I’ve Read More Than 83 Books This Year, Here’s What I’ve Learned
I spent a lot of time earlier this year, reflecting on what I thought might be some reasonable goals. I’d always read that the ranks of ‘high throughput’ readers were a cool club, and I knew that for me, listening was one the fastest ways to consume new information. In 2019, I managed to read something like 31 books. I decided that this year, I would try to read that sixty books I always heard average CEOs read.
I think that statistic is 1) nonsense 2) originated in an old MentorBox ad.
I think I’ve heard four criticisms about reading this much:
- That’s so many!
- OK, but do you retain anything?
- That’s so many, are any of them any good?
- OK, but that must mean spending a fortune on audiobooks.
So far this year, I’ve read more than 83 books, and I suspect I’ll probably get a little more now before the end of the year. I wanted to share a few thoughts on the above questions, and a couple of tips I’ve picked up along the way.
That’s Too Many Books
It probably is, but the truth is, there’s likely more than 1,000,000 new books published every year. That’s a lot of really great ideas no one is ever going to read. I like ideas like that, and I’ve yet to find a better system for aggregating deep insights than books. There’s so much learning just hiding, tucked between pages, waiting for you to discover.
As an undergraduate English major, I frequently made the mistake of taking six classes a semester. Each class would have a reading list of about 10-15 books and an expectation that students would read somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-12 of them. I frequently found myself in the unfortunate position of having to cover a lot of ground quickly. That lead me to become fascinated with the idea of speed reading and memory. I played around with views like this one and spent a lot of time thinking about ways to get out of my head and read more efficiently.
I want to think I learned some helpful techniques during that time, but the truth is, by the time I was through with school, I was seriously considering never reading another book ever again. I was tired of it. I was tired of the ritual, and how, for some people, the process of reading was more important than the words and ideas they were reading. Looking back, I think there was a lot of noise, and that noise was overwhelming and tiring.
Reading can be a hard habit to pick up because, in many ways, it requires you to be stationary. It’s one of the things I’ve come to love about digital books–be it in audio or text formats. It’s easier to make reading something you do when you have a moment.
Over the last year, I’ve found myself slowly reading books of poems on my phone between meetings, and exploring an audiobook or two a day when I don’t have a lot going on and don’t feel like leaving the house. Sometimes I feel like audiobooks fill a void in my life that I used to fill with podcasts, and I find that when I approach reading that way, it’s easier to fit in amongst the mix of media I’m already consuming.
That approach helped me to get over my ‘reading fatigue.’ By taking it less seriously, and by mixing up the format, I was able to find a place for books in my life again–but it wasn’t the same. The first book I read after that long break was Tarzan.
I decided that to reach my goal, I would need to be as charitable with my definition of ‘book’ as possible. I defined a book as anything that sold as a book. I’ve read collections of poems, and I’ve read a few children’s stories. I decided that for me, maximizing my rate of learning was my goal, and the best way to do that was to increase the number of different voices I was learning from.
There are different reasons to read, and this goal might not work for you. I think the most important part is to find your purpose. After you’ve done that, it’s funny how quickly the rest comes into focus.
OK, But Do You Retain Anything?
I first realized that memory is a lot more powerful than we think it is when I was trying to make a list of every time I had felt a specific feeling. As I navigated through the wash of emotions that followed, I recognized that under the right conditions, we could remember a lot more than we realize.
One thing I’ve always found helps me acclimate to new information is trying to find a use for the skill or knowledge I’m trying to acquire as quickly as possible. Sometimes that means taking a note or finding a conversation I can have with someone using some of the ideas I encountered reading. Other times it means leveraging the Internet to find communities built around the topics you’re d.
Taking the time to explore ideas I read about is an essential part of making them my own. I’ve also found that this effect can be even more profound if I select two or three complementary books to read at once. This process has helped me to identify connections between areas I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered on my own.
Building the habit of taking good notes can help you to process what you’ve read. There are all sorts of great tools for making clips of what you’re reading. From screenshots to bookmarks, modern reading apps offer a variety of options for capturing the snippets you find fascinating.
That’s So Many, Are Any Of Them Any Good?
One of my favorite ideas about writing is Anne Lamott’s suggestion of the importance of permitting yourself to write a bad first draft. There’s an excellent summary of this idea here (and for more you should check out the book Bird by Bird)
It’s so often the case that in our first encounter with an idea, we’re overwhelmed by possibility. Working out the details happens slowly, and often the ‘process’ can help to bring clarity to our thoughts and focus our efforts.
I think the same principle is true of our reading. Reading is the process through which we often encounter new ideas and perspectives for the first time. Books can be sources of great ideas that challenge us and help us to grow, or they can serve to provide nourishment to our souls and reaffirm convictions we already hold.
Early on in my project, I discovered that reading books written by people who were a participant in the topic of the book made for a better read. I learned that for me, the power of reading was the ability to explore someone else’s pattern and style of thought. That left me with an important question: how do I quickly discover the right ‘book’ for me.
Initially, I started by looking for reading lists published by organizations that I knew faced severe leadership challenges. I discovered that when it came to reading books that were are the forefront of ideas, my best resources were following venture capitalists and history professors on Twitter. I also found a lot of value out of looking for institutional reading lists. (One of my favorites is here)
I would make my list based on what I found, and any time a book was mentioned more than once, I made sure I read it. I found a lot of titles that met that criteria. Before too long, I had built up a robust ‘ to read’ list.
I also got into the habit of checking titles I was interested in on GoodReads and paying attention to which of my friends had read the title. I found this particularly helpful because it was easy to see if there were other books on the same topic that might have been a better choice than the title I was considering. I found this particularly helpful when I was reading a book in a genre like ‘improving communication’ or biographies where you might have to navigate a mess of seemingly identical works to find the right one for you.
Once I started this process, I pretty quickly identified which authors I liked and which ones I wished I hadn’t read. That list helped me to refine my search for new books further because I realized that writers often obsess over reading good writing. I’ve been able to leverage those insights to identify some of my favorite reads of the year.
One other trick helped me–I decided that I wouldn’t let myself ‘abandon’ any books. Even as I write this, there’s one book on my list that is perilously close to becoming a ‘did not finish’ read, but I have had to accept that some books are just hard to get through. During my reading, I also let myself read short books. I made space for a few ‘children’s stories’ because they fit a theme I was interested in exploring at the time. At first, I felt guilty about whether or not these books counted. As I read, I realized that I was most interested in the ideas I encountered and the styles I got to observe those ideas e. For me, length didn’t matter, and I learned a lot from the books I barely got through. I decided that rough spots were part of the process too, and it helped me a lot.
OK But Audiobooks Are Expensive
This is entirely true. It is a tragedy.
The first thing I have to be completely honest about is that if you’re prepared to read in some unconventional sources, you can find a ton of stuff for free. Audible’s launch of Stories was a huge help in this regard. You’re probably engaging in some light piracy, but YouTube is a treasure trove of audiobook content, and you can playback at 2x. That alone can get you started.
Speaking of finding books in strange places, you can also likely find a few audiobooks on both Spotify and Apple Music. I wasn’t a fan of this because you are forced to listen to your audiobook as though it were a song, and that is frustrating user experience.
The next resource I found ‘sort’ of helpful was a digital library card from my local library. My library had a virtual library card program that included access to a selection of Overdrive and RBdigital books. I know that many libraries also offer to sell you a ‘non-resident subscription’ to their version of these services. A few are listed here. To be honest, it’s a strange selection, and I found the idea of waiting to ‘check out’ a digital file maddeningly inconvenient.
Scribd’s service is tempting. I love the idea of ‘unlimited’ books, but it turns out this is a marketing lie. What they mean is that you can stream 2-3 audiobooks a month for $9.99. After you’ve streamed those 2-3 books, you’ll find that you are limited to accessing the rest of their library. I didn’t find that part very valuable, but as a niche streaming service, those rates seem competitive. I did have to get a little more selective about which 2-3 books I picked, but it was manageable.
Amazon has a service called WhisperSync for voice. If you’ve ever purchased a Kindle book, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have several options to ‘upgrade’ that book to include an audiobook copy for a fee. You can check your eligible titles here. Many “classics” are available for purchase as Kindle books at a substantially discounted rate, and can be combined with audiobooks at a discounted price via this method, too. (I just bought the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for $0.49!)
I suppose now is the right time to talk about Audible. I’ve paid for the 15.95/month Audible tier for as long as I can remember. Each month, I pick one book off my wishlist and use a credit to get it. On occasion, I’ll take advantage of buying a multi-credit pack, or I’ll look at one of the annual sales and might pick up a few other titles that way. One important thing to keep in mind if you’re a subscriber, make sure you spend your credit on a book that costs more than your subscription. I can’t stress this enough, but it’s surprisingly easy to mess up. If you browse Audible from a desktop browser, you’ll be able to check the ‘member’ price, and that will help you make the right decisions about how to use whatever credits you have.
If I can’t find a specific book using any of the above methods, then I know I’m going to have to break down and buy it for real. I approach this problem by checking a few different resources. First, Audible’s member price can often be very competitive. Second, I check both Apple Books and Google Play Books to see if either has the title on a sale. I generally find these prices to be within $0.50 of each other, but I have been surprised many, many times, so it’s worth checking. I also look at Chirp and audiobooks.com. Between these four platforms, I can usually find what I’m looking for at a reasonable price.
The other thing I’ve found pretty helpful is keeping an eye on the sales each of those platforms run. Often you can find promotions like ‘under $5’ or genre discounts that can get another title added to your list–you just might have to be a little adventurous!
I Reached My Goal
At the beginning of the year, I didn’t think I was going to be able to hit my goal of reading sixty books. I figured that life would get in the way, and I’d be lucky to get through 12-20. I was very wrong, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much I’ve been able to read.
I’m even more surprised by just how effectively this project led me to explore topics I hadn’t ever really considered before. As I’ve read this year, I’ve found myself making plans for what to read next and what to do with the knowledge I’ve gained. In both respects, it’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time, and I’m glad I took this project on.