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Reading for the Rushed

Feb 22, 2012

translations: [日本語] | at Hacker News | at Lifehacker

People sometimes ask me how I’m able to read 70+ books every year despite my extra-curricular, professional, and authoring activities. The truth is that although my reading count the past few years has remained fairly consistent, it’s far less than my historical count (by half) and pathetically less than truly prolific readers1. Alas, people ask and so I’ll try to answer the best that I can. Below you’ll find a short list of principles that help me to maximize my reading time and motivation.

Read only what you find interesting

This seems self-evident, but many people: 1) have no idea what they find interesting, or 2) feel that what they find interesting is childish or lowbrow. That may be the case, but who cares? The point of reading is to enjoy reading. No one can tell you what you should enjoy reading, so read what you enjoy. I believe that as time passes your interests will expand into other kinds of writing, but even if that never happens it’s not terribly important.

If the book you’re reading is too embarrassing to carry onto the subway then find something else to do on the subway, or buy a Kindle. All books look the same in the Kindle.

Be willing to abandon bad books

Like many people I feel physical pain when reading a bad book. Likewise, there is a relative “point of no return” for each reader where, when reading a bad book, they will feel that the time and pain spent is too costly to abandon the effort. Fight that urge because there is nothing less conducive to prolific reading than trying to slog through a bad book.

Read in context

I tend to read 3-4 books at a time. It was once difficult to keep the “story lines” straight in my head when switching from one book to another, but I found that context helps solve that problem. For example, I read a certain book before bed while I read a different book in the morning and yet a different book for study. I hope you get the point. The goal is to contextualize certain books (or even genres) so that my mind is ready for certain content at certain times. However, do not stick to this partitioning too strictly as truly great books smash through the contexts and I find myself unable to put them down. Roll with this. There are few things more joyful then finding a truly great book.

The more you read the faster you’ll read

It’s true. Reading is practice for your reading speed and vocabulary. The more you read the faster the words will flow past your eyes and the less time you’ll need to spend in the dictionary. I still religiously check the dictionary for words that I’m unfamiliar with and are important to understanding the narrative. However, for words that are interesting but inessential (it’s hard to know which words fall into this category, but you’ll learn to identify them over time) I write them down and look them up at my leisure.

Take notes

This is related to the point above. That is, by keeping notes you can go back later and explore certain aspects closer and more deeply. This will help you by simply learning more and this fact will help you pre-load information for future books that might require certain knowledge that you might not otherwise have had. As a nice side-effect, taking notes always helps me to recall the book later on, even if I never look at the notes afterwards. The very act of taking notes seems to help me to crystalize ideas.

Keep a reading log

Since I was a kid I’ve kept a list2 of the books that I’ve read and the dates that I started reading and the date that I completed reading. This may seem a bit gratuitous, but there is a good reason for doing this. That is, by keeping a record you’ll start to recognize patterns. For example, you might notice that you happen to dislike certain sub-genres of sci-fi and will learn to avoid them. There are many patterns to find in your reading habits and the avoidance of genres is just one.

And that’s it. Those are effectively my reading tricks. I have no idea if these are generally applicable, but if you think so then I’m happy to have helped.


  1. A friend of mine claims to average a book per day. 

  2. Sadly, most of my logs written before grad-school have been lost to some rancid landfill or another. 

14 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. jd

    I enjoy using (no affiliation) to keep track of books I’ve read, want to read, and when I started and finished reading. Also a great source of recommendations.

  2. The more you read the faster you’ll read.

    I find this especially true of technical material in the same “genre”. Now it’s not difficult for me to read various research papers reasonably quickly because I’m familiar with the themes and writing style.

    Along those lines, don’t be afraid to skim. Boilerplate prose exists in literature, just as it does in programs.

  3. KevinO

    Your comments about abandonment are upsetting, only because I have a problem letting go. Good thoughts.

  4. auto

    The classic quote by Francis Bacon never get’s old: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

  5. Duraid

    Thanks for the tips. I find them very useful. What about fast reading techniques? is that a myth or can it really work?

  6. @Duraid

    I’ve never formally looked into speed reading programs, so I can’t say if they work.

  7. Kristian

    Could you elaborate on how you take notes? For example, do you use a physical notebook? Do your notes have a particular format or structure? Do you have some sort of archive in case you do want to revisit something you read a long time ago?

  8. jesse

    I use the Spreed bookmarklet for reading online. it’s pretty neat. you can set your wpm on reading.

  9. 1.Do you use real books or eBook reader to read? 2.Do you use physical dictionary, computer program, Google search for looking up words? 3.How do you take notes – pen and paper, voice log, laptop? 4.Do you use your finger or anything to guide your eyes?

    Very motivating article.

  10. Sorry two more questions.

    Will your reading speed increase inevitably as you read more or do you actually have to push yourself to read faster?

    Is reading loudly or moving your lips a bad reading habit?

  11. Using goodreads regularly helps me in keeping my reading count to close to 20 books a month.

  12. I really like this post — as a prolific reader myself I second all your suggestions and tips. Also, as a librarian, I often have to convince people that they really don’t have to read every word in every book they take home before they can return it… only read what feeds your mind and soul! Toss the bad books because there are SO many more to explore, and when you find one that suits you it makes reading so much more fulfilling.

  13. Burk

    I started writing down every book I’ve read since 1957, I write down the date I started the book and when it completed and the name of the city I was in at the time when I finished the book. By keeping track this way I can see how my interests have changed – in my youth it was mostly fiction but as I got older it’s now almost exclusively non-fiction. I read between 25 to 45 books a year, the most ever read in one year was 78.

  14. Moony


    That is a good practice to keep. I started doing that when I was young. Kept the log in an excel file but lost it sometime ago. Now I use a website known as Shelfari. It is amazing for keeping tracks of books you own and have read etc. You should try it.

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