How To Read More

Daniel Issing
8 min readMay 17, 2023
Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

Many if not most of the articles I publish here are book reviews, and so sometimes people congratulate me on my “reading stamina” when I share them with my network. I go through roughly 50 books a year, which, according to this slightly dated 2016 Pew survey, is significantly above average:

Note by how much mean and median differ — most people read close to nothing, while some read a lot. From here.

If you got until here, you might think: There are literally thousands of articles out there how to read X number of books per year (one of the more helpful ones here), most of which would try to convince you that there are a number of clever #lifehacks to get you there, without any tradeoffs worth mentioning. Do we really need another one? At the same time, the idea that reading a lot requires very elated levels of stamina — kind of like running a marathon — seems alien to me. It doesn’t feel particular hard or strenuous to read a book each week, but it certainly requires some habit-building. And there are indeed a few things that helped me personally to get there, knowing full well that this applies mostly to people who already read quite a lot and enjoy doing so.

There are really two, and only two, ways to read more: spend more time reading, or read faster. Every single recommendation that stands a chance of success is going to leverage one or the other. The first approach comes at the cost of having to cut back on other activities, which most of us already struggle to do. The second strategy means missing some details, nuance, and potentially enjoyment you derive from reading, and should hence be applied selectively. You should keep this in mind when pondering the question “Do I actually want to read more books?”.

Now, what does this mean in practical terms?

1. Get an e-book reader

The Kindle is a very convenient choice, though there are plenty of others options. For all the nostalgia about physical books, it has a number of distinct advantages:

  • It’s lightweight, meaning you can take it almost anywhere with you. Personally, I also find it much more convenient to read from — I often read while lying, so regular books force me to pry open the pages with one hand or otherwise hold it in some fairly uncomfortable position.
  • It can store more books than you’ll ever be able to finish, so you don’t need to worry about packing multiple books when you’re close to finishing one.
  • You have instant access to a dictionary if you stumble across an unfamiliar word.
  • You can easily highlight sections, although taking notes sucks and there could be a better system to manage the parts you underlined (it’s super annoying, for example, to import highlights into the Kindle browser app).
  • The background light means you can even read in the dark, e.g. before falling asleep.

Of course this comes with some drawbacks — bigger figures are hard to impossible to decipher, and if the book can’t be read in a linear fashion (think textbooks), switching back and forth is no fun. But none of that really matters if your goal is simply to read more — just be selective about what books to download on your reader.

2. Listen to audiobooks

In the spirit of exploring additional technologies, adding audiobooks to the mix is a great way to finish more books. The obvious advantage of audiobooks is that you can listen to them when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied — say while cooking, cleaning, or when doing sports. Not every book lends itself to the medium — again, works which contain lots of graphs and figures are probably not a good choice, but many do. Over time, you’ll probably also be able to increase the listening speed substantially.

That being said, the fact that you cannot, in any meaningful way, navigate an audiobook is a real downside. I also find it much easier to get distracted, or, rather, if you’re getting distracted, you are likely to miss a lot of content as the story will just continue whether or not you’re paying attention.

3. Resist the smartphone temptation

Looking at the disadvantages I outlines for e-books and audiobooks, you might infer that you could profit from all of the upsides, and none of the downsides, simply by relying on a device that you’re already carrying with you everywhere: your smartphone. I recommend you don’t, for reasons that should be plain as day. There are simply too many other things you might do with a phone at any given moment, even assuming you’re not receiving any push notifications. Similarly and maybe even more importantly, make sure the phone is out of reach when you’re reading. I can’t remember how often I decided I was just going to look up one small thing (maybe even related to the book’s content!) only to find myself wasting 15 minutes on the phone, and I’d be very surprised if I’m alone with this. Very.

4. Read multiple books at a time

The oldest trick in the book. The simple logic behind this rule is that you won’t always be in the mood for a certain style or genre, and instead of skipping reading altogether, you can simply continue with another book. If you never tried it, you might reasonably be afraid that this creates a lot of confusion — plotlines getting mixed up and so forth — but in practice, this rarely happens. I’m usually reading between 2–4 books at a time, but I do try to make sure there not too similar in content. The main reason why I wouldn’t recommend adding more than that is that this often results in putting one of them aside for very long, at which point it’ll be hard to remember what happened when you pick it up again.

5. Read every day

Habit-building is the single most efficient way to read more. Rather than reading a lot at once, and then pause for several days or weeks to “recover”, it’s much more important to strive for consistency. A very powerful way to get there is to connect it to certain rituals, like going to bed, so that over time a day spent without a book feels much like not brushing your teeth.

6. Fill the gaps

This is very much related to the idea of reading every day. I understand that it’s often illusory to set aside large chunks of time that are entirely devoted to reading, but the good news is that this isn’t always necessary. You can read on a subway ride, while waiting at the doctor’s, and on a multitude of similar occasions. Basically, there are more “empty” 10–15 minute windows during your day than you may be consciously aware of, and these are definitely not too short to read a few pages. Of course, doing so requires you to have a book with you — but see #1.

7. Put down books (faster and more often)

Most of us (myself very much included) stick for too long with books that aren’t worth it. The reasons are unsurprising and all fall into the category of sunk costs (whether it’s because you already paid for the book and/or because you already invested so much time in it). But unless there are (good) external reasons why you need to finish it, remember that you can’t change the past, but the future is still in your hands. Naturally, any book you dislike will take so much more time to plough through.

I don’t have a good rule of thumb for when to give up, but what can be helpful is to review everything you read the previous year and identify at least one book that you should not have finished. Once you found one such, ask yourself: Could I have realized that this particular book wasn’t worth my time when I was reading it, and why? More often than not, the answer will be yes. (You can do a similar exercise with a book you actually put down and check if you could have discarded it earlier).

The obvious complication stems from the fact that many excellent books don’t have easy entry points, either because it takes a lot of time to develop the setting in which the story will unfold, the language is archaic, or quite simply because the subject matter is very complex. My own approach is something like: If I have doubts whether a certain book is worth my time because it seems simplistic, I’ll toss it out. If, by contrast, it’s because I struggle to get into it, I will set some page limit, and if I still don’t understand it by then, it’s time for something new.

8. Have your next book ready

Few people today will literally find themselves in a situation where they would first have to go to a library, or wait a couple of days for an order to arrive, in order to get started on the next book. Even so, you always want to have something new you’re looking forward to, and the easiest way to do so is by maintaining a wish list. Here’s mine.

9. Know when to skim

It has become fashionable to complain that books are not information dense, unlike, say, Twitter or Substack. Nor are they meant to be, say the cynics: Books nowadays are essentially PR campaigns, and transmitting information is only a byproduct. And even granting that information is not the only thing you’re looking for in a book, it’s clear that both assertion are often true. Many books really do consist of a few simple theories and a lot of anecdotes to fill the pages. If you’re ever suspecting to hold such an exemplar in your hands, you should skim. Skip a line here and there, then several. Sometimes entire paragraphs. See if the chapter still makes sense to you, and you’ll find it usually does. Because of that, companies exist that would provide you with digested versions of major works (not an endorsement). In these cases, skimming is often the sensible middle ground between abandoning a book altogether and spending a lot of time absorbing trivia about the author’s cats.

10. Make reading a part of your identity

Assuming that there are nothing but noble motives behind my reading habits would be naïve, and I’m happy to concede that lesser instincts play their part as well. Signaling to others that you are informed, educated, intellectual! is part of the equation, doubly so if you write lots of articles about it. While that sounds less virtuous than whatever enlightened rationales are usually cited, I find that it’s a weapon you can turn in your favor: If the desire to think of myself as the kind of person who’s widely read gets me to read more, I won’t hesitate to embrace it.

The other advantages of forging an identity around reading is that, over time, you’ll get to know others like you, who can share their recommendations with you, or have a discussion about book you both read. Reading is, or at least can be, a social act after all.

[Bonus: Train yourself how to read faster]

I do not fully endorse this one, if for no other reason than that I’ve never tried it out myself. There are countless apps out there that promise to help you to read faster, but my view on this is a) you can just as well train yourself on an actual book, rather than some lorem ipsum text and b) reading faster means reading differently. Of course reading is a skill that you get better at the more you use it, but my general impression is that it favors a quantity over quality approach. See also #9.

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Daniel Issing

Book reviews, trail running, physics, and whatever else I feel like writing about.