I have always loved books. Most of my life has been a process of figuring out how I can spend the maximum possible time each day reading. As a child, I spent every day of school waiting until the teacher’s back was turned so I could sneak to the library. My favourite days were the ones when no one noticed I was gone, and I could stay there until home time. At 8, I remember a librarian berating me for borrowing books and returning them a day later. She said there was no way I could actually be reading them
It was only fairly recently that I realised not everyone feels the same about books. When I talked to other people my age, more often than not they explained that they ‘just don’t read.’ Or that they had only ever read when forced to for school. When I started doing an English degree, I was shocked by how many of my peers thought the reading lists (which required us to complete a book a week) were excessive.
I decided to turn my writings on the topic- plus new ones- into a super comprehensive post (with an accompanying ebook.) This is a guide to smart reading: reading more efficiently, remembering what you read, understanding complex books and enjoying it all. It covers the techniques I have developed myself, and those I have learnt from others. This is post is a compilation of everything I have learnt from 14 years of devoting every available moment to reading.
I have written this for anyone who wants to read more but finds it difficult. Or for anyone who feels they are ‘bad’ at reading; too slow, too forgetful, too indecisive.
I hope you enjoy it.
Why You Should Read More
In this section, I want to address a question I have been asked many times since I started writing about this topic: why read at all?
After all, why does anyone read? What makes it different to music, films or documentaries? Why are books still relevant?
The question ‘why read?’ is more complex than it appears. It is akin to asking ‘why learn about the world?’
Or ‘why seek alternative perspectives?’
Or ‘why appreciate something beautiful?’
Or even ‘why should we seek to grow as people?’
Reading fulfils all those purposes and more. It is more than a form of entertainment or education.
There are the benefits which science has illuminated. Reading is said to stave off dementia, reduce stress and improve analytical skills. There are practical benefits. Reading can be done almost anywhere, special formats (audio books, braille, large print etc) make it accessible to most of us) and books are cheap, if not free. Yet anyone who loves books knows that the positive facets are not something which can be quantified.
Here are some of the reasons why I am such a vocal advocate for reading:
1. Reading is a form of training for living.
Books teach us how to think, how to relate to people, what to do, who we are and who we should be. For the most part, they teach us how to live. And as EE Cummings put it, nothing is as difficult as that. I have yet to meet anyone who does not flounder when it comes to figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Or who they are. Or who they want to be. We all need guidance and books have a unique knack for providing it.
Books enable us to garner more experience and knowledge than it would be possible to accumulate in a lifetime. We can learn from the mistakes and successes of others, applying their wisdom to our lives. As W. Somerset Maugham wrote: 'To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.'
2. The knowledge we gain from books has a curious tendency to compound over time.
With each volume completed, a mixture of words, images, concepts, ideas, beliefs and perspectives is integrated into what we already know. Connections form, making this even more valuable. The more we read, the more links we form and the richer our understanding becomes. I like to read as widely as possible to enhance this - philosophy, psychology, science, economics, business, fiction, essay collections, classics, manuals, guidebooks and more. Through careful practice, it becomes possible to draw links between disparate books, meshing ideas together to create new ones.
This practice is not only useful for those of us who write for a living. Everyone can benefit from it. Remember, this is about learning to live and growing as a person. Encoding what resonates with us in our memories creates a unique resource to refer to in any situation. No one can take this away. It is there for life. No matter what.
A beautiful explanation of why reading is so valuable comes from Rebecca Solnit:
'The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and it’s real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.'
3. Reading can shake up our world view.
I memorably experienced sudden paradigm shifts in my awareness of cultural relativism whilst reading Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes and Memoirs of a Geisha. My understanding of my purpose in life changed after Meditations and On Writing. My comprehension of human behavior altered after Practical Ethics and The 48 Laws of Power. The way I work was forever transformed by Deep Work, Anything You Want and Small is the New Big. Other books have changed everything for different reasons. Our favorite books serve as mentors, guiding our progress.
Want to understand a person, culture, place or concept? Read about it.
4. Reading requires a degree of focus which is unusual in the era of 9-second videos and tweets.
To complete a lengthy, complex or challenging book requires a degree of self-discipline. It is not easy to multi-task whilst reading (I do it at the gym but that’s as far as it goes.)
Reading can be a meditative process. When I sit down with a book, my mind first wanders off every few seconds to an incomplete task or commitment. I pull it back to the words on the page. After numerous repetitions, my mind clears and I can focus for hours. The capacity to hone in on a single, demanding activity for long periods of time is becoming unusual. It is also satisfying and rewarding. In almost any career, the ability to focus well is a valuable asset. My work necessitates the ability to concentrate on analyzing and interpreting information. This is not easy to do when my mind is scattered, so I am grateful for the practice I have gotten from reading.
Cal Newport's book, Deep Work (about the value of deep focus) emphasises this: 'Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.'
5. Reading is both a solitary, inwards act and one that connects us to all which lies outwards.
Just by sitting still, staring at a page, we grow, develop, morph. It is an introspective activity, which provides perspective.
I don't believe in reading for the sake of sounding smart. Or because work/school demands it. Or to find a sentence which confirms something you already believe in. Or because a certain book is famous and sold whatever number of copies. Or because some blogger has made you feel guilty about not reading. As Nicholas Taleb wrote:
'Books to me are not expanded journal articles, but reading experiences, and the academics who tend to read in order to cite in their writing--rather than read for enjoyment, curiosity, or simply because they like to read--tend to be frustrated when they can't rapidly scan the text and summarize it in one sentence that connects it to some existing discourse in which they have been involved.'
6. Reading can be a means of survival.
James Baldwin read himself out of Harlem and into literary greatness. Malcolm X read himself through prison and towards a revolution. Epictetus read himself from slavery to the sort of genius which resonates 2000 years on. It is pointless to even try and list the countless other people who have pulled themselves out of tough situations through books. As Thoreau wrote: How many men have dated a new era in their lives from the reading of a book?
Proust wrote: 'Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself. '
How To Fall In Love With Reading
The real secret to reading more is not speed reading. It is not setting goals and putting it on your to-do list. It's not 'tricking' yourself. It is not some new app, joining a book club or Facebook group. It is not a magic bullet or life hack.
To read more, you have to fall in love with reading. Simple, yet overlooked. The same goes for any good habit. To exercise regularly, you need to find a type you enjoy. To eat healthily, you need to find a diet which works for you. To meditate regularly, you need to find the technique which brings the most benefits. Reading is no exception.
If you want to read more, even if you hate it and have the attention span of a goldfish, here is how to fall in love with it.
1. Choose your books wisely.
No one says you have to read nothing but classics, or only bestsellers.No one says you have to just read fiction or nonfiction. Likewise, no one says you have to finish a book if you are not enjoying it.
Opt for books on topics you are passionate about and the rest will follow. Indulge nerdy interests, weird obsessions or taboo interests. If you fantasise about escaping from society, try reading Into The Wild or Walden. If you are fascinated with how people do great things, read Daily Routines or Tools of Titans. If you like having nightmares, read The Shining or American Psycho. Think of the topics which would cause you to interrupt a conversation if you overheard someone discussing them. Then find corresponding books. It's a foolproof way to fall in love with reading.
Read books by people you admire. Books are no longer exclusively written by writers. These days, it is extremely common for bloggers, actors, CEOs and so on to get a publishing deal.Mostly these are autobiographical, some are fiction or about topics outside of those, they are known for. I adore Just Kids by Patti Smith and Chris Bailey's The Productivity Project.
Read the favourite books of your heroes. It is surprisingly easy to find lists, as this is a common interview question. People tend to be enthusiastic about their libraries, so you could even try contacting people directly for recommendations. It can be intriguing to see how these books influenced their work and their lives. Conor Oberst's mention of Moby Dick in one of his songs first prompted me to read it. The same goes for Robert Greene's mentions of Machiavelli.
Look at bibliographies. This is how I find many of the books I read. It is a process of organic discovery which leads to books you might not otherwise have heard of. Delving deep into a topic can be somewhat satisfying.
2. Get off social media and stop watching TV.
Focus is a muscle and constant bursts of easy entertainment are the cognitive equivalent of junk food. It's easy and immediately rewarding. As a result, reading seems boring- no quick hits of dopamine.
Reading requires a mind capable of handling more than 140 characters. The long term benefits of it far outweigh the excitement of a new notification. Everyone wants to do the easy thing, and binge watching an entire series on Netflix is a lot easier than reading. Removing that option is the way to go.
I was on Twitter for 6 years, during which I wrote 30,000 tweets and read probably 100,0000. I cannot remember a single one of them. Yet name a book I have read and I can recount every detail of it. Even if switching seems dull, it is a surefire way to fall in love with books, as your mind adjusts and recognises how good it feels.
3. Make it a part of your daily routine.
People who dislike reading tend to see it as a chore to be trudged through under duress. For those who love it, reading is an essential part of their day. It is not a task, it as an essential activity. Returning to the nutrition analogy, it is not to be swallowed like a vitamin pill, it is to be savoured like a lazy summer lunch. Like anything, the necessary time can only be found each day when it ceases to be optional. Depending on my routine for the day, I always set aside at least one block of time for reading, plus little gaps throughout the day.
Most people seem to find pre-bed to be the best time to read, especially as a means of avoiding using devices and sleeping better. One of the best presents I have ever received was a clip on book light for reading under the covers. Try to make it and everyday act, not a rarity. Practice makes anything more enjoyable. Carry a book everywhere and let it enliven dull moments.
4. Avoid decision fatigue.
Choosing a book when you are faced with countless options in a store or on Amazon is exhausting. At university, I would ignore the multi-storied campus library and go to the tiny, understocked public one. There I simply worked my way around the few shelves, finding many gems in the process. Likewise, I love it when I stay with someone and can devour their collection.
Deciding which book to read is not a big deal. I frequently see people asking which order they should read some books they have brought in. The answer? It doesn't matter as long as you read them. Seriously. Making decisions is cognitively draining which makes reading less fun. I keep an Amazon wishlist of everything I plan to read and just order whatever is first on it. In bookstores, I consult that list and buy whichever I see first.
Stop turning it into hard work. And stop feeling guilty about it. Regardless of whether you haven't finished a book for 7 years or just spent the entire day reading in bed, guilt never makes anything fun.
5. Forget about what you learned in school.
I get very angry when I think about the way schools ruin children's enjoyment of books. No 10 year old should be forced to read Shakespeare. If I could redesign the curriculum, I would get rid of required reading (more on this later.) Kids should be taught HOW to read not WHAT to read. I would focus on giving them access to books they actually want to read, like Harry Potter and Roald Dahl. The rest will follow. Likewise, making them take exams on books and analyse them is ridiculous.
The difference between someone who studies books and someone who reads books is like the difference between a bodybuilder and a builder. When you read with the intention of learning how to live not what to think, everything changes. It becomes a pure delight.
Reading is a privilege, not an obligation. We are so lucky to have access to millions of books for the first time in history. Oscar Wilde put it best: It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it. Books are cheaper than ever and even free if you join a library or a project like Librivox. Audiobooks and large print editions mean even bad eyesight is no longer a barrier. Instead of thinking I have to read think I get to read. That excites me. I feel honoured when I get to read about the knowledge of some great person, or about an event I did not experience, or about a concept which changes my life. Through books, I can travel the world and time, learn from my heroes, understand complex topics and use it all to alter myself. Nothing is beyond my reach.
As Stephen King wrote, books are a uniquely portable sort of magic. This chapter is an invitation to you to fall in love with what I consider to be humanity's greatest invention: the written word. Once the true wonder of it sinks into your bones, going a day without reading will become unfathomable.
How To Read More
So, this section 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. 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.
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.
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. Minimising 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.
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. My personal library is small, yet perfectly curated.
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 chapter, 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. This is not a magic bullet or a 'life hack.' 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.
One of the ways I do this is through timed daily language practice on Duolingo. I use this time to work on comprehending and typing French translations as fast as possible. Remaining 100% focused for a set period of time each day has had a huge impact on my ability to pay attention. There are many other ways to do this. Meditation, writing essays and memorising 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 Chris 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. This is needed because I tend to read complex non-fiction books which require a lot of effort. If you read easy, 'page turner', predigested books then this isn't required. `
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. The basic sociological theories everyone should understand are; feminism, colonialism, structuralism, Marxism and the various waves of those. It's also helpful to understand ideas like ideology, symbolism, narrative and communication. 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 postcolonial text. Immediately, the book made sense and was enjoyable. This has worked for many others.
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.)
5 - Allow time after reading for processing the information.
My favourite way to read is at the gym. I'll read while doing cardio, then mull over it during strength and flexibility work. Or I'll read while on a bus, then reflect on it as I walk to my destination. I suspect this is one of the reasons I can digest books at such a fast rate. I think about the contents afterwards, not while I am reading.
6 - Learn how to stop subvocalizing.
This is the voice inside your head while you read. Most people read the words to themselves in their head as they go. We learn this as children, to let us follow a story. It's a bad habit which tends to linger into adulthood and is what slows you down. I only learned recently that this is an actual speed reading technique. I taught myself to avoid this years ago out of my own desire to read faster. There are a range of methods for this - research and try some out. Myself, I use(d) simple brute force to silence this. Through practice, I have learned to process information without the need for subvocalizing. Doing this is not at all easy, though worthwhile if you manage it.
7 - 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 like Shmoop- they are not fact checked and are often opinion based. Building an understanding of the content speeds up your comprehension and therefore speeds 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.
8 - 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. 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
The Art of Remembering What You Read
When I was a child, I would sometimes wake up in the night with a burning need to go and read a certain line from a book.
The line would be in my mind, word for word, yet I needed to see it on paper. I needed to experience the acute look and feel of it before I could go back to sleep.
That sensation exemplifies the difference between people who enjoy reading and those who do not. Those who do not enjoy it see a book as a one-time thing to either get through out of necessity or for pure fun. Those who do enjoy it understand that a book is a dialogue between the author and the reader. It is a continuous two-way interaction.
Part of enjoying reading is to turn it from a passive to an active skill. This means engaging, remembering and using what you read.
I remember a surprising amount of what I read, even though I get through about 4 books a week. When I use a quote or reference in a piece of writing, I usually have typed it from memory then double-checked the accuracy. Whilst I could not list all the books I have read, name any that I have and I can recall a substantial amount.
Here are some of my thoughts on what makes this possible:
Whilst I do have the ability to stop subvocalizing, I do it when I am reading something complex. Reading aloud, if possible, works well for remembering certain sentences. Sometimes I will listen to the audiobook version after finishing a book to help me remember more.
- Differentiate between facts and concepts.
Concepts tend to be more useful. When I am trying to cement one in my mind, I practice applying it to random things. This is one of the more beneficial things I learned in college. I used to go for walks and ask myself: what is a Marxist reading of sandwiches? A third-wave feminist reading of that car? A postmodern reading of what I am doing now? It was crucial for locking the concepts and perspectives in my mind. Remembering concepts is usually easier than remembering facts.
- The best way to remember something is to teach it.
Upon completing a book, call up a willing participant and tell them about it. If that is not an option, talk to your pets or a rubber duck. This is similar to the Feynman technique, in which you simplify complex topics. Or write about it- Goodreads and Reddit have plenty of places you can do this.
- Read before bed, then review it in the morning.
- For some books, the key is to remember how they make you FEEL.
This is more the case for fiction. It is not always necessary to remember every little detail. Sometimes a general sense is enough.
- Different books required reading in different ways.
Some take me weeks or even months to read in small doses, such as Meditations and Tools of Titans. Others are best suited to a single sitting, such as anything by Jack Kerouac and good fiction in general. As a rule of thumb, books of letters and those split into section are best in a few sittings.
- Take meticulous notes.
When part of a book stands out to me, I record it in a notebook, then in Evernote. Writing it out twice helps to lock it in my memory. Whilst I like having it in analogue form, Evernote is vital for being able to find what I need and draw connections. When I am writing about a topic, I can then search for it and integrate different ideas together.
- Also, index cards.
I first learned about the system of using index cards to construct a book from Vladimir Nabokov. I have been using this technique for the book I am working on, keeping cards by me as I read and taking notes. Being able to shuffle them around and flip through is extremely valuable. It's also more portable than a stack of notebooks and less intimidating for writing.
- Take it seriously.
I do not see books as entertainment. As I have said before, to a writer books are what nutrition is to an athlete. The actual practice is a key part, but the right fuel is essential to get anywhere. Books are my main indulgence, although I see them as a necessity. When you start to take reading seriously, it becomes more apparent that you need to use the knowledge.
- Rereading is key.
Usually, I will read once, go through again and take notes, then again to make any clear plans. Tools of Titans took about 3 months to read because I could not stop going over sections again and again. Some books serve as centrifuges in my life which I return to at regular intervals. I doubt I will ever finish The Waves by Virginia Woolf because I have to read each page a dozen times before I can move on. Seneca put it best: 'You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. '
- Forget about a magic bullet.
My previous articles about reading drew criticism from people who, ironically had clearly not read them, and who said speed reading is pointless. I completely agree. Looking for a 'brain hack' or whatever is ridiculous. I do know how to speed read, but only use it for research or reading terms and conditions. Returning to the athlete analogy, speed reading would be like living on candy. The process of reading itself should be satisfying. If you read to try and impress people with your vast knowledge, don't bother. Racing through something which might have taken years to create is outright offensive to the author. The same goes for reading nothing but summaries. It is useful to write them for yourself, but they alone are irrelevant. Unless you are doing something time-constrained, reading the full book is always worthwhile. A book - no matter how technical - is a journey and a narrative. Hayden White's paper on the fictions of historical representative beautifully covers this.
On the second reading, if I know I am going to keep a book, I annotate on the actual page. My system is simple. Square brackets for key paragraphs, underline key sentences, asterisks by potential inspiration, stars for techniques. I also make notes in the margins. Marginalia is powerful for drawing links and clarifying ideas.
I like this excerpt from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler:
‘Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably, he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.’
- Pay attention to the format.
I tend to only listen to audiobooks if I have already read the book. This is because I retain less of what I hear and it is difficult to make notes. Whilst I don't have a Kindle, I read some ebooks in PDF form on my phone and screenshot key parts, then transcribe. Physical books are always preferable.
- Figure out which parts of a book are actually essential.
Most authors have to reach a certain length. The key message of non-fiction books could usually be distilled into a page or even a sentence. Much of the book is often selling the reader on the author's ideas or concepts. The same goes for many fiction books. They are padded out with lengthy passages of description and dialogue. Whilst I do not tend to skip parts of books I try to condense what I have learned into something memorable.
- View knowledge as a latticework.
This means that when I read, I ask myself: what can I link this to? No matter the subject matter, I try to relate it to other topics I have read about. There are certain centrifugal books which I return to and base my understanding on. Charlie Munger put it best: “develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading. Cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.”
- Always find sources.
On a daily basis, I will find myself recalling a segment from a book, without remembering the source. When this happens, I always try to research until I find it. This can be an absolute pain. A combination of Google Books and databases of research papers make it easier. It is surprising how often a quote is not listed anywhere online. When this happens, q&a sites like Quora are helpful. I view this as a good practice for staying in tune with everything I read.
- Make coherent plans.
For practical books, I try to set a plan for how I can implement it in my life. Charlie Munger also described the necessity of using what you read: 'I don’t know anyone who’s wise who doesn’t read a lot. But that’s not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things."
A Class Every School Should Teach
What is something every student should learn which isn’t taught in school?
How to read.
Sure, schools teach us how to look at the letters C A T and know that they refer to a particular type of furry animal. The difference between adjectives and adverbs. When Shakespeare was born and who Dickens was married to. How to 'analyse' by guessing the author's intent and drawing lofty conclusions from it. How to write an essay with an introduction, middle, and conclusion, each paragraph including point, example, and explanation.
But I have yet to hear of a curriculum which covers how to read and benefit from it. This is what reading is all about. No one writes a book because they want it to be analysed. People write books to teach, process an experience, do something new or convey their ideas. Reading should serve the same purpose.
I can think of few worse ideas than forcing 10-year-olds to plow through Shakespeare or Austen. That is a terrible idea. Not because they are not worth reading (they certainly are), but because it results in boredom and confusion. At worst, it turns it into a miserable chore. I was lucky that I read a lot outside school which is why I managed to retain my love of it. I did not have many friends, did not watch TV, play video games or do sports. I just read, up to 25 books a week.
Studies have shown that most adults have a reading age of 9-11. This breaks my heart. Stupidity has nothing to do with it, the cause is a lack of education on how and why to read, not what and who. I find this sad because they miss out on an enormous source of fulfilling fun and education. Whatever your career, learning more is the best way to become a valuable part of the industry. Whatever the circumstances of your life, guidance, and advice from smart people is always useful.
I picture the difference between someone who reads for academic purposes and someone who reads to learn as being like the difference between a bodybuilder and a builder. A bodybuilder pushes their body to an unnatural, usually unhealthy point to achieve a certain physique. A builder, on the other hand, needs to be strong and able to move in the way their job requires. One sort of strength is vanity, the other is functional. Reading is the same. If you read to write a paper, sound smart or tick another item off a list, you are the bodybuilder. If you read in order to live, you are the builder. I am an advocate of functional knowledge- the type of learning which serves a real purpose in our day to day lives. A good book teaches lessons which we can refer to during tough time, when we make decisions and when we want to add a new dimension to our lives.
If I could teach a class on reading to every student, this is what I would say:
1) There are no rules when it comes to books.
Ignore lists of ‘50 books everyone should read.’ The best books are the ones which you enjoy. There is no requisite number anyone should read per year (although I recommend 1 per week as a minimum.) Likewise, there is no perfect time or place. Read whenever possible, wherever possible, in whatever form is preferable. Break the rules. Read a book backward, or a series out of order.
2) Books are to be digested, not swallowed.
Speed reading is a scam and a waste of time. Read slowly, considering each page and go at the pace which feels right. If you want to pause and think, do it. The goal is not to read the most books, but to get the most out of them. A good book requires multiple readings, spread throughout your life. This is particularly important for those which are complex or challenging.
3) Take notes.
This is extremely important. Record sentences which strike you, ideas you want to recall, points to reference. Making notes is the best way to remember what you read and to grow your body of knowledge. I use Evernote to catalog them, but go with whatever works for you. Over time, it becomes easier to draw between notes and create a latticework of knowledge. Creativity and innovation require inspiration from multiple sources. Reading through notes on varying topics is an effective way to cross-pollinate the different parts of your life and work. When I need an idea, I flip through random notes and let them mingle in my mind. It never fails to create something new. Never.
4) Don’t treat books as something sacred which must be kept intact.
We are no longer living in an age where books are expensive and rare. They are extremely cheap. This is the best possible investment. If you don’t have the means to buy them new, go to a secondhand bookstore, a flea market, buy old stock from a library or just hit Amazon. Give up your Netflix subscription, buy fewer drinks, don’t upgrade your phone, whatever. Reading a lot does not require being rich. Don’t be afraid to write in the margins, fold pages and carry them everywhere. This is how a book becomes your own.
5) Read books which challenge you.
Extremely old books. Biographies of controversial figures. Genres you think you hate. Obscure topics. Books which have nothing to do with any of your interests. This is somewhat satisfying and more meaningful than skimming through a light read. It’s also a perfect way to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new. You might be surprised. I recently read Theodore Roosevelt’s 500-page autobiography. Despite having no interest in the lives of politicians, I enjoyed it a lot. When I hit a bookstore, I try to ensure half of my purchases are ‘blind’ - books I know nothing about.
6) Never finish a shitty book.
This does not mean giving up if it’s difficult. It means learning to identify when you are getting nothing out of a book and acting accordingly. Resistance can be a sign that you are being challenged. Boredom and lack of engagement are not. You can always come back to it in the future with a different perspective.
7) Let it in.
This one is tricky. We all fall prey to confirmation bias when we read. Let’s say a disorganized person who never has time for anything picks up a book on time management. They flip through 300 pages, see a bunch of complex looking techniques and decide that implementing them would waste more time. So they go back to watching Netflix. If a book is going to change your life, you have to be receptive to the messages within it. An open mind and a sense of willingness are required. Every so often, a book will alter everything for you. This has happened to me many times. However, it will never happen if you read just to confirm what you already know. Let the words flow through your brain, sweeping away cobwebs. See 5).
How To Fund Your Reading Habit
Another comment I have heard many times on my writing about reading is this: only rich people can afford to read a lot. That is absolute rubbish, and one of the weakest excuses anyone can make.
Here is how anyone can fund a reading habit, no matter how prolific.
1. Prioritise it.
As with finding time to read, finding the money also requires making it a priority. Books are my highest cost, after rent and food. I made a decision as soon as I reached the age where I had my own income to never hold back when it comes to buying books. When I left university, I became even more liberal with my spending on books. I wasn’t going to be forking out £27,000 for a degree which would have taught me very little, but I would spend whatever it took to get my education from books.
2. Give up something else.
A Netflix subscription, Spotify premium, expensive makeup, whatever. There has to be some unnecessary cost which can be sacrificed for the sake of teaching yourself to live. Clothes wear out, meals out are forgotten, technology breaks and becomes outdated. The lessons we learn from books last forever.
3. Public domain ebooks and PDFs.
If a book is over 70 years old, it is probably that a PDF version will be available for free. This is perfectly legal- at a certain point, a book enters the public domain. Finding them is simple; search ‘[name of book]+ PDF.’ Please, please don’t look for illegal PDFs of copyrighted books. This is unfair to the author and no different to shoplifting in a bookstore. Seriously. Don’t do it.
4. Thrift stores and flea markets.
I get a lot of my books from thrift stores, not just because they are dirt cheap, but because it’s a good way to find interesting gems. When in Paris, I go crazy at the enormous £0.20-£1 stalls near Notre Dame.
5. Amazon trade in (or reselling.)
Finished with a book and don’t want to keep it? Amazon has to option of returning undamaged books to them, in return for money or vouchers. In my experience, reselling books is more trouble than it is worth.
6. Amazon outlet (or similar resale sites.)
An excellent source of 1p books with constantly updated stock. It takes a bit of digging to find something worthwhile (most of them are cheap for a reason) but it is possible to find classics and older books on there.
7. Borrow from friends and family.
And remember to return them. Most people are a tad touchy about lending books, considering how few people ever remember to return them. I have lost countless books this way. If you do borrow, take a leaf out of Benjamin Franklin’s book and return it in good time.
8. Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card.
I am putting this last because it is so obvious. If you don’t yet have a library card, GET ONE. If you are travelling, ask for a temporary guest card (most places do them.) Want a book and can’t afford to buy it? Ask a librarian if they can order it from another branch or include it next time they buy new stock. Even if you live in a rural area, there might be a travelling library. Lastly, many places sell old or damaged stock which is ideal if you prefer to own a copy. My local library sells old books for about 30p each
A List Of Books I Adore and Recommend To Anyone
- On the Shortness of Life- Seneca. There's a reason this book remains popular close to 2000 years after being written. It is still relevant and more accessible than many Stoic texts. Seneca is a timeless genius with a remarkable awareness of what matters in life. Realising how little people have changed since the Roman era is somewhat reassuring. People have always procrastinated, worried about the future and been unsure of their own purpose. Reading Seneca always make me feel less alone on bad days.
- The Hidden Pleasures of Life - Theodore Zeldin. Five weeks. That's how long it took me to read this- longer than any other book before. Each page is thick with insights and every sentence is a work of art. Reading more than a few pages in one go is almost impossible. Carry this book with you, dip into passages and unravel it at a slow pace. This is writing to ponder, not to just read.
- On Writing - Stephen King. I found an abandoned copy of this in the street a few months ago and am super grateful to whoever left it there. This book is a masterclass in writing well by the best-selling author ever. His advice is simple, useful and not at all pretentious. Here's one of my favourite extracts; 'Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. It's about enriching the lives of who will read your work, and enriching your own life. It's about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.'
- Poke The Box, We Are All Weird and Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. I've been on a bit of a Godin rampage of late, working my way through all his books. Choosing one favorite from them would be impossible. One of my rules in life is 'once you decide someone gives good advice, follow all of it.' Seth is one of those people and it's extraordinary how much I've learnt from his work. A digital version of SSD is available for free on his website.
- Tools of Titans - Tim Ferris. I preordered this the moment it was announced (something I have never done before) and it has taken me 3 months to read (also a record.) It is such a valuable book, worth a lot more than what it costs- basically like being mentored by hundreds of the smartest people alive. Many of the interviews are with people I am obsessed with and the whole thing is my ultimate dream. Whilst there a few unnecessary bits which I would have cut out (mostly the personal anecdotes about their friendships and the self-centred passages), the whole thing is somewhat concise despite the length.
- Mastery - Robert Greene. This might be one of the most important books ever written. It has reshaped my worldview in new and crazy ways. Greene details the process through which people achieve mastery over a particular field, including beautifully described passages about figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Temple Grandin. Seriously, this is now one of my all time favourites and it is beyond mind-altering.
- Why We Make Things and Why It Matters - Peter Korn. I am reaching the point where it is hard to find adjectives to describe all the books I read. I loved this book because it's the sort I plan to write - an exploration of what creativity means and how people use it to find themselves. It also compliments Into The Wild (below) nicely as an account of someone choosing a divergent path. As a young, Ivy educated man, Korn decides to become a woodworker/carpenter/designer of fine furniture. I have always had a fascination with woodwork, probably because my grandfather was a carpenter and I grew up around his work. This book is about the why, rather than the how.
-Anything You Want - Derek Sivers. Concise, thought provoking and full of paradigm altering ideas. Sivers condenses years of experience running his business down to a few simple lessons. It is very different to the average business book, discussing emotions and relationships rather than numbers and tactics. A good strategy book is one with applications far beyond its specific topic (e.g. The Art of War) and this is not just relevant for business owners. I liked Sivers' honesty about his mistakes too.
- Deep Work and So Good They can't Ignore You - Cal Newport. These two books transformed the way I work. Many of my keys habits/changes - quitting social media, creating an autopilot schedule, single tasking etc - came from Newport's work. Read them both together for maximum benefit.
- The Productivity Project - Chris Bailey. I love it when a blogger I follow gets a book deal, and I pre-ordered this as soon as it was announced. This should be compulsory reading for all students. Bailey spent a year testing out productivity techniques to establish what works. The result is a book which focuses on the management of energy and attention, not time.
- Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell. This is an interesting book, full of fascinating research. I always love the fusion of science, sociology, psychology and other fields in Gladwell's books. I also recommend Tipping Point. He can turn even the most dull sounding topics (Korean etiquette, the spread of HIV, Hush Puppies) into an absorbing narrative. I favor them for long flights or train journeys.
- Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes - Daniel Everett. Oh man, I love this book. I read it in pretty much one sitting, staying up all night. It is so damn good. Everett is a linguist who spent 30 years living with the Piraha people in the Amazon. This book is part memoir, part linguistics, part anthropology. It's funny, endearing, eye-opening and always respectful of the people described. If you want to alter the way you view humanity for good, read this.
- The 48 Laws of Power - Robert Greene. Where do I even begin? This monster of a book is incredible. It has opened up whole new strata of understanding of the world for me. Every page provoked epiphanies. I have never felt more equipped to take on the world. The bibliography is also a goldmine of book recommendations, many of which I plan on reading. Power is an extremely topical concept and there is no better way to understand it than by reading this. It is 100% worth the investment of time and money. Greene's books are usually controversial, though I find that the people who criticise them miss the point. The 48 Laws of Power is more of an expose than a handbook, something which puts people on a more even playing field.
-Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer. Another extraordinary read. This book covers the life of Christopher McCandless, a young guy from a prosperous family who donated all his money, dumped his car and possessions and headed off into the wilderness to live by himself (it's a true story.) Krakauer traces McCandless' journey through the people he met and the impact he made on them. His journey ends in disaster (which is not a spoiler, it is mentioned from the start.) Krakauer discusses his own experiences of taking risks at the same age and why solo travel is so compelling for most young people. It is eye opening in a way, a reminder that being young does not make you invincible. There is also an element, which proved harmonious with my Jack London readings this month, of the struggle between humans and nature. It is obvious that Krakauer feels a strong sense of empathy with McCandless, which is what gives the book its emotional edge. Most books, even non-fiction, end up as a portrait of the author. This is no exception, yet that connection between the depictor and depicted turns a tragic account of a short, wasted life into something more.
- Walden - Henry Thoreau. This is required reading for all minimalists. My copy recently fell apart from being carried about and referred to several times a day. It's hard to explain how much I love this book, or how much it has altered my perspective. Just read it and you'll understand why.
- On the Road, Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveller - Jack Kerouac. I don't doubt that Kerouac is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. A librarian told me that copies of his books always seem to get stolen, which is why many places don't stock them. I replied that stealing books is a rather Kerouac-esque thing to do. She was not amused. Borrow or buy these and don't steal them. Each is a glorious portrait of a long-gone era and the way people lived during it. They make me nostalgic for a time I never experienced. A time when one could hop in a car with a few friends, $10 and a bottle of whisky and drive across America. Expect lots of dialogue and little plot.
- Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov. Controversial, yes. Nonetheless, it remains one of my all-time favourite books. I also love Laura, the unfinished manuscript of his final book. Considering how meticulous Nabokov was with his editing, reading a draft is intriguing. Some versions include scans of the original pages- a glimpse of his unusual notecard system for writing.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde. This is a glorious, unashamed exploration of hedonistic bohemian society. It exists within an unreal world where everyone is rich, beautiful and opulent. I'll need to reread it a dozen more times before I can give an articulate review. Still, books should be challenging.
- The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien. A wacky, bizarre book set in a strange world where nothing quite makes sense. I was lent it by my friend Corrie who asked me to underline the passages which I found meaningful. She asks each person who reads it to do that in a different pen, to see if eventually every part of the book is underlined. The whole thing is so wonderful that I expect this will happen. It's hard to summarise the plot, so just read it.
- Portrait of a Man - Georges Perec. This was Perec's first novel, yet it was the last to be published. The original manuscript was found a few years ago and translated into English. I love how it flits between 1st, 2nd and 3rd person in a manner which keeps you on your toes throughout the book. It's about an art forger who kills his (sort of) manager and then has an existential crisis. Very little happens, it's mostly about his thoughts. Perec is perhaps one of the most creative writers imaginable.
- Under the Dome - Stephen King. For some odd reason, a lot of people consider King to be a 'non-serious' sort of writer. My college tried to prevent me from listing his as one of my favorites on my university application. I refused because I disagree. Selling 350 million+ books is no small feat. Likewise, holding a reader's attention for over 1000 pages is the mark of a talented author. This book was my life for a solid week and I barely knew what to do with myself upon finishing it. It's gripping, somehow uncomfortable and full of exquisite human moments. Even if you are a slow reader, I can promise you will be unable to put this one down.
-Memories of a Geisha - Arthur Golden. Pure magic. This is one of the most evocative, simply magical books I have ever read. It covers the life of a young Japanese girl who is sold by her father to become a geisha. The world in which she lives in predicated upon antiquated concepts of power and gender roles. Everything is dramatic, intense and steeped in tradition. Although it is a work of fiction (something I did not realize until I had finished it) every sentence is full of meticulously researched detail. I read most of it in one night, unable to put it down.
-Martin Eden - Jack London. Perhaps London's most underappreciated work, I found this in Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. A common criticism is that London writes about animals better than people, yet this contradicts that. It's 500 pages of intense, well-crafted characterisation. Martin Eden is a sailor who falls in love with an upper class girl and seeks to 'better himself' in order to win her affection. He becomes obsessed with literature and attempts to become a writer. His slow progress through the gruelling process of self-education and finding a voice is almost exhausting to read. The book is semi (not quite intentionally) autobiographical and foreshadows elements of London's later life. (By the way, I have no idea why the edition on Amazon has Jensen Ackles on the cover. I highly approve though.)
- Ada or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov. Even better than Lolita. Published when Nabokov was 70, there is a clear sense of his maturation and development of a clear style. There are some elements which reappear in more detail within his unfinished final book, Laura. This was his longest book at 604 pages, long enough to make it immersive. Ada or Ardor is about an inecstous relationship spanning decades, laden with elements of a fairy tale, philosophical passages and constant analysis of the meaning of time. His portrayal of their relationship as adults feels more complete than that as children, no doubt due to his age at the time of writing. I have a fondness for dialogue which commingled different languages (being prone to it myself) and the interplay of English, French and Russian is gorgeous. There is no other way to put it. I found myself reading parts aloud to hear the sounds of the words. Nabokov's books demand a lot of attention. Losing focus for more than a few sentences results in total confusion. If you only read one of these books, make it this one.