoreau writes that 'books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.' He also asks 'how many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?'  Also, read On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. Yes, I recommend that book in every post and there is a reason for that. Remember that it is not necessary to read at a crazy speed or get through insane numbers of books. Committing to as much as you can is what matters.