How To Read More — A Lot More

October 15, 2013 — 62 Comments

When you read a lot of books people inevitably assume you speed read. In fact, that’s probably the most common email I get. They want to know my trick for reading so fast. They see all the books I recommend every month in my reading newsletter and assume I must have some secret. So they ask me to teach them how to speed read.

That’s when I tell them I don’t have a secret. Even though I read hundreds of books every single year, I actually read quite slow. In fact, I read deliberately slow, so that I can take notes (and then whenever I finish a book, I go back through and transcribe these notes for my version of a commonplace book.

So where do I get the time? (Well for starters I don’t waste any of it asking dumb questions).

Look, where do you get the time to eat three meals a day? How do you have time to do all that sleeping? How do you manage to spend all those hours with your kids or wife or a girlfriend or boyfriend?

You don’t get that time anywhere, do you? You just make it because it’s really important. It’s a non-negotiable part of your life.

I think there are three main barriers that hold people back from making this happen and I want to disassemble them right now so you can start reading way, way more.

Time

The key to reading lots of book begins with stop thinking of it as some activity that you do. Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.

Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open. Don’t install games on your phone–that’s time you could be reading. When you’re eating, read. When you’re on the train, in the waiting room, at the office–read. It’s work, really important work. Don’t let anyone ever let you feel like it’s not.

Do you know how much time you waste during the day? Conference calls, meetings, TV shows that you don’t really like but watch anyway. Well, if you can make time for that you can make time for reading. (Or better, just swap those activities for books)

Money

If I had to steal books to support my reading habit, I would. Thankfully you can buy some of the best literature ever published for pennies on Amazon.

But forget money entirely when it comes to books. Reading is not a luxury. It’s not something you splurge on. It’s a necessity.

As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

On top of that, books are an investment. I hear from people all the time who tell me they plan to buy this book or that book. Plan? Just buy it. I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I’d never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. Not money, not time, not my own laziness. Don’t wait around for some book you want to read to come out in paperback–trying to save $2 or $3 is the wrong mindset. If it’s a book you’ll read, then read it now, not in a year.

(One related note: I don’t check books out from the library and haven’t since I was a child. This isn’t like renting a mindless movie. You should be keeping the books you read for reference and for re-reading. If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading).

Purpose

Perhaps the reason you having trouble is you forgot the purpose of reading. It’s not just for fun. Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point. Benefit from that perspective.

The walls of my house are covered in books from floor to ceiling. The last time I moved, I had to rent a U-Haul exclusively for books. At first that frustrated me, and then I remembered that books paid the rent on both those houses. They kept me sane, they made me a lot of money.

The purpose of reading is not just raw knowledge. It’s that it is part of the human experience. It helps you find meaning, understand yourself, and make your life better.

There is very little else that you can say that about. Very little else like that under $20 too.

-

Look, you either get this or you don’t. Reading is something you know is important and want to do more of. Or you’re someone who just doesn’t read. If you’re the latter, you’re on your own (you’re also probably not that smart).

Think of someone like Frederick Douglass, who brought himself up out of slavery by sneaking out and teaching himself to read. Books weren’t some idle pursuit or pastime to him, they were survival itself. And despite this dire situation, he managed to read  and, as the writer Thomas Sowell once put it, “educate himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today’s expensively under-educated generation.”

What excuse do you have?

If you want to read more, there’s no real secret. It’s about adjusting your priorities and your perception so that reading becomes an extension of who you are and what you do.

When that happens, you’ll be the person that people now ask: How do you do it? And the answer will be: I just do.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. For more comments, view it there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

62 responses to How To Read More — A Lot More

  1. Do you read books more than once? Do you think it’s beneficial or would it be better to read something new?

    • Eli, reading a book more than once makes you view it differently every time you read it because your brain is always changing. So you are not the same person that you were a few minutes ago.
      However, from my personal experience with practical and personal development books, I can say that my life changed positively as I re-read and listen to a book on human relationships.
      I will always re-read that book every 2-3 months because I always learn something new from it.
      Hope I’ve been helpful.

  2. Hey Ryan,

    I originally read this post on Thought Catalog, but it’s still relevant months later. Question. I get and look forward to your reading recommendations all the time. Do you count books you don’t finish? There’s a couple on my DNF bookshelf at Goodreads, that I’ve gotten through maybe 30-50% of. I have an idea of what your answer will be (why are you counting how many books you’ve read? Who is that helping? How is that helping?) But anywho, just wondering.

  3. You read slowLY. Adverb. Tells how you read. You are a slow reader who reads slowly.

  4. Great article. I’m not sure whether or not it’s because I’m a dyslexic, but the maximum I can read is for 15 mins, then the words start spinning and nothing gets through my head. I have to put the book down for a few hours and then get back to reading it.

    By the way, you seem to have a lot of haters on the ThoughtCatalog blog. I’ve never seen so many people get so emotional over a simple blog post.

  5. This was one of my favorite things I’ve read on the internet this year. I say the same things all the time. Thanks man

  6. Agree with nearly 100% of what you’re saying here, save the bit about libraries. Love libraries, especially digital download areas. But, I understand what you’re trying to say. Build a library of your own vs. treating them like a Redbox.

    Still, supporting libraries and enjoying them is another treasured past time supported by many you’re quoting here, I’m sure. It is more than just a book rental area, its a center of knowledge.

  7. I totally agree: if you can give a book away after 2 weeks, it’s because you didnt care enough, stop wasting your time.

    Although i’m still working hard on finding balance (work-play-learn-social-etc) i realized this summer that it was not the quantity of book that was important but rather its quality in relation to what you need to learn now and how much work you put in in order to master its element.

    This summer i realized that i should instead (for now) focus on just my 4 best books and MASTER their content. By that i mean re-reading them many times and APPLYING their key concepts to my life and projects in order to practice these important-for-success key concepts.

    These 4 books are (i call them “my foundation”): 4 Hour Work Week (optimization, 80-20 rule), 4 Hour Chef (learning to learn, experimentation), Trust me I’m a Liar (getting known, virality) and The Lean Startup (get going on projects and stop procrastinating, and pivots).

    I feel that there is SO MUCH VALUE in these 50$ of books that i could learn and practice and just focus on those 4 books for the next 5 years and still be learning a tremendous amount of knowledge by practicing, failing, understanding, then trying harder and smarter. I find it amazing when people read such books and then say “hum, interesting” but then do nothing to put the notions into practice! They tell you almost exactly how to get rich and live a great life and stop running the rat race, why just dismiss them and go back to your 9-5?

    Although i also read other books in the meanwhile, i found that putting into practice all these notions this year have helped me made my biggest progress of my life and i’m only a few week away of living the 4HWW lifestyle and i can thanks 97% these 4 books for that.

    Anybody else have ever tried to master one or a few books?

    I’d love to read your ideas, comments, experimentations, tips

    Joel

  8. The story’s simple. You’ve got another fan, Ryan. That’s it!
    But there is something else that happened outside the plot. That may not interest your readers, but I know it will intrigue you. Your fan is reborn in the realm of knowledge, simultaneously.
    The books that learned to lament my aesthetic death whenever I happened to look at them, seem revived and refreshed in the shelves after a long time. The discontinuity is discontinued. I’m going to read once again, in a life that still has the same burdens that gradually choked the delicate aesthete in me. But this life’s going to change, too. Certainly. And this time, for nothing but good.
    Live long, Ryan. You reminded me of myself again. Thank you!

  9. The reason I started reading extensively at a young age was because I found reading fun. Everything was interesting — fiction, non-fiction, comic books, magazines, encyclopedias, whatever had writing in it that I hadn’t read before. The information I found led me to do well in school in the subjects that those books covered (leaving out mathematics, sadly). That is to say, I did well in school because I found reading enjoyable. And I read everything I could get my hands on long before your advice came along. And libraries helped me do this; they provided most of my reading material, once I ran through everything I could find in my house. The dollar value of all books I checked out of libraries annually probably exceeded my family’s food budget — and I’m from a wealthy family. I could not have asked my family to buy and keep forever all the books i found myself reading. I would have run out of storage space in short order.
    So there’s a certain value in creating a place to hold books as semi-public property. It certainly did me a world of good. Once I decided to walk to the library instead of ask for transportation, I started to get out of the house more, and the resulting change in perspective improved my fictional and non-fictional writing.
    That’s something to be said for libraries.

  10. (One related note: I don’t check books out from the library and haven’t since I was a child. This isn’t like renting a mindless movie. You should be keeping the books you read for reference and for re-reading. If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading).

    Maybe you’d like to examine not being a classist asshat? You do realise that some people might not have the money available to buy books and that you can check out library books repeatedly–for free?

    • I think you have trouble with the concept of investing. Investments are not free.

      • I agree with a lot of what has been said int he article and comments but in regards to the library thing…………. well for those who cannot and i mean literally cannot afford to buy books then the library is their investment. an investment in their education, and if they happen to not have the book on a shelf in the place they sleep i think that is ok too. they will then have the opportunity to re borrow it or choose something else. there is a kind of snobbery in the idea that you must keep a book to really get it. i love passing on books that have been meaningful to me, and if i decide i must read it again then i will find it.

  11. I like what Erasmus said and that phrase remained into my mind since I first learned it. I would basically do the same.
    Erasmus wants to point out the immense importance of reading good books and applying concepts from the books. Probably the majority of our media driven society views books in a negative shade. That’s the reason for which very few people are successful.

  12. Great post Ryan. You were spot on when you said “…whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you.” My life changed dramatically when I finally figured this out. Thanks for your insight.

  13. How To Read More — A Lot More | RyanHoliday.net

  14. I too have a house overflowing with books but with digital books I’m finding I don’t want to own books as much as I want access to the content.

  15. It’s a simple truth. I heard recently that there is no time management, only priorities. If it matters, you’ll make time. Good post. Thank you.

  16. Nice article, thanks for the tips, especially for the commonplace book. I think we also need a break from reading/writing on a daily basis, to take time to reflect on the insights we got from the books, otherwise the whole process can become a bit mechanic and, even worse, might turn into a way we turn away from ourselves precisely while we try to do the opposite while reading. We can be exposed to a lot of wisdom from books (depending on the books we choose), but at the same time, we are carriers of our own individual wisdom, which can’t be found on any book that’s already written. So when you say that we can find answers in books, it’s a yes and a no. I think we can find temporary direction, when in a crisis of whatever kind, but then the real situation we’re in will take over and will probably have more to teach us because it’s our life, not someone else’s. It’s true, as you say, that in books we can find a perspective, formulated through words, and maybe by a mind-soul-heart that has expressed in that perspective the exact wisdom of their life in that moment, but when it comes to our personal issues, I think we need to accept that we have to leave space for our own wisdom or lack-of to take over, otherwise we’ll learn with our heads but seldom with our whole life/soul/heart. Anyways, will start following you, interesting reads. Best

  17. please send your reply to my e-mail if possible.

    after reading lots of books (though the activity was indeed a form of your relfex and not your ego), what do you think you have gained considerably relative to the counterparts who do not read as many books as you?

  18. Ryan, what was your greatest emotional challenge and how did you overcome it?

  19. Jose Castro-Frenzel May 10, 2014 at 1:39 am

    Hey Ryan,

    Great blog, a fellow 4HWW reader since day 1 of that blog. Do you read only paper books or do you dive into the digital books too?

    Thanks for your time and great content.

    Cheers

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

  20. Ryan do you take notes while reading a book?

  21. Lindsay Adrian July 8, 2014 at 1:16 am

    I disagree vehemently with the comment about libraries. For one, they are excellent places for young people to develop a love of reading, especially as many young people do not have the funds to invest in their own books. Secondly, libraries can also be great places in which to read. I actually do most of my reading in the public library because it is a relaxing, quiet place. And, you can generally renew books quite easily. I personally buy many of my books because I like to make notes in the margins and underline, etc.

    As a graduate student in the Humanities, it is simply not possible to purchase all of the books I read, nor would I want to. I do purchase lots of books. Just not all. It’s also a waste of resources (you know that thing called the environment…?) It is also rare that I read a book more than once. Instead, I will go through my notes on the book and/or flip slowly through the book again looking at my written comments and underlined text. The reason for this is that I treasure the experience I had when I read a particular book in a particular moment. I often times feel that books come to me at certain moments and play their function in that moment. Reading the book again, then, becomes more about nostalgia or it somehow degrades the initial experience. There are some books which I do re-read, especially those of a philosophical or theoretical nature. Most classic fiction, though, I do not.

    Your post, while interesting, comes off a bit arrogantly. Not everyone needs to enjoy books in the way that you prescribe. All films are not mindless. Many books I checked out of the library initially I went on the purchase. In most parts of this country, libraries are much better places to browse decent book selections than bookstores or websites. Also, libraries that are public are technically owned by us, the citizens. That means you are not renting a book like you would a movie from Netflix or Redbox (the latter you do not own) but instead making use of something that you, as a citizen, own in collective with the national family. It is akin to my family owning a book, keeping it in the house, and my children and husband also having access to it, just with a much bigger family.

  22. I read this 9 months ago, and have since read over 50 books. If there’s one article that has changed my life, it’s this one. A million thanks Ryan.

    • Same. Read this the beginning of the year. Haven’t read 50 books this year (although I could have) but developed a superior reading habit all the same because of this article + blog.

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