“All I have learned, I learned from books”Abraham Lincoln
Books, and reading in general, are a big part of my life.
So while this article is aimed at helping you understand why and how to read more, I will first give you an understanding of where I am coming from, which should frame the following conversation.
My reading philosophy & process
As you can already tell, books excite the hell out of me.
I love thinking about what I am reading, discussing what I have/will read, and the feeling I get as I begin a new book that has indicated it might hold a piece of the puzzle that I am trying to solve.
I don’t just love the direct act of reading, I also love the process of locating and researching new books. I never fail to scour the bibliography of any good book that I’ve just finished.
I do this with the intention of finding a few key sources to further explain, explore or expand on the topic covered in the pages preceding it and it is a good filtering system; poor books tend not to be referenced by good ones, and vice-versa. Though it is known to occur.
Adding to this, this method of locating books is in line with the advice of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho who said, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”
But as much as I would love to be able to read anything and everything, I obviously can’t. There’s an opportunity-cost to reading, and personally, I find that it provides an additional element to the fun.
In a solid, but conservative year of reading I knock over around 30 books (as in I complete 30, start to finish. Many, many more are left partially read). A number which I am going to try and push north of 40 this year, as I endeavour to increase the depth and breadth of my thoughts. Then, hopefully, translate them into succinct pieces of writing this very website.
While 30-40 books annually is certainly a decent amount to get through, it is still worlds, nay, galaxies away from the number of books published every single year.
Even if I were to have an exceptional period of reading by my own standards and get through 60 books in the next 12 months, every single one of those books would likely have a reference list just as long, if not longer.
That means annually I am not even getting through a number of books that is measured in the hundreds, yet I am encountering a range of potential books to read that is measured in the thousands.
What you can read falls short of what you could read, by at least an order of magnitude—which genuinely adds to the thrill for me!
Knowing that I won’t even scratch the surface in regard to the totality of books which could-be-read helps to orient my values around what allows me to get the most from the least—while also still trying to read as many books as possible.
This is why I love the process of locating an author/thinker’s most-pivotal work, and then determining if that is the very best book of theirs for me to read.
“Why wouldn’t you just start with an author’s most famous work?” you may ask.
Because often an author’s most famous work is a very extensive (and thus, long) exploration of their chosen topic. Often their general philosophy is covered in a much more compressed format, without significantly trading off accuracy, elsewhere. There is a sort of Pareto-distribution regarding the totality of their thoughts and the number of pages they are spanned across.
The most referenced books are not necessarily the best ones to read, because ultimately, it depends on why you’re reading.
If you’re reading as an academic or scholar, then sure, you probably need to read an author’s most referenced work (and everything else they wrote), but if you’re reading as a general consumer, who is looking to explore ideas, curate information for personal and indirect-professional use, or simply for your own enjoyment, then I wouldn’t be starting with so-and-so’s treatise on niche-topic-x. There are better ways to go about that process.
And due to my intense interest in finding the right book to read, what this amounts to, in practice, is a serious love affair with goodreads.com.
I frequent the site multiple times a day, for the purpose of getting a rating, summary and quick review of 15-20+ books a week.
The promising ones then are listed in my “Books To Buy” note in my phone, which has over 160 items listed and includes separate categories for Textbooks, Fiction and Nonfiction—as well as groupings within those, such as “Books Referenced in Harry Potter & The Methods of Rationality” or “Programming Books,” for example.
If you already thought this was overdoing it, then I won’t tell you that I also have a separate note named “Read Order” which is the partially-flexible guide of what I will be reading over the next ~6 months.
I do this so that my reading—and the knowledge I am accruing—has direction, depth and will compound upon itself.
As one of my favourite authors, Thomas Sowell warned, “what is called an educated person is often someone who has had a dangerously superficial exposure to a wide spectrum of subjects.”
I truly believe this and will happily undertake more arduous and structured forms of reading in an attempt to avoid it.
There is much, much more required when it comes to knowing something than being able to spout off a few facts, names and nomenclature. Deep learning takes time, effort and pushing past the barrier of boredom—seek excitement and you will typically stay very close to the surface of any topic.
So, because I try and put such time, care and effort into the books I read, I also attempt to make the best use of the resources I have previously invested. Writing articles like this is one such way.
However, I also try to share the better books that I’ve read, along with a synopsis and other thoughts on my Instagram. By doing this, my friends, family and a small number of other followers can get an idea of whether the book is one they might be interested in, which saves them a lot of time doing the researching and pre-reading that I have already done.
These shortish social-media reviews are then used as the basis for the caption when I upload the book to the recommended reading section here on Therefore Think.
Inevitably though, when I publicly display what I have been reading, this always brings about the question of “how do you read so much?” or the more flatly phrased “I wish I had as much time to read as you do.”
Whenever I speak or post about what I’ve been reading, someone is always there to provide insight into my own situation and how it is beneficial in comparison to theirs for allowing large amounts of reading.
This doesn’t bother me, however, as I find it to be almost a universal psychological principle that the second-best thing to having what you want, is an excuse for why you don’t.
If you’re not keen on excuses, though, the following is for you.
Why & How To Read More
While it shouldn’t need to be said; I have the same 24 hours in a day as anyone else.
I don’t have more time than anyone, I just dedicate more of my time to reading than most do. On the topic of his insatiable reading habit, Shane Parrish, founder of the highly successful Farnam Street blog summarised it like this:
“There is no secret. As simple as it sounds, finding time to read boils down to choices about how you allocate your time. And allocating your time is how successful people increase productivity.”
Personally, I do certainly have some “luxuries” with my time that others don’t—I’m not married, don’t have kids etc.—but I certainly do have significant constraints on my time, as anyone and everyone does. I simply make reading a major, major priority in my life and I organise my day around it to a significant extent.
Why do I do this?
Because I think it is important. Very important.
While I enjoy it, reading is not something I always want to do, however, I get it done. Many of the mild successes I have had so far in life have been the product of prior reading and a lot of much more successful people than I also credit their achievements to consuming page-after-page, book-after-book.
To highlight a few:
Bill Gates reads ~4 books a month and takes ‘Think Weeks’ a few times a year to just lock himself away to focus on purely reading and thinking.
When asked how he learned to build rockets, Elon Musk responded, “I read books.”
Margaret Fuller, the journalist, prominent women’s rights activist and the first American female war correspondent famously stated, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
Patrick Collison has one of the most impressive reading lists to the be found on the internet, however, it’s not like he is just any regular guy sitting around with oodles of spare time—he is also the CEO and co-founder of the highly successful company Stripe. Reading is simply a massive priority as well as a contributing factor to his success.
Anne Lamott, the writer (across multiple genres) and political activist has eloquently said of books: “What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
Tyler Cowen, the economist and co-founder of the popular and thought-provoking blog Marginal Revolution is known for being an absolutely ferocious reader. He has stated that he receives upwards of 5 review copies of books a day in the mail and buys an additional ~2 himself per day. He will then complete multiple books a day, something he achieves by wasting no time with bad books, putting them down instantly. Cowen suggests that reading is part of your “training” as a knowledge worker, and it is something you can do in order to get ahead, while also enjoying yourself.
As a final example, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger are probably the most widely discussed, wealthy and prolific pair of readers. The duo is renowned for contributing their success to the simple, yet relatively uncommon acts of reading and thinking.
Buffet began his career by reading 600-1000 pages of relevant content a day and has stated: “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business.”
Munger is also cut from the same cloth. He wrote in his book Poor Charlie’s Almanac: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads—and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
Buffet and Gates even joke in this clip that if they could have any superpower, they would choose to be able to read faster.
While these are just a few isolated examples, they are far from the only ones that I could have drawn on (not to forget the quote by Lincoln at the start of this article, or the others that are still to come). The number of great people—both men and women, of a variety of ages and nationalities—who relied on books in order to advance themselves, whether it be ethically, professionally or both, is staggering. I could only select a few to highlight, though.
I think this does, at least, however, convey the importance that some of the most successful, influential and world-changing people place on reading.
While finishing a book or two won’t turn you into one of the above people, it can at least stack the odds in your favour of doing moral and worthy things with your time on earth. Reading won’t necessarily make you great on its own, but almost all great people tended to be avid readers.
This is because doing great things within the world rarely happens by chance.
Changing the world in a small but important way tends to require a certain amount of theoretical knowledge across a variety of subjects, a complex worldview which incorporates the experiences of people dissimilar to yourself, an awareness of history — both the triumphs and failures — as well as an imagination that has been expanded beyond the default-setting through a process of consistent contact with mind-expanding ideas.
Something that being well-read can greatly assist you with.
Hopefully, that explains why I make reading a priority. Now to answer the question of how.
Methods for Reading More
Method 1: Know your why
Yes, yes I know—you thought we were done with the why stuff. But before it was about me and why I think it is important, this time it is about you.
I know exactly why I read, and in order for you to develop your habit, you must know exactly why you want to read more.
If you’re simply reading because you made a new year’s resolution and think it’s a good habit to have, then you likely won’t be able to develop the habit to the extent that you think you want to. As the habit-guru James Clear says, “You don’t have to build the habits that everyone tells you to build. Choose the habit that best suits you, not the one that is most popular.”
Knowing the bigger purpose that reading is serving within your life will help incentivise you to maintain the habit when it becomes laborious, as well as provide direction and guidance for what you should read.
An extensive diet of non-fiction books produced by academicians cultivates a different mind and worldview to that of one composed entirely of classic fiction, poems and plays. My recommendation is a composite, however, knowing your why will help determine what genres become the meat and potatoes (or legumes and quinoa for our vegetarian and vegan friends).
Ultimately though, if you’re just starting out, you should read books that you enjoy. More on this in a moment.
Method 2: Do it daily
This sounds obvious, but it is such a good strategy for reading more. Not only due to the sheer amount of time you accrue reading, but also the habit you develop.
“Reading is not just something you should do on vacation, or when you have free time. It should be, like all important things in your life, a daily practice, something you’re working to get better at. Although I certainly read on some days more than others, I work hard to make sure I read something every day.”
This helps in your endeavour to become more well-read in a number of ways. As mentioned, there is a practical benefit of simply amassing more time reading. There is also the development of a habit, and a habit is a powerful way of changing your self-image.
Developing a habit is the dividing line between just doing something and having to do something—when you’re willing yourself to undertake an activity you know is good but doesn’t come easily.
Someone who has an exercise-habit, for the most part, simply exercises. Someone who doesn’t have the same habit, must exert a more significant amount of willpower to initiate the activity.
When it comes to reading, it is much, much easier to bring yourself to sit down and read, if you consider yourself as ‘a reader.’
And what’s the best way to change your perception of self into a reader? Sit down and read a lot.
Readers not only read a lot, but they have read a lot and tend to know a lot. If you establish yourself as a reader—by addressing the habit of reading daily—the outcomes will take care of themselves.
Method 3: Don’t waste time, no matter how small
The act of “making time” is about doing something more productive than was previously planned or habitually being done already. Making time is an act of saving time; it is swapping something of superior importance in for something less.
One of the ways I make time is in the small intervals between the action required in a mostly automated task. The few minutes it takes to boil the kettle or to heat some food up in the microwave is easy to waste, because it is “just a few minutes.”
However, because microwaving food or boiling the kettle doesn’t require me to do anything other than wait, I can make better use of that time than just simply waiting.
The common source of entertainment during this period is social media, however, as I have mentioned, making time is more about substitution than addition. Get rid of mostly unproductive activities and watch your available time expand.
If you spend the few minutes you have reading instead of scrolling, you will undoubtedly get more reading done. Now, this isn’t a great time to try and make progress through War & Peace, but it is a great way to knock over an article from a website—or even just a section of one.
One of the ways I make this easy for myself, is I have a folder on the home screen on my phone, and it contains bookmarks to websites that I enjoy reading such as Farnam Street, LessWrong, Marginal Revolution, The Logic of Science or Slate Star Codex.
By making these easy to access, I can jump straight into an article and knock over a good portion of it, if not all of it, in time that was previously spent waiting or scrolling.
Method 4: It’s not all about finishing
In the same saving-time-is-making-time vein as above, one of the things you need to wrap your head around if you wish to get through a decent amount of reading/books is letting go of the idea that anything initiated must be completed—whether it be an entire book or just a section of it.
When I first began speaking of this advice to people (which for the record, I have done with all of the points mentioned here for quite a while, and thus have an idea of their real-world practicality and effects), I got a bit of pushback.
The response is often some variation of, “I have this thing where I always have to finish what I start, it’s weird I know, but it’s just the way I am.”
To this, I say: Balderdash.
For starters, convincing yourself that you suffer from a special trait that borders on a diagnosable condition, does not add actually validity to a widespread human thought process.
Of course our preference is to finish things we start—that goes for everyone, not just you.
However, there is A TON of things that each of us have started and not finished. And the vast majority of those things, probably well over 90%, we have forgotten about entirely.
So be willing to put down a book, or skip ahead, potentially missing entire sections or chapters. If the choice is between reading something you’re not enjoying, and not reading at all, which do you think is going to win out?
What we are trying to achieve here is a habit of reading. Consuming pages is now a non-negotiable variable. In which case, the mandate becomes: If you’re not excited to read, then you’re reading the wrong book.
This is an important notion to internalise, not only for the local purpose of finishing more books but also for the global purpose that reading, in general, is aiming to serve: knowledge acquisition.
In essence, only parts of our brain and knowledge-set are malleable at any one time.
I say this because, in order to remember something, you must pay attention to it. In order to pay attention to something, you must care about it.
If you’re not reading something that interests you, you will not pay attention to it, actively engage with it and therefore remember it. Making it effectively pointless to read.
This is why you can’t remember all the laws of thermodynamics off the top of your head or who Euclid is and what he did for trigonometry.
You almost certainly have been exposed to this information before — at least once throughout your schooling—yet due to a lack of interest in the topic, you did not store any of the information away for safe-keeping.
Interest and attention are like portals to the core of your being. Knowledge emanates from a source, such as a book, but only the things that interest you are allowed to pass your defences and become internalised into your entire system. To this extent, you are wasting precious time forcing yourself to read books that don’t interest you or grab your attention.
Now, some caveats.
Of course, you will often have to read books, or at least passages of books that don’t immediately grab you, but the broader purpose they are serving still should.
When you read something like Code by Charles Petzold, for example, you will encounter sections on binary and hexadecimal, Boolean logic, how to wire electrical circuits so that they can do arithmetic and reflect and/or outcomes, among other things. A lot of this did not interest me to a significant extent.
However, because I had the more global goal of understanding computer software, that ambition fuelled me through sections of decreased interest regarding hardware and electrical engineering, which provide the platform for software to function. Icing is pretty average without the cake.
This is a fine line though, and as mentioned above, my general recommendation for newer readers is to be picky about what you read; your threshold for how interesting a book should be more severe. Once you’re an established reader, you have more confidence in your ability to plod through more boring books, for the sake of the gems they may contain.
All readers, but beginners especially should heed the words of Patrick Collison, who has an axiom to illustrate why you shouldn’t waste your time on bad books:
“There’s a set of great books that are really worth reading, and there’s a subset of those books that are really enjoyable to read — maybe it’s like 10 or 20 percent of them. And that subset, the intersection of really worth reading, and really enjoyable to read, is actually more books than you can read in a lifetime.
So, I decided I will read all the books that are really worth reading and really enjoyable to read, and when I run out of those, then I’ll go back to the books that are merely worth reading.
And so, you know fairly quickly you can decide if this is an enjoyable book to read, and if not, discard it.”
Method 5: Buy more books
One of my (many) favourite quotes is this gem by Benjamin Franklin:
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
I think this simple statement nails a widely applicable principle. Something that, if you can internalise, will systemically improve your life. Life and the natural world are not destined to be kind to us, however, arming yourself with knowledge of both depth and breadth can pay off substantially. Typically, much more than the cost of achieving it.
(I’m not talking about formal education here, as the pay-off received from acquiring university-based education seems marginal—when factoring in the cost of it— based on my understanding of the research. I could certainly be wrong about this, however, it is irrelevant to the point I am making. What I am referring to here is the pay-off for being an autodidact; someone who takes their learning into their own hands.)
That is why I will pretty much purchase a book anytime I am near a bookstore. Exchanging $25 or thereabout for a book seems like a massive net-win in my opinion, when you consider the potential value contained within the covers.
“[F]orget money entirely when it comes to books. Reading is not a luxury. It’s not something you splurge on. It’s a necessity.
As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
On top of that, books are an investment. I hear from people all the time who tell me they plan to buy this book or that book. Plan? Just buy it. I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I’d never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. Not money, not time, not my own laziness. Don’t wait around for some book you want to read to come out in paperback–trying to save $2 or $3 is the wrong mindset. If it’s a book you’ll read, then read it now, not in a year.”
What would you have to sacrifice to free up $25 a week?
If you did so and put that money aside for a new book each week, you’d collect over 50 books that year. Odds are you wouldn’t even be able to read them all, but if you let them pile up, you will certainly read more of them than if you are stingy with your book-budget.
Alternatively, you could just go to a used bookstore, where you can find some of the best books ever written for $5-10.
However you go about it, once you’ve got a few books, the next recommendation becomes a whole not easier, if not inevitable.
Method 6: Leave Books Out
Most of the books I own are in a bookcase in my study.
At the time of writing this, however, there are sixteen uncased-books sitting on or under the desk that I am working at—even though the bookcase is a single metre away.
In the next room—where I sleep—there are six more books on my nightstand, one in the drawer and two under the bed. There may be more, but I didn’t dig around too much.
There are also books in my car, my backpack and ones that I have purposefully left at locations that I frequent regularly, such as my mother’s or grandparent’s house.
The point here is that wherever I look, there are books. This is purposeful; we reach for what is readily available to us.
To draw a simple parallel from the nutrition-behaviour literature, when a jar of lollies is more visible; more lollies are eaten.
There are many examples of this psychological mechanism in action, but the above should illustrate the principle. In essence, we engage more with—and even become—what our environment consists of.
We are not, at all, “free” agents. The idea we can make distinct and unbound decisions as we please is an illusion. More accurately, we like are a leaf in the wind, getting pushed and pulled by the ebb and flow of the environmental forces exerting themselves upon our dynamic state.
If you wish to read more, create an environment that ushers you in that direction. Have more books around the house, create a reading spot, engage with certain friends about books more often. Help the forces of the universe help you.
Method 7: Read multiple books
When a book is really good, you can’t put it down, but when a book is average, or you’re reading a portion of it that is, then it’s hard to convince yourself to pick it up.
No book is perfect, and essentially all of them will contain paragraphs, passages, pages or entire parts that are overtly dry or too dense.
One of the strategies I have found useful when dealing with this is simply having multiple books on the go.
When you’re a little burned out on a book, but still have ambitions of completing it, a little stint away from it can often re-ignite your passion to read it. An afternoon or two spent reading something else might be exactly what you need in order to push through that chapter you thought you would never finish.
In addition to the psychological benefits, this strategy may actually be useful for more deeply engraining the knowledge the books contain also, as the process mimics that of spaced repetition/interleaving (a study schedule which tends to have advantages over more distinctly chunked blocks of time).
But more on that another day.
Method 8: Accountability
Personally, I am not a devote worshipper at the temple of social accountability .
However, there are some benefits to it, and as someone who doesn’t tend to leverage its use to its full capacity, I have tried to more so in recent times. One of the ways I have done, as mentioned earlier, is by posting small reviews of books I have read on my Instagram story.
I don’t think I could say this act is totally devoid of social signalling — which I think is a substantial motivating factor in essentially all human-behaviour — however, it also keeps me on track, which I benefit from.
When it comes to structuring your life in an advantageous manner, I think more closely aligning things that come easily/are tempting — such as the need to signal — and things that benefit you — such as reading more books — is extremely important.
(An example of the opposite would be signalling to display wealth. This is very tempting to do on a short-term basis and wins you many social-status points, but typically comes at the cost of your long-term financial health.)
It doesn’t have to be social media though; you can have a book club with friends or simply one friend you just keep in contact with about what you are both reading.
This is a powerful strategy not only for the purposes of adherence to your reading but also comprehension of it. When you discuss what you read or summarise it for someone else, you will very likely improve your understanding and retention of the information.
Method 9: The structure, style & time interplay
One of the mistakes I often see people making is trying to read the wrong book at the wrong time.
This principle, like some of the others, tries to slice through the idea that “a book is a book.” Yes, semantically that is true, but for our purposes here, not all books are created equal.
Often the inequality of books is only really considered in regard to the value of its content, such as the accuracy or importance of the information in a non-fiction book, or the quality of the narrative in a novel. However, the consumability of a book is extremely important also. Potentially even more so.
What I mean by consumability, is the ease at which it can be read. This is often a product of how the book is structured, the language used, and even other important details, such as the font, margin size and line-spacing.
An example of how I use this principle with a few different books is as follows:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelias is a short book, and is, for the most part, written in smallish snippets and chunks, with a single thought rarely spanning more than a paragraph or two. I read the majority of this book while waiting for the coffee to boil on the stove each morning. This worked well, as not only could I read for a few minutes and not risk getting stuck halfway through a page or section, but the content was also appropriate and enjoyable to read at that time of the day.
A pre-bed read would be something like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and Remaking of the World. While only one is fiction, they both have a nice narrative flow, and you don’t feel like you are trying to swallow an information gobstopper every paragraph. Reading more for the purpose of entertainment and relaxation pre-bed is a good idea, in my opinion. With that said, though, these books will still contribute to your knowledge-base and shape your worldview, even if you aren’t strictly reading them for the purpose of becoming better or knowing more.
Finally, while I recommend reading each day, this does not necessarily mean that you have to read each of your books every day (which is why it is beneficial to read multiple books at once). The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, for example, quickly became a weekend-only read for me. This is because the information is dense (at least in comparison to my prior understanding of evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics). It would take me about 5 minutes to read each page, which meant it often took me 15-20 minutes of reading to feel like I had hit a rhythm, where I recalled some of what I had read previously and was understanding what I was reading currently. If I had tried to read this book in the morning, while waiting for my coffee, I very likely would have been extremely frustrated by the process and felt like I was getting nowhere, both in relation to progression through the book, and my understanding of it.
As I said, not all books are the same. Pick the right tool, use it at the right time and watch you the books you’ve read, and your wisdom, pile up.
Method 10: Know you will get better
This one is important.
To start broadly, I believe the “growth mindset” literature—primarily the brainchild of Carol S. Dweck—is some of the most crucial psychological research in recent decades. I am a big supporter of its implications.
As with almost all good research, the results seem intuitive, bordering on obvious, and therefore many draw the conclusion that studying such a thing is redundant. This is the incorrect view, in my opinion .
Duckworth has shown that Henry Ford’s phrase “whether you think you can, or you can’t — you’re right” is essentially true. Our beliefs about our own character, intelligence, creativity and other things, determine, to a significant extent, just how much each of them can be improved .
Duckworth states in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”
Believing you will get better at reading is one of the fundamental keys to doing so. However, beliefs don’t do all the work on their own. You still have to read, of course!
Keith Stanovich, a researcher who has focused on two topics I am extremely interested in, rationality and reading, discusses in this video, the “Matthew Effect” and accumulative advantages of reading more.
Stanovich outlines how with more reading, you become better at decoding words and understanding the language being used. When you can decode words easily, this allows for more brainpower to be directed towards high-level comprehension. And when you have more high-level comprehension taking place, you are actively thinking to a significant extent about what you are reading, and therefore you find it interesting. When you find things interesting, you are more likely to do more of them. So, you read more, and ultimately become even better at decoding words and the process repeats itself.
Not only should you believe you will get better at reading, based on the growth mindset, but you should also consider the Matthew effect and how much easier it will become once you do actually read more.
But what about speed reading?
Now to come to the topic of speed-reading; something that I have been avoiding right up until the point where I couldn’t any longer.
Speed-reading is typically one of the first things that people think is the key to reading more books. And typically, those who do not read much, suggest that it is because they are slow readers.
And unfortunately, I am basically going to avoid saying anything about it, other than I believe it to a be a significantly overrated and over-discussed factor in relation to reading. While I am, in part, sceptical of the notion of speed-reading, I am sure there are a few things you can do to enhance how fast you read, while minimising any negative trade-offs.
With that said, however, I am an advocate of the phrase “where there’s muck, there’s brass.” Which basically conveys the idea that unpleasant or difficult things are often the most lucrative. I find reading to be no different.
The more slowly you read, the more you tend to pick-up, comprehend and retain. Reading slowly, whether intentionally or as a product of reading something beyond your understanding, tends to be laborious, but fruitful.
This is related to, but somewhat in contradiction to the Matthew effect outlined just previously. When you read lots of books, you accumulate more knowledge, and that makes reading new books easier because you turn the page and think “yep, I’ve heard this before” and “uh huh, I knew that.”
And while this means that more well-read readers can read faster on average, they are also less likely to encounter a “view-quake,” a book or section of one that shakes things up to such an extent that it changes how you view the world in a fundamental manner.
To quote Mortimer Adler, who wrote THE book on how to read a book:
“If a book is easy and fits nicely into all your language conventions and thought forms, then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds,”
Elsewhere in the book, Adler recommends that a book should be read as deeply as it worth reading. That is a great axiom for how fast you should read.
His book is full of wisdom and titbits like this, and I highly recommend grabbing yourself a copy if you want to improve your returns on reading.
And that’s all I will say on the topic of speed-reading.
This piece has been on the longer side, but admittedly, this is the condensed version. I am passionate about this topic and want to provide strong encouragement for others to undertake more of an activity that I believe will provide overwhelming benefit to them. I cannot help everyone, but I would like to encourage you to help yourself — reading more is a form of this.
Buy more books and read them. You will not regret it.
And with that, I will leave you with the words of two individuals who are much smarter than I…
The first, Carl Sagan:
“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
And finally, a warning by Shane Parrish:
“Side effects of reading more may include (1) increased intelligence; (2) an uncomfortable silence when someone asks you what happened on Game of Thrones last night and you say “Game of what?”; (3) better ideas; and (4) increased understanding of yourself and others.”
1 – I know many swear by the utility of social accountability and believe that the single best thing you can do when it comes to achieving a big goal, is telling others about it so they hold you accountable, however, I am not convinced.
Quite simply, this is because telling people about your goals provides you with a degree of social (and neurochemical) reward, prior to you even having achieved anything. And when you are rewarded for little/no work, the likelihood of undertaking something difficult decreases.
Demonstrating this and realising it for yourself is remarkably easy: Walk up to any mildly supportive person and tell them that you have decided to lose 10kgs/run a marathon/become a lawyer/donate more money to charity etc.
Very typically, unless someone is an absolute grump—like me—they will tell you “that’s amazing” and commend you on your ambitious goal.
Evolution favoured well-liked people, and for that reason, we tend not to rain all over someone’s goals. Instead, we support them, even if they go no further than that single conversation because we don’t want to be the person who told them they couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Now, there are some caveats to this. We are a product of our environment, and thus, if you can change your environment and how it interacts with you in a favourable way, by telling people about your goals (e.g. so your friends don’t tempt you with burgers), then this is likely a net-positive.
2 – Good research is often intuitive, post-hoc because good research has a significant amount of contact with objective reality, which, as far we can tell, follows a set of fairly consistent logical principles—which at the most foundational layer is what we call physics.
Because the natural world tends to work in a consistent—albeit complex—manner, we tend to convince ourselves that we knew something, once it has been elucidated, even prior to it being formally understood. It is as if we are watching an archer who has just shot an arrow into the bullseye from 30 metres away, and saying, “I knew that’s what they would hit, I could see where they were aiming.” When in reality, we only knew it after the fact. He could have just as easily missed, even though he intended all along to hit the target.
Quite simply, the world is significantly foreign to us, and a variety of forces and probabilities exist that we are unbelievably ignorant to. Very little, if anything, can be known definitively ahead of time.
So with that said, the mark of good research is not necessarily how counter-intuitive it is, but often, though not always, how intuitive it seems once the light of the empirical method has been cast upon it.
3 – Personally, I think the idea of a “growth mindset” has been bastardised in recent years, and is often associated with new-age self-help guru-ism, but this is not to say that the fundamental idea is incorrect. The problem is that many just extrapolate the idea well and truly beyond its limitations.
So while new-age self-help is, in essence, a form of mediocrity propaganda—spending more time convincing you that you are ok the way you are, than actually truly helping you improve yourself—the growth mindset does diverge from this to a significant extent in some important ways.
Something that is somewhat characteristic of new-age self-help, is fetishizing mistakes. In recent years, mistakes have become not only something that is good, but they should even be celebrated and can win you significant social approval when you pretend to be “vulnerable” by sharing them.
I find this entire song and dance rather perturbing. By definition, a mistake cannot be good, so the idea that they are inherently valuable, and something worth cultivating is moronic. The growth-mindset, however, recognises that being willing to accept mistakes is the key to putting yourself in situations that you will benefit from.
Let me be clear: Mistakes are not desirable, but they are tolerable. They shouldn’t be the aim; however, it should be acknowledged they will occur. And for that reason, they shouldn’t necessarily be considered a good reason to stop whatever process you are undertaking.
To borrow from a somewhat unrelated idiom: in order to make an omelette, you need to break a few eggs. The goal is not egg-breaking, though, but omelette making. Don’t mix up causation with correlation.