How To Read More Books and Why
My contribution to an overstuffed genre
Last week, Gallup released a major survey of American reading habits, and the results don’t look good: between 2016 and 2021, we’ve collectively slid from reading 15.6 books a year to 12.6. The segment of the population that just doesn’t read at all has continued to stay flat around 17% for as long as Gallup has conducted this survey.1 This should feel like good news, but it also means that the 83% of us who do read are doing less reading than before.
Because of this, the percentage of Americans who read ten or more books a year–that’s books of any kind, from Pride & Prejudice to Pride & Prejudice & Zombies–shrank eight points in five years, down to 27%. For the first time since Gallup started tracking reading habits, a plurality of American adults–40%–read only five to ten books a year.
You can probably come up with all kinds of theories about why this decline is happening–how TV shows are the new novels, fewer college students are majoring in book-heavy humanities courses, our collective political derangement around 2016 when reading rates suddenly nosedive, the migration of attention from long-form books to short-form Internet articles, The Shallows in general–and because we’re talking about such a huge population, all of these have some degree of truth to them.
But I’m here to help, not speculate. By Gallup’s standards, I’m a freakish ultra-reader, averaging 100+ books a year and several articles, stories, or poems a day. If you feel personally attacked by that Gallup survey, or are just one of the millions of people who Google “how to read more books” while thinking about New Year’s resolutions, here’s the best advice I can give.
Read with Pressure
At any given time, I have a dozen or so Google Keep notes with books to find and read. Stacks of books float around my apartment and on tables. My Kindle is swollen with ebook loans from the library, and I have a score of essays and articles saved on my browser to read and mark up at some distant, unknown date. The pile of books on my nightstand has often stretched high enough to pose a health risk. The cumulative effect of all this is that I feel an enormous sense of pressure at all times to read, if only to reduce the clutter in my home and on my desk. In the long tide of my life, the amount of reading material coming in has always exceeded the outgoing. For every library book I return, I come back with two.
But whatever unease comes from being surrounded by more stuff than I could possibly read is more than compensated by how much this keeps me reading and thinking about what to read next. It keeps a ready supply of material in different styles and genres, and discourages me from wasting time when there’s so much great stuff to read. Speaking of which…
Read with an Exit Strategy
This one is simple, obvious, and useful–but it’s also the most-ignored bit of classic reading advice: it’s OK to quit a book. Unless you have an external reason for reading the book (academic obligations, professional development, your friend wrote it), nothing bad will happen when you put it down. Although bookworms have been debating the perfect, universal cut-off point since books were stamped on tablets, I’ve never bought into the idea that there’s something special about the 10% mark, the first hundred pages, or whatever else chronic quitters swear by. I’ve thrown out books after a couple of pages and I’ve quit novels two chapters from the end. Usually there are two reasons: either it’s not the book I thought it would be, or I’ve gotten what I need out of it and don’t see any reason to go further.
Like a lot of readers, I used to resist this advice, dressing up the sunk-cost fallacy in all kinds of fancy garments: I already paid for the book, this is a celebrated classic of the genre, I’ve already read so much of it, everybody tells me the ending is great. The list goes on. The comfortable lie that I usually tell myself is that I’m just going to take a break from this book for a few days to read something else. Most of the time, I never come back, and never feel the worse for it. Quitting is a skill with compounding returns: the better you get at it, the sharper your personal taste gets, the more engaged you are with the reading you stay with, and most importantly, you get back a lot of time for reading.
Read Like a Tourist (Or a Cyborg)
Reading for diversity gets a lot of play these days, usually in the form of reading challenges: to read an X amount of books per year by women or people of color or translated authors or queer authors and so on. I have no special praise or complaints for these lists. If you use them, that’s great, but they’ve never motivated me as a reader. Most of my reading is determined by my own idiosyncratic projects and maximizing my exposure to many different traditions, genres, ideas, and subjects. Sometimes that means I read “diverse” authors, but it’s always with an eager curiosity to learn something new, and never with a servile fealty to some fact of the author’s biology. I imagine that’s how most authors want to be read–I know I do.
That’s why I argue for reading a diversity of subjects, not authors. By all means, keep a few areas where you specialize and read deeply, like American science fiction or Chinese poetry, because deep knowledge has its own personal and professional rewards. Just know that as a specialist, you’re getting diminishing returns the deeper you dive: your first read about nuclear physics will teach you a lot more than your tenth read on the same topic. In cybernetics, this is called surprisal: the amount of new, unusual information that a packet contains. Books that fall into your most well-trod paths have low surprisal rates. You might learn some very specific and very useful things, but they aren’t going to blow your mind. A new book on a new topic, though, will expand your horizons in ways you can’t anticipate, and the weirder the subject is to you, the higher the rate of surprisal.
You can think of it like settling in a town versus visiting as a tourist: you already know a lot about your town, and only expand your knowledge of it through small, incremental trips; but as a tourist, you’re probably sticking to the biggest sites and the most famous dishes, because you may never come back again. You can’t be a tourist all the time, but it’s healthy and exciting to make occasional forays into a subject you know nothing about: What is the best single book on cybernetics? What are the three best Westerns? What’s the deal with forks?
Read to Achieve
The patron saint of ultra-readers, Tyler Cowen, often says that the best way to read more books is to have a popular podcast featuring prominent academics with fearsome credentials and a long list of publications. Cowen, not incidentally, has his own popular podcast with prominent academics sporting fearsome credentials and a long list of publications, and if you listen to Conversations with Tyler, you can tell by Cowen’s questions that he really is reading as deeply and widely in his subject’s work as he can. If you look at Cowen’s blog, you can see how often his reading is built up around projects like his podcast or a newspaper column. Having a goal to read towards that’s intrinsically motivating–i.e., it’s not an arbitrary number of books or authors or some other X per year that you read to show off, but because it fits into a larger project that you’re passionate about–is consistent among super-readers. I’m no Tyler Cowen, but every post on Bibliophilia has at least one or two books and a handful articles behind it, even if some of them never make it as far as a citation.
Read a Lot
You knew I was going to get to this point eventually. There are no shortcuts, reader: we all move through time at the same rate, and once you’ve reached a level of material comfort high enough to worry about your leisure time, you have to admit that some hobbies preclude others. Video games, social media, and television–the three great pastimes of our era–are inimical to reading. I don’t mean that they’re anti-intellectual or rot your brain or anything like that: I mean that they demand lots of time, and conflict with the time it takes to read well. Advertising, popular culture, and peer pressure–which increasingly feel like the same thing these days–are very good at making you feel as though you have to keep up with what’s new on screens this week, even as most of it is crap. I like games and TV and social media, too, but if those time-use surveys you see online are any indication, I use them a lot less than other people in my cohort because I can’t do both and reading makes me happier.
So I check my phone first thing in the morning like everybody else, but then I put it down and read for twenty minutes before I go to work. I watch an episode of television at night with dinner, but rarely a second one and I never binge-watch anything. I read and take notes in the evening. The time I spend reading in bed every night is one of the happiest times of my day, and has been ever since I was ten years old, reading The Chronicles of Narnia up past midnight. It comes out to a few hours every weekday, and around 4-6 on weekends, which is enough to average 100+ books a year.
But I don’t read for an arbitrary, Goodreads-style book count.2 I read a lot simply because I like it, and it brings me more pleasure than most other things. What I’ve tried to do here is suggest a few ways to make it more pleasurable and productive, but the first, final, and best way to read more books more often is to simply love reading.
It’s probably fair to assume that this population overlaps extensively with the 19% or so of Americans who have a PIAAC literacy score of 0 or 1. Literary texts probably aren’t much fun when your reading skills top out at retrieving simple information.
Which is good, because my reading number is going to tank this year. I have some long reads chartered for the summer.