How To Read More Books
Do you find yourself wishing you could read more books? Here’s a collection of ideas to help you read more books and read more often.
This year, I’ve been writing a short review of each of the five or six books I’ve read in the last month. These have proved popular, and many of you have written to ask how to find more time to read, how to find interesting books, and how to focus on reading in this digital age.
Why Reading More Books Matters
Twyla Tharp said it best. “The books you read and the people you meet are the best predictor of who you will become.”
Books are ideas, and worlds, and patience and concentration.
I don’t want to diss digital technology. But half an hour rage-scrolling through Twitter, or Instagram, or TikTok isn’t the same as half an hour reading a book. There’s no point pretending it is.
If you’re reading this, then you already know that. Or at least your intuition is suggesting it might be. You want to make more time to read, and you want to read more broadly, because you want the kind of experience you’re not getting from staring at social media or online videos.
How To Make More Time To Read
Sadly, you can’t make more time. We all get dealt 24 hours in the day. To find the time for something, you have to take it away from something else.
Most people spend over two hours a day on social media. Cut that by a third, and you’ve got enough time to read an extra book a week. That can be a radical difference.
We can also make smaller, more personal changes if we take a serious look at how we spend our time. Maybe we spend a little less time watching TV or listing to podcasts (both of which seem to get longer with each year).
We can also find time by rethinking how we transition from one task to another. The time we can’t account for often exists in the space between tasks and chores.
I keep the books I’m reading all over the house. It’s not my family’s favourite habit. But there’s a book near the kitchen counter so I can read while waiting for something to cook or after washing up. There’s a book on the sofa so I have an alternative to reaching for the TV remote. And yes, there’s always a book in the bathroom!
When you pick up a book, commit to a minimum amount of time. Reading for an hour sounds great. But that’s a big commitment. It’s easy to get restless or frustrated or to procrastinate. Five minutes doesn’t sound like much. But that’s a page or two, and once you’re reading, you might want to read some more!
I do most of my reading in 20-minute bursts. These happen throughout the day – over morning coffee, after lunch, while cooking dinner, or late at night. Sometimes, I have longer reading spells. Rainy weekend afternoons lend themselves to that. But generally, regular reading snacks suit me better than marathon book banquets.
How To Find Books
When I first got on the internet, I was still a student at theological college. I was delighted to discover a lot of professors around the world posted their reading lists for courses. Whenever I had a challenging essay, I’d go searching for reading lists for similar topics. These would then form the basis for my own reading and bibliography for essays.
Earlier this year, I did a writing workshop with Sabrina Orah Mark, the author of Wild Milk. Sabrina posts a reading list for all her workshops, and you might recognise some of the books I read in January and February from those lists. Many workshop leaders post similar lists to give an insight into the tone of their workshop.
Podcasts can, sometimes, be a good source for books to read. Unfortunately, a lot of interview podcasts just feature the same famous authors promoting their latest work. I don’t feel inclined to read another book from Seth Godin, Steven Pinker, or Malcom Gladwell. But some podcasts, like On Being, Conversations with Tyler, Longform, and The Knowledge Project, often have interesting guests with fresh voices, and they also discuss books that influenced them.
Seasonal recommended lists can be good. The Financial Times does them very well. Just skimming through The New York Review of Books will give you a world of reading suggestions. The New Yorker has a well-curated short list of recommendations each week, while New York Magazine creates excellent topic-specific lists.
I’d advise against “asking the internet”. Too often, open requests for books to read become opportunities for people to show off by citing the longest, hardest, most famous, or most obscure book they’ve read. Ask the internet, and you’ll be told you just “have to” read Infinite Jest, War and Peace, or Ulysses.
How To Get Books
I buy almost all my books. Yes, that’s an outrageously expensive way to do it. I try to buy good second-hand copies, or order direct from publishers or small stores when I can. If the Kindle version of a book is cheaper, then I buy that.
Most of the books I buy get revisited eventually. Poetry collections almost demand to be re-read. Sometimes just picking up an old book brings its story or ideas back to life. And there are few better impromptu gifts for friends and family than a book you’ve enjoyed.
If you have a good local bookstore, it’s worth developing a relationship with them. They’ll usually be willing to order in books for you, and some, like Om Books in Delhi and Bookazine in Hong Kong, have great loyalty programmes.
Good bookstores often give great recommendations. Some do handwritten cards from staff highlighting books they’ve enjoyed. A few stores, like Hatchards in London, have curated subscription services. After signing up and chatting with a member of staff, they send you a book every month tailored to your interests.
Libraries are, of course, a great resource. In most countries, they will order in almost any book you request. We should all support libraries because they are increasingly under threat from government cutbacks.
Finally, a lot of books are available online for free. Recently, I’ve been re-reading ancient European philosophy, and most of those books are available via university sites, like the wonderful MIT Classics archive, which has been online since 1994.
Read Shorter Books
No, I’m not joking. The average bestseller is 80,000 to 100,000 words. That’s a long book. Same for a lot of the highly recommended, serious non-fiction books. That’s a big time investment if you’re trying to ramp up how many books you read.
It’s also a big investment if your goal is to be introduced to lots of new ideas and voices. A lot of my favourite novels and the non-fiction books that changed my life are a lot shorter.
Also, poetry collections are usually shorter. The same goes for a lot of contemporary memoir and other more experimental writing.
Of course, you’ll end up reading a range of books of different lengths. But, to start with, if you focus on reading shorter books, you’ll have a feeling of accomplishment from finishing more and enjoying a wider selection of authors and reading experiences.
Read More Than One Book At A Time
Typically, I read three or four books at the same time. This doesn’t cause any confusion. After all, you have multiple conversations with multiple people doing the day, and you don’t confuse those.
Of course, you can push it too hard. Reading very similar books at the same time can be confusing. It’s often better to balance it out. Mix serious with fun. Or straightforward with experimental.
And sometimes, a book is best enjoyed to the exclusion of others. Some books want to be read fast. Some ask to colonize your mind for a while.
But most books can be enjoyed in the company of others.
Don’t Finish Bad Books
You don’t need to finish a book you’re not enjoying. If reading feels like a chore, then stop. Pick up a different book. Just because someone else liked a book doesn’t mean you have to as well. This isn’t homework.
Sometimes, a book just comes into our lives at the wrong time. It might be good, but it doesn’t click for you right now, or speak to you in the way you need in this moment. You can always borrow a book again later or pluck it from the shelves at another time.
Trudging through a bad book can be slow, frustrating, and likely to make you do something else to avoid the pain. Better to invest your time and enthusiasm in something else.
After all, there’s always another good book to read.