Reading habits


Rick Webb wrote an interesting piece about reading on Medium – he gets through about 60 books a year, yet he’s a busy professional with a lot going on, so what are his reading habits? I’ve borrowed his points, but added my thoughts.

ABR. Always be reading. With the Kindle, and now especially the iPhone 6 Plus, reading a few pages at any opportune moment is better than ever.

Set a goal. I like this, but have usually failed to achieve it. This year I’m setting a modest goal of 2 books a month, and I know that at least one of those will be for a monthly podcast episode and requires a lot of note taking. As long as the 24 books are high quality, that’ll be a good achievement for the year. Rick mentions a past goal of reading The Economist every week, cover to cover. I also tried this once, and failed miserably – it’s an incredible weekly publication, that has enough meat in it to consume all your reading time.

Don’t try and read what you, or others, think you should read. Interesting point – there is often a tendency to take recommendations from top 10 lists, or colleagues at work. But picking something different, finding your own pathways can be more interesting. I find that a good book I enjoy often references many other good books, and following that trail can be rewarding.

Guilty pleasures are totally okay. I don’t disagree, but I rarely follow this one. There’s too many great works of fiction and non-fiction to get through, I feel I’m always behind where I should be, that there is no room for something like a guilty pleasure. Last year I read I am Pilgrim, which could be considered a guilty pleasure for me – and I wish I hadn’t bothered.

Don’t be afraid to branch out. I come across some great reads by branching out into fields I normally wouldn’t, and if I more time I’d do it more often. I will admit to a tendency to spend too much time on work related business books, probably a bad habit – but I find them so useful, perhaps even essential, to the job at hand (note the Eric Schmidt quote at the end of this post).

Don’t be afraid to quit a book, but do so sparingly. I never use to quit a book, but I changed my mind in recent times. I’ve accidentally ended up with a terrible book, which probably had great reviews on Amazon, and I’ve just dropped it after the first few chapters. The Inside Out Revolution was one such book – absolute horse shit.

Different media for different environments. Rick mentions Instapaper, which I’ve never used, but I use something similar – Pocket – which is incredibly useful. It allows you to save articles to read later, and when reading them, it shows just the text rather than the surrounding site elements. I use this a lot for travelling.

Different material for different environments. Like Rick, I also find the need to read longer articles in magazines – both personal and professional pressure plays a part. Rick’s advice is to only read these articles when on the toilet. I’ll skip his advice on that one, but for me the regular flights across Europe offer a similar sanctity for these pieces.

Embrace digital. People complain all the time that nobody reads any more. I just don’t see it, people seem to read more than ever. The Kindle and other devices have done a great deal for reading. Perhaps it’s that the people who liked to read before, now read all the time, but those who never really took to frequent reading, still don’t. I started with a Kindle, but the iPad Mini was a revelation with the Kindle App, the highlighting and usability is really good. Now I’ve got the iPhone 6 Plus, and it’s my main reading device. The screen is a perfect size and quality for concentrated reading. I like it that I can also grab all of my highlights from Amazon on the desktop.

Reading speed doesn’t matter. He’s not a speed reader, yet manages to get through 60 odd books a year. I think this brings us back to the first point – Always Be Reading – which is more powerful than any reading speed.

Avoid distractions. Rick recommends turning off wifi on your device to prevent the urge to go look things up. This is a major weakness for me, I’m constantly being sent off down different paths to check interesting things from the book.

Give audio books a shot. Couldn’t agree more – audio books are sometimes even better than the reading experience. I really enjoy listening to Tom Peters narrate his own stuff. I also find it perfect for running outdoors (as well as podcasts).

Take notes or highlights. Once he started doing this, he started reading more, believing it makes you more engaged in the content. I would tend to agree. Recently I’ve tried to write up summary notes as a blog post for certain books, and this really does help you feel a bigger sense of accomplishment and deeper understanding of the content. It slows you down of course, because a decent write-up takes considerable effort.

Build a reading list. Always have a list, and constantly be sorting and shuffling it around. This is the fun part actually, the hard part is just trying to get through all of the books you want to read right now.

One book at a time, or many books at once, either is okay. Like Rick, I would obsess about the best approach here. Is it best to read as many books as you can, or read less, but more in-depth? You could take the approach of never making notes, never contemplating it too much after reading, and simply plough on to the next one – I’m sure you could get a 30-50% increase in volume that way. But is it better to really understand and mull-over the content? I’m trying to take the latter approach in 2015.

I’d like to add one more myself:

Don’t feel guilty buying more books than you can read. I’ve got an office with wall to wall books, plus a stack on my desk, and my Kindle app says I have 330 books on there. I’ve got magazines piled up, and hundreds more articles online waiting to be read. This used to bother me a lot, especially when my wife would freak out at the sign of another Amazon delivery. But books are an investment, they stay around forever (providing you’re not renting them on Amazon Unlimited!). Even if you’re not going to read it for some years, a book has inherent value just sitting there, waiting to be read. It’s a reminder to not slow down, to not feel like you know it all, or read it all before. There is always a great idea, a great perspective, waiting on the shelf.

There was once an Italian Renaissance Prince, from Urbino I think, who was amassing one of the biggest libraries in Europe, and when his guests would come and look around, they would say, but how many have you read? And he would reply, that’s not the question, the question is how much do I still have to learn? The mass of books yet to be read represents the vast quantities of knowledge and experience that lay undiscovered for the individual. I’ll take some pleasure in that.

One of the best, easiest ways to get ahead in a field is to know more about it. The best way to do that is to read. People always say they don’t have the time to read, but what they are really saying is that they aren’t making it a priority to learn as much as they can about their business. You know who reads a lot about their business? CEOs. So think like a CEO and read.

– Eric Schmit, from How Google Works


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