How I read

In a recent Q&A, our VP of Product answered the question of "what 3 books (from the bookshelf at work) would you recommend people?"1 with the following:

"Read more. Read as much as you can, read as fast as you can. The ever-ending quest to read more lowers the opportunity cost of reading a book and acquiring new information."

As an answer, this very much matches my philosophy when it comes to reading.

  • In 2016, I read 95 books.
  • In 2017, I read 92 books.
  • This year, I've read significantly less however

Here are a collection of thoughts on what worked well for me in reading lots of books over the years.

Books are food for the mind

Don't just read one book at a time. One of the lessons I've picked up over time is that there is a right time to read the right book. We read to learn and we read for enjoyment. Both of those vectors change based on a number of factors - just as I may find different foods are more right at different occasions, so it is with books.

There are times when I want something lighter or when I have a particular craving or need. There are times for binge-reading and times when I'm looking for more of a buffet.

And just like food, I often find that reading different foods together makes both more enjoyable and valuable.

If it's not to taste, it's ok to move on

I think people sometimes stick with a book for far too long. Unless there's a very specific need, reading shouldn't be an ordeal. It's perfectly ok to return a book to the unread books list.

Tastes change over time as well and I've often found that reading (or re-reading) a book later in my life suddenly gives it new meaning or enjoyment2. The wonderful thing about good books is that they change with you. Your thinking is changed, and coming back to a book lets you uncover more.

And, if I've gotten all I need from a book, I allow myself to stop3. There's no special award for completing a book - reading is purely for me.

Use speed to your advantage

To quickly get something out of the way - I can read fast. Whilst I would like to give some good actionable tips here, I would say that that what matters more than raw speed is having different gears of speed.

Different content benefit from different speeds and different needs benefit from different speeds.

A book is a journey to another world

I've found one of the nicest advantages of having different gears help is that I have a top-gear which I use to develop a sense of a book. This helps me get an intuition for the book, identify things to look out for and pay attention to, and provides sense of direction.

I view it in a similar manner to going on holiday - if you know a bit about the city, you understand more about which neighbourhood you're going through, what landmarks to head towards, places to keep an eye out for and get a sense if this destination is right for you.

By doing this, I find I am much better placed to discover the best a book has to offer.

Read with a plan

Typically, I would have an idea what I want from a book. This allows me to understand it better and what I'm looking for, and target my reading appropriately.

  1. Explore the landscape. The more I know about an area, the more connections I can make. I can connect and relate this with other things and so the better my reading will be. It's partly why I aim to read a wide breadth of subjects as well as go deep in interesting areas in some of them. When reading a book, I have a quick read around the subject beforehand and during.

  2. Understand the context. I typically have a sense about why this book was written. This gives me a clue to what questions are raised, the context in which it was written and the intent behind it. Not surprisingly, books have biases.

  3. Identify the points of leverage. For all books, there are particularly interesting or important sections and I look out for those. I also try to look to seek more/better insight and information from particularly on things that I need more understanding on.

Know your environment and listen to your needs

I find that I can read 10x when I have the right environment.

If I'm fully focused, I can get through books in one sitting. Other times, I may take a number of sittings to make any headway into a book. The internet and Netflix are particularly bad as easy distractions.

The way I typically overcome it is to have a clear goal, set aside time and space to working on it and then focus on getting into the zone.

I'm not too dogmatic here and don't let it get in the way of learning or enjoyment. Sometimes, I find the best reading sessions is when a book uncovers a thread in which I follow it through by reading more on the internet. I do try make sure to snap back to the main thread if it still makes sense but the journey is what matters.

Finally, the Kindle app combined with a long, contigious commute journey helps. However, I find that this often competes with internet reading time unless I'm already deep in a book.

Read different books differently

This is a much bigger post in itself but I read different types of books differently. Because I don't treat them all as the same thing, I also put myself in a different mode to more appropriately read them.

A final word

I read as much as I can, and read as fast as I can.

In books, we have access to all the knowledge of the world to help us grow. There are more than we can read in one lifetime so spend it towards what matter for you and make it matter for you.

  1. There was a more direct answer as well in which Crucial Conversations, Thinking in Systems and The hard things about hard things were recommended.

  2. When I first started reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I found I wasn't getting into it and put it to aside. 2 years later, it re-emerged in my stack and I read it end-to-end in one sitting and then actively sought out other Murakami books.

  3. My average completion rate for books is about 70%. Of the remaining 30%, I'd probably read half of those to about 2/3 completion, read another quarter of those to 50% completion, and give up on all the rest after a few chapters. These aren't necessarily the first chapters.