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Extreme reading

May 23, 2012

translations: [日本語] | at Lifehacker

Why do people have trouble reading books? The primary answer you’re likely to receive when asking this question is that reading is boring. And to this response I agree. Reading is boring – but it doesn’t need to be boring. The reason that reading is boring is that many people view their relationship to reading in a somewhat black and white manner. For example, think of a book you’ve read recently. What were your goals in choosing to read that book? For many people the answer is of the form:

  • To read every single word
  • Remember everything

If these goals were even possible1 then reading would very often be extremely boring. How would you handle a book that just isn’t well written? It would be painful to read every word. What about a book that is complicated or uses language that you’re not familiar with? In this case the act of remembering everything would slow your reading speed to a crawl. What if you read a book that is complicated, uses unfamiliar language and is not well written? Most people slog through the first 100 pages or so2 then forget about the book, read it off and on from time to time, forget what they’ve read and ultimately give up and think that reading is boring. And they’re right. Reading like this is boring! Not only is it boring, but it’s oppressive. How does it feel to constantly see that book mocking you from your desk? Not great. The best solution in this case is to simply stop trying to read that book. Go out and find a zombie novel or something else mostly fun and non-challenging to cleanse the palate so to speak. The problem is that many people have a hard time doing this because they feel like they’ve invested valuable time already and didn’t meet their inaccessible goals. You’re not a failure if you give up on a book – you just didn’t like it.

Sadly I do not have a cure-all solution to this problem. However, I can explain my approach to reading that is summarized as simply “establishing a relationship with your book”. The act of establishing a relationship with a book for me is to think of the following, before starting to read:

  • My goals in reading the book – I guarantee they never look like the goals listed above.
  • When will I read the book? I talked about reading contexts previously.
  • How can I supplement the book? For example, are there any blogs that discuss the book that I can reference during or after reading it?

It’s a very personal system, so let me outline an example below.

Extreme reading

I recently read Kent Beck’s book Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. The twist to this story is that I’ve worked at Relevance for over a year and it is indeed an “agile shop.” So what was the point of my reading Beck’s book? As it turns out I had two goals:

  • Beck is an excellent technical writer and I am extremely jealous of his ability and I want to write like him when I grow up.
  • Even though I’ve worked at an agile shop for a year, I’ve yet to truly reflect on my experience.

And that’s all. Did I achieve my goals?

Goal #1 was a no-brainer – read Beck, learn how to write more gooder. Goal #2 was met, but some of what I read was not directly applicable to my daily work-life. That’s OK though, because in reading Beck’s book I enhanced my “agile lexicon” and this fact may prove useful in the future. I tended to read the book in the morning before work so that I could have fresh ideas when pairing with my co-workers and chat about them as time allowed.

It took me two days to read the book and I’ve thought about it and talked about it ever since. I’d say that was a very rewarding experience, but not life changing. All of my reading experiences will not be the same, every book is different, and so every relationship will be likewise.

Have fun.


  1. Unless you’re Alan Kay, but you’re not, so don’t sweat it. If you are, then hello Dr. Kay, I am a great admirer of your work. 

  2. Why is it that the first 100 pages of every book go the quickest? 

10 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Duraid

    You said it took you 2 days to read the book. Can you clarify how many hours appropriately that is? I’m asking because I rarely finish a book in 2 days.

  2. Duraid


  3. @durais ~3-3.5 hours

  4. abp


  5. You have a nice way of thinking about it. I have goals to finish a couple of books that I started, and I just clarified what my goal with each of those two books is. Thinking about why I wanted to read each book also helps me to prioritize. Here Comes Everybody just shot up on my list of priorities, because participation – both my own and others’ – is something I want to understand.

  6. Daniel Jomphe

    So you seem to read about 5 times faster than average people like me read.

    I find that if I read 4 very great technical books per year, I’m much, much more informed than most people in our field. I’ve adopted the habit of reading more than 1 hour per working day, and I’d say this allows me to read around 12 books per year. (Maybe I should keep a log to be able to measure this much more precisely.)

    That said, I’ve read more books than the average person, and still don’t seem to read faster than how I read 15 years ago. Can you recall what happened for you to learn how to read faster? I remember you said this improves with the practice of reading a lot. What was the “a lot” that made it for you?

  7. @Jomphe

    I’m not sure how fast others read. I read only as fast as the book allows me to read. The only factors, as far as I can tell that have helped me to read faster are that I no longer need to look up as many words in the dictionary, I intuitively understand certain topics and can often skim over them, and I can sometimes identify fluff in a book and either skim or skip it.

  8. Daniel Jomphe

    OK this makes sense. I’ve definitely grown myself a fluff detector. I’ll allow myself more freedom into skimming over it. And I’ll need to allow myself to have a different objective than “to read the whole thing”, which brings us back to your post’s intent. Thanks for sharing that!

  9. A technical book or any other book in 3-4 hours is a commendable job. Should I expect that you don’t believe in taking notes? It seems purpose here is to just read and enjoy. Am I right?

  10. Excellent reading strategy. You’ve told the best kept secret of efficient reading. Have a goal (or purpose – reason for reading) Every good reading course starts with the recommendation to have a purpose for reading. Without one your walking through a jungle without a destination. Unfortunately it’s not taught and few stumble on this idea.

    It is true, reading is boring, because we read too slow. And forget most of what we read. By the time we reach chapter 5 we’ve forgotten what we read in the first hour or 30 pages (60 minutes based on average reading speed). It’s no wonder that most books are never read beyond chapter 5.

    Did you know it’s possible to get through the book in an hour or less if it took you 3 or 4 hours? With even better comprehension?

    I read two books yesterday under an hour. I reading 100 or more books a year. That’s not counting the books that cross my path I cull with my reading strategies.

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