Many of us set a goal of reading more books in the new year. But how often do we actually meet those goals?
In this article, I go over step-by-step my strategy for how to read more than 150 books a year. It’s a game-changer, I promise.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.
A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.
― William Styron, Conversations with William Styron
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
― Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
In the age of blogging and social media, reading a good book can seem trite. Can’t you get the information you need in a faster, shorter, and less cumbersome way than a book?
Yes and no.
Yes, you can find any information you like now with Google and a decent keyword search. But a book often delves deeper and reaches wider than a blog post. In making a single sustained argument over the course of an entire book, the information is inevitably better.
And that’s just talking about nonfiction books.
You know how movie and TV adaptations of books never seem to measure up? There’s a reason why: reading a good novel is an entirely different experience from watching a movie or TV show.
This is the agile guide to setting and accomplishing massive reading goals each year.
How Reading More Is Like a Superpower
Many of us have a goal to read more on our list of new year’s resolutions. But it can seem like a major hassle to read more books once you sit down and try it.
Who has the time? Where can I read? What do I read?
I loved to read when I was a kid. I always maxed out the number of books I could take from the library at any given time. I read about everything. I read about dinosaurs, model cars, superheroes, astronomy, you name it. Whatever struck my fancy that particular week.
I’m sure I’ve described many of you when you were kids.
But like you, somewhere along the way, I got too busy. I lost my ability to read for pleasure. I only read books when I needed to, like for college or law school.
Back in 2010, still reeling from the aftereffects of the financial crisis, I resolved to read more. One of the first books I picked up was a recommendation from a friend. It was The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and it literally changed my life.
Maybe there was something to this reading thing after all. How many other books out there were like this?
I devoured more books, looking for new ideas and opening my eyes to new fields. I read about business and marketing. I read about psychology. I read about Agile software development. In short, I was like that kid again, devouring new subjects and building up expertise in a matter of a few weeks.
Each subsequent year after 2010, I tried to read more books than the one before it.
In 2012, I hit a new record: 150 books.
Every year since, from 2013 and 2014, I’ve completed 150 additional books. That’s 450 books in 3 years.
Honestly, it feels like I’ve gained a new superpower. I’m learning at a much faster rate than I could on my own without books.
I know 150 books a year sounds like a huge amount right now. Don’t worry, I’ll show you exactly how I did it, and how you can too.
How to Read More Than 150 Books a Year
Step 1: Use Goodreads to Track Your Reading Goal
Goodreads is an awesome site that let’s you track what you read, when you read it, and how you rated each book you read. It also works as a fantastic recommendation engine, hooking into your social accounts to connect you to friends and show you what they are reading.
Go ahead and set up your account. Seriously, I’ll wait.
For our purposes, what we are most interested in is the Reading Challenge widget in the sidebar of Goodreads. Here you can set a target reading goal for the year.
The screenshot above details my personal reading goal challenges for 2012 through 2014. You can see that I completed them and Goodreads congratulated me for the accomplishment.
So how did I do it? And how did I find so many books to read?
Step 2: Source More Books to Read
1. Buy new books
You can always buy new books. There’s a bevy of sub-$5 selections on Kindle and Nook. If paper is your preference, consider supporting a local bookstore, which will often have more thoughtful curation and older backlist titles, in addition to all the new stuff at your standard Barnes & Noble brick and mortar store. Whatever you do, don’t buy those full-price hardcovers at the airport.
2. Public domain books
Project Gutenberg is the premier site for public domain books in multiple formats. Public domain books are books that have fallen out of copyright — typically written before 1922. A whole host of classic books are public domain and freely available.
3. Free books
Both Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook have a vast library of free ebooks. You could easily put together a list of 150 books just with the free stuff on Kindle and Nook. But you won’t always read the best quality or newest selections when you go that route. I find a mix of free ebooks on Kindle and Nook, and newer releases to be ideal. If you committed to reading one free Kindle or Nook ebook selection a week, you’d only need to read one other book a week to reach a reading goal of 100 books in a year. Remember that you don’t need an actual Nook or Kindle to read Nook or Kindle ebooks. You can always download the free Kindle or Nook webapps or phone apps.
4. Re-read favorites
Books that you already own and have read previously are a great source, especially if you haven’t logged them in Goodreads yet. Re-reading a book you already own also makes reading faster, since you’re already familiar with the arguments. I make a point of re-reading The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss every year. Not only do the lessons stick better after a few readings, but it counts towards my reading goal.
5. Go to the library
Go get a library card. Trust me, trying to buy 150 books every year is a recipe for financial ruin. You will need a source of new books that is “free” (in truth, your taxes help pay to support local libraries, so it makes no sense not to take advantage of them as a source of books). Most libraries these days have an online system for putting books on hold. Use this to make sure you have a fresh supply of books without having to waste too much time browsing every visit. After all, you need to save that time for reading!
Step 3: Read Everywhere
1. Read while you’re waiting
I read when I’m waiting in line at the post office. I read when I’m on the subway. I read when I’m queueing for tickets at a sold-out show. With the Kindle app and my Android phone, I can read almost everywhere with some downtime.
2. “Read” in the car
Even though your commute is probably killing you, the brutal fact is that many Americans can’t avoid it. So you might as well turn a negative into a positive by listening to books while you drive. I find that nonfiction books (especially business books) are great for the stop-and-start experience of listening to audiobooks in your car.
3. “Read” while you’re doing chores
Another great advantage of audiobooks is that you can load up an iPod or smartphone with your current book, put on some headphones, and read while you’re folding laundry or doing the dishes.
4. Read at work
Read during lunch. Read when you need a break. Read when you’re procrastinating. Books in PDF form and the Kindle and Nook webapps are ideal for reading on the sly at work.
5. Be device-agnostic
Paper. Ereader. Tablet. Smartphone. Audio. Web browser. To hit a goal as audacious as 150 books in a year, you can’t be a snob about how you read. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions. Start reading!
Step 4: Read Multiple Books in Parallel
One of the ways reading goals can stall out is that you get bored of the book you’re reading. Pushing through each chapter becomes a slog, and then you give up on your reading goal completely.
The solution to this problem is to read more than one book at once. Whenever you get bored or stuck in one book, you can then hop to another book. That way you’re always making progress.
To keep things straight in your mind, you can read different types of books in parallel. Here’s a real-life example from this past year of 3 books in different categories that I was reading at the same time:
- Classics/Literary – A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
- Genre – Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow
- Nonfiction – Permission Marketing by Seth Godin
By reading each of these books in parallel, I could be certain I was getting ahead on my goals while keeping things fresh and interesting.
In reality, I read about 10 books in parallel at any given time, by subdividing the books even further. The Nonfiction category would become Biography, Business, and Marketing. Genre, I would subdivide into Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Thriller. That way, I could still keep track of the different books in my mind as I was hopping between them.
One quick tip: If you often read library books, as I do, the numbers on the spines of nonfiction books can be helpful. The numbers come from the Dewey decimal system, which roughly translates numbers to a subject area. For instance, I read a lot of books in the 153’s (creativity/psychology), 332’s (personal finance/money), 650’s (business/management), and 658’s (business). With a bit of pre-planning, I can make sure I’m not reading two books from 658’s in parallel, for example. That keeps the advice from each book clear in my mind (although sometimes you want to purposefully mash-up the advice from some books in your brain for effect).
I don’t recommend reading this many books in parallel until you’ve mastered the other techniques in this article first.
Step 5: Cheat Like a Fox
‘Classic’ – a book which people praise and don’t read.
― Mark Twain
1. Read shorter books
When you establish a reading goal for 150 books in a year, you have to be willing to game the definition of done a bit. In this case, a book is a book whether it’s 125 pages or 450 pages long. You want to minimize your consumption of super-long epic fantasies in favor of shorter books, like business books and essay collections. Now, you don’t have to go out and read 150 poetry collections, but also be wary of queuing up the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series—you’ll be lucky to read 20 books that year.
2. Read the classics
It might surprise you to learn that many of the classics of English literature were relatively short compared with today’s books. The demands of publishing profits have ballooned the length of modern books to 75,000 to 100,000 words. And that’s a minimum. Check out this list of great classic novels that are 250 pages or less in many cases.
3. Read more ebooks
Part and parcel with the advice in #2 above, read more ebooks. Novellas, short stories, and single-topic nonfiction (sometimes called “singles”) are experiencing a creative resurgence with the growth of ebooks and ereaders. Some of these books weigh in at less than 100 pages, but because they’re not constrained by the mandates of publishing houses, they can see the light of day. Get started today.
4. Read graphic novels
Graphic novels, or comic books collected in trade paperback form, have gained considerable cultural cachet in recent years due to the explosion of superheroes and comic book adaptations in movies and media. Take advantage! While generally quicker to read than a prose novel, there’s no shortage of literary worth in graphic novels like Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Bonus Step: The Secret to Speed Reading Like a Demon
Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.
― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart
Not every book deserves to be read thoroughly. I know that statement is bordering on sacrilege to hardcore literary types, but it’s true. The use of skimming, scanning, and speed-reading techniques, correctly applied, can increase the speed that you get through books without hurting comprehension … too much.
1. Skimming, scanning, and skipping. You can write a whole article on these skills, so let me point you to Dr. David L. Davis who let’s us know how to skim a book. The big idea? Hollow out the book by reading the beginning, reading the ending, and skipping the middle. You can do this at every level, but the most ethical method for the purposes of a reading goal are to read the first and last sentence of every paragraph, and skim the rest.
2. Stop subvocalizing. Did you know most people read by “sounding out” the words in their head? I know I do. In fact, I didn’t even know you could read without subvocalizing until I read this article. But there you go. If you can’t hush the inner voice in your head, at a bare minimum, you should stop moving your lips when you read. Yes, I know grown adults who still do this.
3. The Tim Ferriss technique for speed reading. Here’s a tip I learned reading Four Hour Workweek: Don’t move your eyes from side to side as you read. Your peripheral vision can pick up the words on the side of the page. This is a bit tricky at first, and I recommend you try this out on your ereader by increasing the font size and dickering with margins until your ereader displays only 5-6 words per line. Then slowly step up to more and more words per line until you get the hang of it.
Last Tip: Never Abandon a Book Halfway Through
There is only one commandment when you are attempting a hyper-reading goal like 150 books a year: Never quit a book midway through.
This rule is tough to live by. I concede that.
It’s inevitable that you’ll read a few clunkers throughout the year. Reading 450 books in the past three years, I went through my fair share of awful books … 2 out of 5 stars type disasters (and I’m a pretty generous guy when it comes to ratings, so 2 out of 5 is utterly miserable).
So why did I finish these terrible excuses for novels? Simply put, my reading goal doesn’t allow for too many changes of heart once I reach a certain point within a book.
At 150 books a year, I have to finish a book, on average, every 2 and a half days.
Let’s say it takes me a day of reading to figure out a book is bad, and then I abandon the book. If I do that just 2 or 3 times in the year, then I’m completely off my pace for 150 books.
What’s the solution? Suck it up and finish.
Yes, you can abandon a book after a chapter or two. But if you’re 25% to 50% of the way through the book, sorry to say, you’ll have to tough it out if you want to meet a yearly reading goal as aggressive as 150 books. My compromise in these situations is that I will skim and scan through a bad book like a demon to pick up the gist of what’s going on.
After all, if it’s a truly bad book, there’s no real reason to linger over poorly constructed sentences or bad advice.
Most of us have a goal to read more in the new year. You might not set reading goals as audacious as 150 books a year, but could you use these techniques to read 10 more books this year?
How about 25?
Books have the power to change lives, but you won’t ever know unless you pick one up.
Question for you: How many books will you read this year and why?
A version of this article first appeared on January 18, 2013.
Top image by Moyan Brenn.