How to read a lot of books

In 2018, I read or listened to 104 books. That’s high for me, but I consistently go through dozens of books in a year. Here are some steps I take to help me go through a lot of books and to get the most out of them.

How to read a lot of books

Read in all formats. About half of the books I consumed in 2018 were audiobooks. Another 16 books were ebooks, which I read on my smartphone. And the rest were traditional print books. Consistently having a book in each format means that I can always be reading. Have to wait in a lone line? Read the ebook on my phone! Have to jog out to the car to get something? Squeeze in a few minutes of my audiobook! Have a few minutes before going to sleep? Push through a few pages of my print book!

Each of these formats has its advantages. Ebooks make it much easier to copy passages I love for future reference.  “Audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none,” as psychologist Daniel Willingham has written. Furthermore, when I’m reading a book that takes place in culture distinctive from my own, and the audiobook narrator can represent the accent accurately, the experience is richer. Nowadays, some audiobooks have a full cast, so it’s like a theater in your ears.

Audiobooks are also good for helping me to push through big nonfiction books that I mightn’t otherwise find time for. People say to me, “But I retain less from audiobooks.” That’s probably true for me too, but I’d much rather have 50% [made-up number] of a great book that I listened to than 0% because I was hoping eventually I’d read it but never found time. I also take steps to enhance retention from audiobooks — more on that below.

Many public libraries in the United States have an app which will let you download free audiobooks, like Overdrive. There are also apps you pay for, like Audible. (Here’s my post on getting started in audiobooks.)

With audiobooks, experiment with faster speeds. A few years ago, a friend told me he was listening to books at double speed. I thought, that’s insane! Where’s the pleasure in that? How can you even follow along? So I tried 1.25 speed. It sounded a little fast, but I got used to it, so much so that regular speed started to sound…very…slow… Then I upped to 1.5 speed. And so on. Now my default is double speed. If I’m listening to a book with a narrator with an unfamiliar accent, I slow it down. Same with a book with particularly difficult content — e.g., a technical economics argument or a physics explanation. But with a high speed default, I go through a lot of content.

Shift focus to books rather than movies. Early in 2018, I deleted Youtube and Netflix apps from my phone, and I deleted my normal pop culture podcasts. I replaced them with book podcasts, like the New York Times Book Review podcast and Bookworm. So instead of hearing about movies I wanted to see, I was hearing about books I wanted to read or listen to. (I still saw a lot of movies, and I eventually re-downloaded Netflix because that’s how much self control I have. But it was a strong start.)

How to get the most out of the books you consume

Of course, my goal isn’t just to get through lots of books. I also want to get the most out of the books I’m reading. Here are some steps I take to do that.

Talk about books with other people. Discussing the books I’m reading opens new perspectives and clarifies my own views. I participate in two book clubs, where I chat with friends about great books. One meets at lunchtime during the workday, once every month or two. (You have to eat lunch, right?) Another meets on a weekend evening. I also chat with friends on social media about the books I’m reading.

Some friends and I created a shared Google Sheet on which we each record our books (and movies) for the year, so we can get recommendations from each other and talk about the books that we’ve both read. (For the competitive among us [me], it also fosters a desire to keep reading.)

Another, less literal way of doing this is to read professional review of the book, after I’ve read the book. Great reviewers can often capture what I’ve been thinking but express it more lucidly, saving me the trouble of wordsmithing the perfect characterization.

Make notes. For every book I read, I create a note in my note-taking app (Evernote). If I’m reading a print book, I’ll sometimes take a picture of a passage that strikes me and paste that into the app. If it’s an ebook, I’ll copy and paste key quotes. If it’s an audiobook, when I hear a passage that really strikes me, I jot down a few words in my notes app. Then, later, I’ll look up the quote in full on Google Books or Amazon’s book preview and paste a screenshot into my notes app.

I also have “topical” notes in my notes app, e.g., a note on “education,” and when I’m at my best, I’ll copy great thoughts on education from my book-specific note over to the topical note. But I don’t always get around to this, admittedly.

Write a quick summary. I try to write a short summary of every book I read, along with quick impressions. These are often shorter than the length of a tweet (i.e., less than 280 characters). But years later, they let me remember what my impressions were and what it taught me about the human condition!

That’s it! Those are all my secrets! Now if only I could remember what I read earlier this morning…




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