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How to Read 109 Books in 10 Months — Techniques, Tips, and Resources
9th February, 2019 Share on Twitter
By the end of this post, you will have the tools to become a voracious reader.
This is going to be a long post, and I ask you to be patient and read all the way through, because I believe that book-reading is the most beneficial exercise we can engage in.
Table of Contents
- Motivation—Why Read More?
- Read with Purpose
- Read “Want” Books, not “Should” Books
- One Page, One Chapter a Day
- Find Your Favourite Format—Play to Your Strengths
- Start Small—Build Your Confidence
- Build a Healthy TBR (To-Be-Read List)
- Maybe It’s Not You; It’s the Book
Motivation—Why Read More?
“Read more” is the most common New Year’s Resolution among my friends. I know there’s a desire in people to make it a regular practice.
There are entirely new worlds within books. We can immerse ourselves inside stories, make friends with characters, and feel inspired by their journeys.
Non-fiction offers the opportunity for great education. A book costing no more than $10 can pay us back a hundredfold in value, and often feature entertaining stories.
Even better, reading these books can inspire us to write our own some day. We want to replicate the same effect that our favourite authors had on us.
I cannot live without books. Thomas Jefferson said those same words over two hundred years ago. Just think of how long books have been around to benefit people! They remain the primary source of educational material.
One of my favourite stories is that of Michael Faraday. In his early youth, the famous scientist worked as an apprentice book binder, and his mentor happily let him read the books he was working with.
Faraday picked up a book called Improvement of the Mind written by Isaac Watts. This book promised to teach its readers to think objectively about circumstances, and showed ways to improve themselves.
Without this book, might Faraday have had the same impact? Improvement of the Mind certainly helped, but someone as determined as Faraday likely would have found similar fame, because he was such a voracious reader.
Faraday read everything he could get it hands on, and there is no doubt this hunger for knowledge and joy in reading new books brought him up to the highest echelons of the scientific community.
Okay, you might already be well-convinced of the benefits of reading, and all you need is some help to turn it into a regular practice. We’ll get to those techniques in a moment.
First, I want to address what I see as the two biggest problems that people have with reading books.
The first problem is trying to read in distractive environments. Our phones beep and buzz at us with notifications all day long, and it sucks our focus away from what’s really important.
I get this a lot when I read in certain environments, and it’s why I set up myself for the best concentration on what I’m reading. This involves reading in Kindle format instead of paperback—one of the very points I talk about below.
Find a good environment for your reading, whether this means a room in your house, a comfy chair, a quiet library. If I’m reading on a lunch break at work, then I’ll put my headphones on and put some non-lyrical music on.
Smartphones are the most common source of people’s lack of focus. I turn off all push notifications on my phone, except for the most basic SMS and calling functionality (making it an actual phone!). I only check email when I’m ready and never allow phone pings to distract my attention from my work.
If you think this problem sounds familiar, then you might like my post 5 Strategies for Focused Concentration on this blog.
The second problem is closed-mindedness, or the “I already knew that” mindset. This usually comes from insecurity, a need to feel like we already know enough.
For some of us, this problem is so bad that we can’t permit anyone to show competence around us, and instinctively pull others down. This achieves nothing for anyone apart from feeding your overblown ego.
The problem of closed-mindedness stops people from even picking books up in the first place. If potential readers aren’t even inclined to pick up books, how are they ever going to adopt a regular reading practice?
I notice this problem with people who dislike fantasy stories. They make fun of people who love these stories and watch them with awe, because deep down they’re jealous of how much these fans are able to subsume their egos and immerse themselves in stories.
Openness to experience is, in my view, the most important personality trait for gathering knowledge and developing skills.
Openness is common among entrepreneurs and self-employed people, and it seems to be because these types are able to subsume their egos and deeply immerse themselves in work and study. Opening ourselves up to the unknown is the only way we can absorb new things. Even better, it can be cultivated.
Now that we’ve addressed these preliminaries, it’s time to get into the ways you can become a voracious reader. The following are my seven top techniques for building a regular reading practice.
Read with Purpose
In 2017, I read five books. In 2018, I read 109 books in ten months. This is a ridiculous increase in reading throughput.
This change in reading pace came from writing my first book. The 24 Laws of Storytelling is a book about stories and the writing craft, so it makes sense that I would need to read around the subject.
If I had “winged it” and simply written the book from experience, it would have sucked. I’d have lacked the perspective gained from the books on storytelling that I did read, and it would have shown in the book’s quality.
From K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel, I learned about how stories are structured from a master of the craft.
From Stephen King’s On Writing, I learned about how a master author describes his scenes and characters.
From James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, I learned how a screenwriting legend writes his dialogue, and why conflict is the most reliable way to liven up any scene.
Knowing from the start that I needed to firm up my knowledge of the writing craft gave me purpose, and I started reading. Here is a list of my nine favourite books on storytelling if you’re interested.
When you read with purpose, you actually read differently. Rather than it feeling like a chore, you actively trying to find useful material. You read with a level of focus that’s uncommon among readers.
I read mostly on the Kindle app for Mac, iOS, and Android, which allows you to highlight passages and save these highlights for later. This was invaluable in my research process, because I could note down these important points and organise them as material for my book.
I’d burn through these books at a fast pace, hoovering up as much knowledge as I could, eager to move onto the next one. I’d regularly go onto Amazon, finding new books to download. This pattern would compound as I became better at gathering material.
This was a stark change for me. Before I’d found this new purpose, I’d meander through books, taking months to read them because there was little to drive me through those books. This isn’t the best way to read—in fact in it’s the worst way to read.
If you wander through books that you don’t find particularly interesting, it’s no wonder that you might not be reading as enthusiastically as you could be. Luckily, this is something we can change.
To read with purpose, the first step is to think of the biggest problems you’re facing. If you’re struggling in your dating life, there’s a clear genre of books for you to try. If you’re having problems at work, you can start with Robert Greene’s books on power and strategy.
When you read like this, aiming to solve a specific problem, your interests begin to branch out into related subjects. You become interested in topics you’d never have expected.
This branching effect happened to me when I read books on storytelling—I became interested in the psychology behind stories, and so stumbled into the fascinating works by Carl Jung, Jordan Peterson, and Robert Moore. These books have deeply affected me, and led me to choosing the topic of my second book (hint: it’s on applied psychology and human nature).
Choose a problem you want to solve, and get on Amazon. Alternatively, go down to your local library or charity shop. Search for books on the relevant genre, and you’re sure to find something of interest. Enjoy the ride!
Read “Want” Books, not “Should” Books
Before I started reading so frequently, I’d pick up books that were popular at the time. These were the books you’d see trending on social media and bestseller lists.
These books definitely trended due to merit, and I’ve returned to a few of them since and enjoyed them. But at the time, I’d read these books because I thought I should. I didn’t have any strong guiding direction in reading these books, they simply seemed cool.
Unfortunately, I’d rarely finish these books. I’d plod along for weeks and months, leaving entire days without reading. I’d think “I should really get back to that book” and it usually felt like a chore.
Does this sound familiar? In my experience, this is one of the most common mistakes people make when attempting to get into reading.
I call these “Should” books. They’re books we think we should read, even though they’re not that compelling to us. We labour through them, gaining little from the process.
I’m all for hard work and persistence, but an entertaining and useful book should be a joyful, flowing experience. Never an experience that makes you bored or resentful.
Instead, look for “Want” books, even “Need” books. These are the books you have to read, no matter how lowbrow they might seem. They’re on topics you’re passionate about. You honestly don’t care if they’re trending or popular, because you love them.
Life is too short to struggle and fight against bad books. Embrace the kinds of books that naturally have you turning the pages. Type them into the Amazon search bar and you’ll find other related works in the same genre.
Reading books that you’re passionate about may even inspire you to create a work of your own in the same genre. And then you’ll have even more purpose driving your reading practice!
One Page, One Chapter a Day
Tell me if this sounds like you…
You’re in a bookshop and pick up a huge tome of a book, often a “Should” book, and its sheer size puts you off. You open it up and find the font is something like 8pt.
Far from fun, it sounds like hard work. Back on the bookshop shelf it goes. This is huge shame, because we might have enjoyed that book.
This is often the case for books by the great Russian writers Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn. I honestly, and without hyperbole, consider them the best authors who have ever lived. There’s nothing that compares to the rich psychological truth in books like Crime and Punishment or The Gulag Archipelago. But so few people are willing to put in the time to read these books.
I wrote an entire chapter on this phenomenon in 24 Laws. Here’s a passage from that chapter:
The lesson from Crime and Punishment is not to avoid writing long stories, but to make you aware of the unfortunate fact that people will make unfair snap judgements of your work from its length. If your stories take time to build into the action, then the few weaker readers who pick up your book will give up before your plot starts moving in earnest. However, Dostoyevsky’s work has not been lost in obscurity by any means—it is more popular than ever. All of this boils down to a choice the storyteller must make when it comes to length: On one hand, to embrace your story’s gradual rise in tension and make it enjoyable to the kind of advanced readers who appreciate literature like a long, drawn-out meal. On the other hand, to make a snappier, action-rich story that engages readers of all levels. The 2017 film Blade Runner 2049 chose the former route, and while it suffered at the box office, it is widely considered to be one of the best sequels ever made. Conversely, the original 1977 film Star Wars moves at a relentless pace right from the beginning and the results speak for themselves. The choice between these routes is yours alone, and neither option is inherently right.
Writers feel the pressure to tighten their prose because people feel like they have less time than ever before to read.
Reading has always been a minority pastime, and that’s not a bad thing. But it is a shame that fewer people feel they have the time to put into it. I think we’d all be a lot better off if we prioritised reading time over video games and Netflix.
My recommendation for readers who struggle to allocate time for reading is to read small, defined units per day. This can be a single page or a single chapter.
Then, all you need is the discipline to pick up the book and read it. Crime and Punishment has 39 chapters. They’re long, but you can reasonably read each chapter in a day or so. Doing the maths, this means you can read the book in about six weeks.
That might still seem a long time, and indeed it’s at a fast pace, but this Dostoyevsky novel is one of the longest around! If you can put a reasonable timeframe on a book and stick to your reading schedule, then you can conquer any book.
This is the same for any long term project. You outline what you need to accomplish, break this down into small, manageable chunks, and just do the work. I give this same advice to new writers attempting to write their first novel.
Read just one chapter a day. If you miss a day, that’s fine, just keep going. Don’t beat yourself or “make up” for any missed time. Embrace the process and it’ll get easier as you conquer each new book.
Through this daily process, remember one thing: never compare your reading speed to others. With enough practice, you’ll get to the same level. What’s more important is to compare your reading speed to the way it was before. This is a much healthier type of comparison, and as long as you’re keeping the discipline strong, you’ll feel good about your progress.
Find Your Favourite Format—Play to Your Strengths
I suck at reading paper books. I get easily distracted, my eyes get strained, and I’m made all too aware at the large number of pages ahead of me. I’ve no doubt this is why I read so few books before 2018.
That all changed when I tried my first audiobooks. In 2017, I had a breakup that made me re-assess my life, and tried to jump headlong into dating—which, as you can probably guess, went terribly.
I started listening to books about relationships, and learned a lot. I went into a depression during the summer of 2017, spending most of my time immersed in these audiobooks. I loved listening to Brené Brown explain psychological shame, and Dr Robert Glover explain why all of my prior relationships had failed.
I spent days (and hundreds of pounds) on audiobooks in this period. They comforted me, and I became addicted to learning new things. Audiobooks worked really well for me. In fact, I’d say they were the precursor so my reading explosion in 2018.
The inspiration for writing my book came later in that year when I first listened to The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, and later The 33 Strategies of War. These books had an impact on me. Greene’s signature writing style, so authoritative and full of interesting historical stories, really grabbed me and instilled the key lessons.
Both of these books taught me crucial things, particularly why I was struggling at work. Greene taught me how to better interact with people, and how I was unintentionally making them feel defensive or irritated. I’ve since been promoted and given two pay rises.
It later occurred to me that the magic in Greene’s books was this writing style of using historical stories to convey a lesson. I realised I could use the same technique in a book of my own, and the rest is history.
All of these good things came out of trying an alternative method of reading. And since then, I’ve embraced reading through the free Kindle app on my smartphone. I hardly ever read paper books any more. In fact, the last paperback I read was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
There is a huge surge in Audible subscriptions right now, and this is an awesome thing. It’ll get scores of people into books, and hopefully unlock the vast creative potential within these new readers.
And if you hear any idiot tell you Yeah, but they’re not real books are they?, remember that they’re most likely jealous of your reading progress and the joy you’ve found in it.
If you’ve listened intently to an audiobook, enjoyed it, and can recall its contents, then you’ve probably read it to a greater depth than 90% of the people who read the paperback.
It’s your format, your own way of reading. Try out different formats, different fonts, and embrace the ones that work for you. You might even find that certain formats work better for different books.
Start Small—Build Your Confidence
Using the methods in this post, you might be able to dive into a Tolstoy novel and successfully finish it. And that’s awesome. But I suspect that it’s necessary to start a little slower and build gradually.
Now that I’m a voracious, confident reader, I personally love diving into deep books with lots of interrelated dramas and conflicted characters. But at the beginning, I needed audiobooks because they were less of a challenge—listening to audio is almost a kind of passive experience. Starting with War and Peace would have scared me.
The best way to build a skill is to practice it. Disciplined, regular daily practice does so much more than any “trick” or “hack” and there’s no doubt about that.
But just like when we play a video game, we need to feel some kind of small accomplishment on the way there. We level up our game character, building skills gradually as we overcome challenges. This paces the game well and the challenges increase as our skills levels grow.
The exact same learning process can help us improve our reading practice. If reading feels like a huge challenge, then start with some shorter books on topics that interest you. You’ll finish these books relatively quickly, and you can feel accomplished once you’ve read one, two, five, and then ten. You reading confidence grows with each milestone.
Then, when you’re more confident, and you’ve built reading into a regular habit, you can attack bigger books. It’ll feel great to chew up the same tomes that used to scare you.
Once you become a fully developed reader, the lengths of books won’t even faze you. You’ll pick books based on merit, their genre, the reputation of the author, and excitedly dive in. This is the culminating point of your reading journey, and it will enable you to really get your reading numbers into overdrive.
I asked my writer friend Alexandra (@Ice_Kreacher) about this, and she had the follow advice:
If you don't read a lot, or are just starting out reading, ignore the "read out of your comfort zone" advice. Whether you're a writer or a normie, read INSIDE of your comfort zone. Read what's easy, read what turns you on. Venture out once you're comfortable. And take it slow, so you don't overwhelm yourself… Don't compare yourself to other people. Read at your own pace, unapologetically. Otherwise you'll just get frustrated and give up. Read for enjoyment. Don't make it a chore.
Build a Healthy TBR (To-Be-Read List)
At any given time, I have at least twenty books on my TBR. This is the list of books I’ve recently bought and have yet to read. Think of it as a kind of queue of books to read.
I like to shop on the Amazon Kindle store (maybe a little too much) and am constantly picking up new books. The prices are usually reasonable, and the store has millions of great titles to choose from.
I’d like to point out here that I’m likely to pick up books I’m interested in, if they look interesting and cost less than £3/$3. Books sell exponentially more copies when they’re cheaper, and thus make more money for the authors. This is a counter-intuitive fact of human nature that book publishers would do well to learn—far too many books are unnecessarily expensive and don’t sell.
It’s exciting to have a list of great books on your TBR. It affects how you read, knowing that after this book you’ve got a list of 10 or 20 to choose from next.
It’s important to note at this juncture that there’s absolutely no need to read these books in any particular order. You can pick any new book, even if it’s not on your TBR. Reading should be fun, not a chore.
I go fairly randomly through my TBR, and let books drop from the list if they don’t interest me as much as when I bought them. There’s no official written-down list of these books, I just have a pile on my coffee table and a list of unread titles in my Kindle library. When I’m done with one book, I pick up the one that seems the most interesting at that time. It’s my TBR and I can amend it as the moment fits.
People who are jealous of your reading practice may look at your library and sneer Okay, but have you read all of these? You can proudly smile and say “Nope! And that’s awesome!” because you have loads of exciting new unexplored worlds at your feet.
Maybe It’s Not You; It’s the Book
After I finished writing 24 Laws, I read a book called On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This book kicked my ass.
In On Writing Well , Zinsser explains why clutter is the #1 enemy for all writers, regardless of genre or medium.
“Clutter,” explains Zinsser, “is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
This problem is particularly widespread in academic writing. Articles and papers present relatively simple ideas in a (sometimes deliberately) opaque manner with run-on sentences and $10 words. Wouldn’t it be better to share ideas so that more people can understand them?
I actually felt a bit insecure after reading Zinsser’s book. It pointed out all the writing fudges I’d made in early drafts of 24 Laws, in the author’s signature punchy style. I’ll note that this kind of reaction is actually an indication of something good, because you now have some advice you can apply, that’s fully in your control. Always check yourself and seek objective feedback!
Why is this relevant to reading? Because it’s important to realise that even the best books aren’t always written in the most readable style. Sometimes writers can’t articulate their ideas, or their prose is turgid and full of run-on sentences.
These books are difficult to read, and don’t immediately fill the reader full of joy. A well-written book should be seductive. It should seamlessly lull you in, immersing you into the story without feeling like you’re reading a book.
If you think back to the books you were forced to read in high school, then this experience will seem relatable. While these were objectively great novels like Of Mice and Men and Pride and Prejudice, at the age of sixteen we might not have been at a state most receptive to the brilliant themes in their stories.
The tragedy in this is that people are put off books for years. They might not pick up reading again for decades, losing out on the endless benefits they can bring. All because they were taught at an early age that books are a not-fun-thing.
If a book isn’t written well, or you feel like it’s difficult to get through, it’s probably not due to any writing skill. Reading should be an easy, flowing experience. Don’t feel bad for dropping a book if it gets too bad—the author should have worked harder to keep your attention.
Bad writing is a love letter from the author, to the author. Don’t waste your time on badly-written books, even if they’re popular. Go for the classics, the ones that have stood the test of time. My favourite autobiography is My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass. Even though it was written in the mid-1800s, it has a certain freshness to it, and his joyful positivity and optimism radiate from the prose more than a century after his death.
Read those books.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my techniques and tips for becoming a voracious reader. You now have the tools to go and start your regular reading practice. It requires discipline on your part, but I know you can do it.
Come back in a year from now, when you’ve read 100+ books, and leave a comment below! Let’s celebrate our amazing reading progress.
Here are some resources for increasing your reading throughput, written by some of the best in the business. If you’ve found any other great resources, write a comment below and if I like it then I’ll add it to the list.
- Scientific Speed Reading: How to Read 300% Faster in 20 Minutes
- Blinkist — Non-fiction book summary service
- Tips and Tricks for a Zero TBR (Video)
- Classics and Book Snobbery (Video)
- How Do You Read So Much? (Video)
- What to Do When You Don't Understand What You're Reading
- How to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year, According to Harvard Research
- Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”
- How To Read More — A Lot More
- The (Very) Best Books I Read in 2018
- How to Keep A Library Of (Physical) Books
- 42 Books That Will Make You A Better Person (Each Described In 1 Sentence)
- Warren Buffett’s Best Kept Secret to Success: The Art of Reading, Remembering, and Retaining More Books
- How do people read so fast? (Read the comments in the thread)
- How to Read More Books: Tips From the World’s Most Prolific Readers
- What exactly is a voracious reader?
- What is it like to be a voracious reader?
- What are some effective strategies to becoming a voracious reader?
- The Most Successful People I Know Are Voracious Readers. Here’s Why
- A Simple Guide to Becoming a Voracious Reader
- How to become a voracious reader (Podcast with transcript)
- Jordan Peterson’s Recommended Books
Please check out The 24 Laws of Storytelling, my book that explores the principles that make some books and movies great and explains why others fail. By reading my book, you’ll gain the same strategies used by master storytellers such as Stephen King, Christopher Nolan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many more. Pick up your copy today.