How to read a totally reasonable number of books in 2017

I read twenty eight books in 2016, the most I’ve ever read in a year. I’d aimed for thirty, but given in 2015 I only managed twelve, I’m pleased with the results.

As the new year has come around I’ve seen my social feeds fill up with “I’m going to read more in 2017” and “how to read more in 2017” and, to be perfectly frank, a lot of these articles are total bullshit.

Two headlines showed up recently that illustrate my point:

  • Tim Ferriss’s Guide to Reading 3 Books Every Week, No Matter How Busy You Are
  • Why I read a book a day (and why you should too): the law of 33%

I’ll link these at the bottom for the curious. These are obviously preposterous: if you are busy and don’t read anything you’re not going to read one book in a week, let alone three, and the literally awful TED talk on “a book a day” advocates only reading the first and last pages of a book and calling it quits.

Reading books a lot is seen as an authoritative thing to do, and and a lot of “hey it’s a new year” articles quote Warren Buffet saying “I just sit in my office and read all day” (obviously a gross exaggeration), set unreasonable expectations and offer ridiculous “tactics” and “secrets”.

What should you do if you’d like to read some more books this year, but you also have other things to do and would just like to settle for a reasonable number? Twenty or thirty books this year, perhaps?

Well, I read a totally reasonable number of books in 2016 and I’ll do the same in 2017. I’d like to share the totally reasonable things I did in order to read more.

A good reading list is essential to making this work

A quality reading list is a very good place to start. It’s much easier to read when what you’re reading is interesting.

What should be on your reading list depends on what you want to get out of this; most of my reading is motivated by the lofty aims of wanting to be a better informed citizen and seeking knowledge that will help me in work and life. To this end, I tend to read non-fiction, with a particular interest in political economy, thoughtful business books and psychology.

You may, however, prefer fiction or other genres and that’s totally cool! Read whatever interests you: there’s no right or wrong way of doing this.

Filling your reading lists with quality books is an interesting challenge. I have a number of useful rules:

  • Recommendations from people you respect are the best starting point. Collecting recommendations is a great place to start!
  • Best seller lists aren’t very useful. They’re easily and frequently manipulated, especially on Amazon, and a lot of best selling books just aren’t very good.
  • Don’t spend too long looking at reviews, but if a book has fewer than four stars on Amazon or Goodreads, it’s probably not very good.
  • Don’t purchase right away: come back in a couple of days and decide then if you really want to sink several hours you’ll never get back into reading a title.
  • Spend a bit of time doing some research to see if you’ll like a title: who’s the author; what’s the book about; what are other people saying about this.

I like to keep a big Amazon wishlist that makes up my reading list. I might not buy the book on Amazon, but it’s just a case of deleting the item once you’ve read it. I also like to use Goodreads to keep track of what I’ve actually read: the app makes it easy to add books to your “currently reading” and “completed” list, and you’ll even get a convenient year-total tally of books read.

One final note on choosing what to read: don’t get too stuck on the total book count for the year. If you’re focussed on this too much you’ll find yourself reading lots of short, easy books with massive fonts. Very long books can be very rewarding; last year I read a 1,000 page book on Keynes with Bible-style paper and tiny margins. It counted as one book, but could have been five regular sized books. Delving very deep into one topic was, however, immensely rewarding, and I’m looking forward to doing it again. Don’t avoid these gems.

To read books you need to make time for reading books

This is the secret sauce, the secret life hacks! In order to read books in 2017, you just need to spend time reading books. Indeed, this is something many “life hack” style articles try and compromise on. It’s not possible: you’ve just got to put the time in.

You have plenty of time to read. You simply choose to spend it on other things… You can never find time. You can only allocate time. – Nat Eliason

Most of my reading gets done at the weekend with a nice cup of coffee, or after I’ve finished work. I don’t tend to read just before going to sleep, cause that keeps my brain whirring when I want it to calm down and sleep.

I’d recommend having two distinctly different books on the go at any one time: one that’s easy to read and one that’s hard. The former can be your page turner when you’re tired after work and the latter can be for when you can focus more intensely. I don’t like reading any more than two at the same time, but if it works for you then great.

Initially I struggled to concentrate for prolonged periods on “hard” books. I still do, but I’ve gotten better at it. Various scientific research shows simply practicing concentrating and immersing yourself in a task will allow you to concentrate for longer periods, so this makes sense, but I’ve also learned not to try and read the difficult stuff when fatigued. There are also other benefits to be had: I’ve no idea if it’s related, but I’ve generally got better at deep work and long periods of concentration since starting to read more.

Remembering things from books

This is an interesting one: how do you remember what you’ve learned? This obviously applies primarily to non-fiction, so if fiction is your jam you can safely skip this part.

I tend to just keep a highlighter to hand and mark next to anything I find especially interesting. I’ll also mark the top of the page so my note can be easily found later. From there the intention is to copy notes into Evernote and organise into categories and topics, but in practice this doesn’t happen a lot. I tend to read physical books; if you primarily read on a Kindle this becomes a whole lot easier.

Still, we can all aspire! I like Nat Eliason’s take on this: even just copying out your notes and never looking at them again is going to help you remember your notes in the long term.

Ryan Holiday's notecard system looks really cool but must be a real pain to actually do.
Ryan Holiday’s notecard system looks really cool but must be a real pain to actually do. 

I also like the idea of writing notes out on hundreds of notecards (mainly cause it looks cool), but given I struggle with the basic Evernote version of this, I think we can write this off as impractical. Maybe one for the future.

Some sort of system for remembering is important. It does add on to your reading time, but the marginal value of that time is huge. You might spend three hours reading a three hundred page book, but add on an extra half hour to make your notes and you’ll remember what you’ve read much more clearly.

Being moderately good at this is fine

I hope you’ll find these thoughts on reading more actually useful, and if you’re trying to read more you’ll put some of these into practice and see the benefits.

By no means am I an expert in this, but that’s precisely the point. For most people being an “expert reader” is not the goal: being moderately good at reading and trying to read a reasonable number of books a year is a much more useful approach.

If you’re interested, here’s the list of what I read in 2016. Particular highlights were:

You can take those as my recommendations but, as we know, do your own research and don’t just take my word for it.

I am, after all, only moderately good at this – but I’m also very happy with that.


P.S. Here’s the a book a day video if you really really want to waste some time. The Tim Ferriss article mentioned is slightly less bad: it’s a serialised write-up of a Quora answer he gave which makes some interesting points, but the title is still ridiculous.