That’s usually the response I get when I tell people in real life that I read nearly 80 books a year.
“I can’t even finish 3 books,” they say, a bead of sweat appearing on their forehead. “You must be really smart.” Or it’s cousin, “You must read fast.”
Intelligence has nothing to do with it. Neither does reading fast. I know unintelligent people who read a lot, and I know slow readers who read a lot. The only difference between people who read a lot and people who do not is their priorities.
People who read a lot make reading a priority. They have good reading habits, and they make doing these habits important. People who don’t read a lot don’t have good reading habits and they don’t know how to manage their reading habits, and as a result, they don’t read much.
There isn’t much to building a good reading habit, though. All you have to do is keep these basic principles in mind:
Read For the Right Reasons
There are a lot of wrong reasons to try to build a reading habit. They include:
- Because you think reading the right books (about business, economics, racial inequality, religion, or any other topic) will make you look impressive.
- Because you think reading the right books (about business, economics, racial inequality, religion, or any other topic) will gain you admission into an inner circle, social group, or program in which you want to be included.
- Because you think reading the right books (about business, economics, racial inequality, religion, or any other topic) will make you better than the people who don’t.
There’s really only one good reason to read a book, and that’s because you want to know what the book has to say.
All the bad reasons for reading are about the status that having read a book confers, not about what the book itself says. They’re about seeming woke, or seeming smart, or seeming more professional.
If you read for those reasons, you’re going to hate reading, and you’re going to give it up quickly. You’re also not going to retain much of what you read, and it will be like you didn’t really read the book in the first place.
For instance, there are a lot of books on the bestseller list right now on racial inequality. I’m glad there are, but I have no doubt that legions of white people are buying these books not because they’re sincerely interested in the injustice in our criminal “justice” system but because they don’t want to be caught not being woke. It’s better to read The 4-Hour Workweek⁰ because you care about the content than read The New Jim Crow⁰ because you want to impress your black friends.¹
The only reason you should read a book is that you are interested in what the book says. If you do that, you’ll discover a love of reading within yourself that will last a lifetime.
Only Read What You Enjoy
Often, people who are first starting to build a reading habit have many opinions about what they “should” read. They see bestsellers by prominent people on the shelf of their local Starbucks and the latest and greatest business books on their colleagues' desks and think those are the books they should be reading. Then they realize they’re bored to tears halfway through, abandon all the books they’re reading, and conclude they’re “just not a reader.”
No wonder you’re not enjoying reading. You’re forcing yourself to read what you think you should like, not what you actually like.
When I first started my reading habit, I read all kinds of weird books no one cared about. I read psychology books from the ’70s and economic criticisms of consumerism as an individualist mindset. I read self-published books about productivity, and I read academic works that criticized the self-help industry. I read whatever I wanted to read.
This was the right thing to do. I learned a lot more about the world than I would have by reading the books recommended to me by the elites, and I sharpened my critical thinking skills by reading across a variety of subjects. Most importantly, reading only what I wanted to read ensured I grew to love reading more and more.
Over time, my tastes changed. I now find myself interested in books that offer intellectual commentary on the state of society, and I even read books on the bestseller charts.
Ultimately, books are just books. They only change you when they are the right books for you at the right time — and as great as many bestsellers may be, they’re often not the right book for you at the right time.
Don’t try to dictate what you should be interested in. Don’t make reading plans based on what’s important or popular. Read what your heart guides you to read. As the Mandalorian would say, “This is the way.”
Don’t Worry About What Others Think of Your Reading Choices
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that when you read what your heart guides you to read, you’ll pick up many weird books, and people will make fun of you for it.
One genre of books I love to read is books by modern people who claim to be speaking directly to God. These include books like Conversations with God⁰ by Neale Donald Walsch and God, an Autobiography⁰ by Jerry Martin. I’m not convinced they’re speaking to God, and I’m not convinced they’re not speaking to God. All I know is that despite this genre’s reputation for being authored by people who are off their rockers, these books often contain interesting and sophisticated theological ideas.
People who make fun of me reading these books don’t see the interesting and sophisticated theological ideas. All they see is the book, and they think, “You think god talking to these people in their minds? I thought you were smart, but I guess I was wrong.”
When it comes to people who judge others for what they read, there are a handful of things I suspect are usually true:
- They read less than I do.
- They have not read the books they are criticizing.
- They may not have even read the books they’re telling me to read. They may have only watched a 4-minute summary of said book on YouTube and arrogantly assumed that is the same as having read the book.
- They would not be able to engage in an intellectual discussion about these concepts with me, either from the book I’m reading or from the book they’re recommending I read.
- They would look down on me for trying.
There has been more than one occasion where I said I have already read the book they told me I’m supposed to be reading, and they have accused me of lying. This tends to happen with theology books; when I’m caught reading Conversations with God or Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior⁰, and I say I’ve read The God Delusion⁰, I’m accused of lying.² However, it has also happened across other genre categories, such as politics and economics.
People who actually read as much as me and engage with what they read are often quite solicitous and make great conversational partners. They recommend books to me, of course, but they respect my reasons for reading other books as well. And they never, ever call me a liar when I say I’ve read a given book.
The reality is that reading weird alternative books sets you up to understand particular issues and the world at large with a much more comprehensive and nuanced understanding than reading only the proscribed reading material does. Instead of being a siloed and one-dimensional thinker, you can use your awareness of many different paradigms to come to new and interesting conclusions.
If you’re reading what your interests guide you to read, there will come a time when you find yourself interested in weird books everyone else looks down on. The only thing to do is follow your interests and read what grows your mind, even if everyone else thinks you’ve gone insane.
Only Commit to Reading For Ten Minutes a Day
New readers often overwhelm themselves by making commitments like “I will read an hour every day” and “I will finish this book by the end of the week.” Unused to doing so much reading at once, with the burden of completion now on their shoulders, they find reading even one page to be a slog.
There’s no way you’re going to build a habit of reading 100 books a year if you’re forcing yourself to do so. The only way to build a dependable reading habit is to enjoy reading — and you’re only going to enjoy reading if you’re not forcing yourself to read.
Only commit to reading ten minutes a day. If, by the end of ten minutes, you still want to put the book down, put the book down.
But chances are that when your ten minutes are up, you will want to keep going. Once you start reading something, it’s pretty hard to stop (unless it’s something you hate reading), so getting over the hurdle of getting started is often all you need to do.
Read Multiple Books at Once
Novice readers often adhere to the misguided notion that “you should finish the book you’re reading before moving on to the next.” Nothing could be further from good advice. Expert readers know the key to enjoying reading is to read what you enjoy, which often means reading more than one book at once.
On my bedside bookshelf right now are two books about relationships, one book about the neuroscience of emotion, one book about racial injustice, one writing craft book, one book of letters from an ancient philosopher, and two books about discipline in meditation. On my small bookshelf in my bedroom are two dozen more books from fiction, philosophy, self-help, memoirs, and finance for me to choose from. No matter what I’m in the mood to read, there’s an option available for me.
Don’t Force Yourself to Finish a Book
As you should let yourself read multiple books at once according to your mood, so should you let yourself quit books you aren’t enjoying.
The purpose of reading isn’t to rack up a “books read per year” count that will make your non-reading friends feel stupid. The purpose of reading is to enjoy yourself and learn. When you force yourself to finish a book, you’re doing neither.
If you’re not enjoying a book, put it down. Count it as a book you read if you want.³ Or don’t. There are no “reading goal” police. As long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing, you’re doing it right.
Give Up a Bad Habit to Make Time for Reading
The sad fact of the matter is that while building a 100-book-a-year reading habit is easier than you think, it is still going to take up some of your time. If you already feel like your life is full, which most people do, you must give something up to make the time.
Luckily, the average American has two major bad habits they can give up immediately without consequence:
- Spending more than 2 hours a day scrolling on social media.
- Spending more than 5 hours a day watching television.
Guys, the headline for that second citation is literally “The average American watches so much TV, it’s almost a full-time job.” You can afford to trade in one of those hours for reading, I promise.
I know it probably doesn’t feel like you watch that much TV or use social media that much. But if you’re not using time-trackers, I challenge you to start, because the reality of your consumption habits will probably surprise the living hell out of you.
Giving up these two habits and replacing them with reading has been hands-down one of the best choices I’ve made in my life.⁴ In just three short years of reading, I’ve read nearly 250 books and watched the quality of my thinking transform from naive and unsophisticated to intellectual and discerning. That ability alone is worth more than TV and social media could ever give me.
You don’t have to give up TV forever. Just commit to reading for ten minutes in the evening before putting your book down and picking up the remote. The more you read, the more you’ll want to read, and you’ll find yourself cutting back on television and social media naturally.
You probably won’t quit altogether, either. I haven’t. But you will find your use naturally scale back to something more balanced — and more rewarding.
Learn to Love Your Library
One way I’ve learned to discover new books is to browse the library with other friends who enjoy reading. We wander the halls and pick up books that seem interesting to read the first few pages. If we like what we read and we want to read more, we borrow the book.
This is a fabulous way to spend time for several reasons:
- It gives me a place to go out of the house with friends that doesn’t cost any money.
- It gives me a way to reach my goals and spend valuable time with friends at the same time.
- It exposes me to new releases, bestsellers, and various books to which I would have never otherwise been exposed.
The onset of coronavirus curtailed this hobby, of course, but my local library continued to allow cardholders to borrow books. We can use their extremely easy-to-use online portal to browse books and place a hold on any we like. As soon as they are ready to pick up at the walk-up window, we get an email. Likewise, we can return books at the return drop-box.
Borrowing books from the library has been one of the greatest additions to my reading habit. There are many books available physically at the library that aren’t available through their online collection. Physical library books allow me to enjoy hardback editions of new releases and bestsellers without having to pay a dime. For the environmentally conscious, it means fewer books produced and fewer resources consumed. And I still get to curl up in bed at night, with my book light and the soft feel of turning pages.
Borrow eBooks From Your Library
I know I just wrote a love letter to borrowing physical books from the library, but sometimes it isn’t possible. My local library has versions of books that are only available as digital copies. Sometimes, the physical copy is on a four-month waitlist when the digital copy is available now.
It is even easier to borrow books online than it is to place a hold for physical books. You can sign up at your local library website and borrow ebooks that way, use Overdrive’s online borrowing service, or download the Libby app and borrow books that way.
In addition to offering ebooks on loan, these services also have many audiobooks for you to borrow. You can borrow and listen to A Promised Land by Barack Obama on your smartphone whenever you want, thanks to your local library.
Get a Kindle
After years of writing about digital minimalism and the dangers of internet technology, it is painfully clear to me that reading on LCD-enabled screens is worse for your reading comprehension than reading on a Kindle.⁰
Two statistics come to mind as being especially important:
- Your reading comprehension of a body of text with hyperlinks and advertisements is significantly lower than of a body of unbroken text.⁰
- LCD screens disrupt your sleep cycle and cause eyestrain far more frequently than e-ink screens.⁵
Kindles haven’t changed much in the last few years, and pre-owned Kindles available online for as little as $40, which makes them the perfect affordable recommendation for anyone who wants to prioritize their health and the quality of their reading.
This style of reading is nothing like what we’re taught in school. When we were young, teachers assigned us books to read one at a time. University professors assign only one or two textbooks and expect you to read assignments one by one. Successful adult readers know the secret to building a reading habit:
- Read for the right reasons
- Only read what you enjoy
- Don’t worry about what others think of your reading choices
- Only commit to reading ten minutes a day
- Read multiple books at once
- Don’t force yourself to finish a book
- Give up a bad habit to make time for reading
- Learn to love your library
- Borrow ebooks from your local library
- Get a Kindle
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1: Which, I’d like to point out, is not impressive whatsoever. “Look at me, I’m such a great white person that I even read a book or two about your people’s oppression.” Jeez, people, get it together.
2: Joke’s on them, because not only have I read The God Delusion, I’ve also read The Selfish Gene⁰, and as a result, I often have a better grasp of the mechanics of evolution than the accuser themselves does. Although I will admit, it’s been so long since I read The God Delusion that it practically doesn’t count anymore…
3: I count any book against my reading goal for which I’ve read a significant portion. I do this so I don’t force myself to finish books for the sake of “having read” them. That being said, if I get far enough into a book to count it as read, I am already interested enough to read it in its entirety. Either I abandon a book in the first few chapters or read it all the way through.
4: I also replaced my TV and social media habits with a habit of going to the gym. Reading frequently and visiting the gym often are two habits that, when adopted together, have the power to transform a life.
5: Established medical science on whether LCD screens cause eyestrain more frequently than e-ink screens is inconclusive. But anecdotally, I get a headache after reading on my computer for a few hours, and I do not get a headache after reading on my Kindle, so I’m happy to stand by this claim.