Ha. There are no rules. Let's clear that one up straight away. But there are a few that I follow. I’ve written a 12,730 word guide to getting the most out of books - and ironically, plenty of people have complained that it’s too long.
So, if you don't have time to read that, here are the fundamentals that help me truly enjoy reading and derive real, concrete benefits from it. Nine sentences (if you only read the parts in bold.) Simple ideas that work.
1. Carry a book everywhere.
Ideally two or three. It's by far the easiest way to read more. (To all the people with Kindles: I know you carry a hundred books with you everywhere and I'm totally jealous. I just CANNOT stand reading on a screen.)
2. Always have more unread books than read ones.
This is called an anti-library and it's an excellent way to guilt trip yourself into reading more. Just take a look at the pile of 80% unread books in my living room.
And here's the (also mostly unread) pile in my office. All but one of the books pictured is borrowed, a gift or bought second-hand by the way.
3. Don't treat books as sacred (unless they are borrowed.)
Fold the corners. Break the spine. Write and sketch in the margins. Take a Murakami novel to a bar, drink too much whiskey and write your ex a letter in the margins of the entire thing. Or don't. Make your own index. If a book is borrowed, I usually do this on post-it notes - or, if I have a lot of thoughts, I'll buy my own copy.
4. Collect book recommendations everywhere.
Ask people for their favourite books. Check bibliographies. Look for references to books in other books, music, art, articles, everywhere.
Not only is this interesting, it's also an ideal way to expand your world view. When people recommend books to me, more often than not I end up discovering a new topic, genre or author. It pushes me down a new rabbit hole. I get emailed a lot of recommendations and I do read almost all of them, even if takes me a while.
I publish a list of good books at the start of each month and lots of people have told me that they love the eclectic mix and enjoy the books I recommend - if you want a shortcut to finding good books, sign up for my email list and you'll get this delivered straight to your inbox.
5. Indulge in nerdy, off beat interests.
Curious about something, anything? Look for the best books on it. For me that might mean reading an economic textbook, a DIY manual, a book about Italian culture, or a bunch of ancient philisophical texts. At the moment, I'm enjoying reading lots of books about solitude, about emergence and about economics.
6. Lend books to everyone.
Don't let anyone leave your house without a book.
I know a lot of people warn against lending books, or borrowing. I'll be honest. When I lend someone a book, I know there's a maybe 1 in 10 chance I'll get it back if I don't ask. Maybe 1 in 3 if I do ask. But I'm okay with that because once in a while I lend someone a book and they love it. Then we can nerd out together over it. Plus, I make sure I've transcribed the key parts first.
Also, people will lend you books in return.
7. Never finish a bad book.
Or even a dull or mediocre book. Even if you're halfway through or it was expensive. While I don't always follow this (sunk costs fallacy) it's good practice. Time is our most valuable resource. To paraphrase that thing Matty Healy never actually said, life is too short to read bad books or drink bad coffee. Quit books with reckless abandon.
8. Take notes.
This one is vital. Mark up the most important parts of books by underlining or with a post-it note (I use the ones from Flying Tiger.)
Then transcribe the key parts into a notebook or something like Evernote. The act of writing or typing up sections makes it immeasurably easier to remember what you read.
9. Read like a child.
Here's Graham Greene describing childhood reading in The Lost Childhood:
“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what it is in our minds already; as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back. But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excited us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years? . . . It is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.”