“I just sit in my office and read all day.”
This is how Warren Buffett, one of the most successful people in the business world, describes his day. Sitting. Reading.
He advises everyone to read more, and that’s certainly a goal we can all get behind. Our personal improvements at Buffer regularly come back to the books we read—how we aim to read more and make reading a habit. I imagine you’re in the same boat as well. Reading more is one of our most common ambitions.
So how do we do it? And what are we to do with all that information once we have it?
Reading more and remembering it all is a discussion with a lot of different layers and a lot of interesting possibilities. I’m happy to lay out a few possibilities here on how to read more and remember it all, and I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
But first, let’s set some baselines …
How fast do you read?
One of the obvious shortcuts to reading more is to read faster. That’s likely the first place a lot of us would look for a quick win in our reading routine.
So how fast do you read?
Staples (yes, the office supply chain) collected speed reading data as part of an advertising campaign for selling e-readers. The campaign also included a speed reading tool that is still available to try. Go ahead and take the test to see how fast you read.
(My score was 337 words per minute. Yours?)
The Staples speed reading test includes data on how other demographics stack up in words per minute. According to Staples, the average adult reads 300 words per minute.
- Third-grade students = 150 words per minute
- Eight grade students = 250
- Average college student = 450
- Average “high level exec” = 575
- Average college professor = 675
- Speed readers = 1,500
- World speed reading champion = 4,700
Is reading faster always the right solution to the goal of reading more? Not always. Comprehension still matters, and some reports say that speed reading or skimming leads to forgotten details and poor retention. Still, if you can bump up your words per minute marginally while still maintaining your reading comprehension, it can certainly pay dividends in your quest to read more.
There’s another way to look at the question of “reading more,” too.
How much do you read?
There’s reading fast, and then there’s reading lots. A combination of the two is going to be the best way to supercharge your reading routine, but each is valuable on its own. In fact, for many people, it’s not about the time trial of going beginning-to-end with a book or a story but rather more about the story itself. Speed reading doesn’t really help when you’re reading for pleasure.
In this sense, a desire to read more might simply mean having more time to read, and reading more content—books, magazines, articles, blog posts—in whole.
Let’s start off with a reading baseline. How many books do you read a year?
A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that adults read an average of 17 books each year.
The key word here is “average.” There are huge extremes at either end, both those who read way more than 17 books per year and those who read way less—like zero. The same Pew Research study found 19 percent of Americans don’t read any books. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll from 2013 showed that number might be even higher: 28 percent of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year.
Wanting to read more puts you in pretty elite company.
5 ways to read more books, blogs, and articles
1. Read for speed: Tim Ferriss’ guide to reading 300% faster
Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Workweek and a handful of other bestsellers, is one of the leading voices in lifehacks, experiments, and getting things done. So it’s no wonder that he has a speed-reading method to boost your reading speed threefold.
His plan contains two techniques:
- Using a pen as a tracker and pacer, like how some people move their finger back and forth across a line as they read
- Begin reading each new line at least three words in from the first word of the line and end at least three words in from the last word
The first technique, the tracker/pacer, is mostly a tool to use for mastering the second technique. Ferriss calls this second technique Perceptual Expansion. With practice, you train your peripheral vision to be more effective by picking up the words that you don’t track directly with your eye. According to Ferriss:
Untrained readers use up to ½ of their peripheral field on margins by moving from 1st word to last, spending 25-50% of their time “reading” margins with no content.
The below image from eyetracking.me shows how this concept of perceptual expansion might look in terms of reading:
You’ll find similar ideas in a lot of speed reading tips and classes (some going so far as to suggest you read line by line in a snake fashion). Rapid eye movements called saccades occur constantly as we read and as our eyes jump from margins to words. Minimizing these is a key way to boost your reading times.
The takeaway here: If you can advance your peripheral vision, you may be able to read faster—maybe not 300 percent faster, but every little bit counts.
2. Try a brand new way of reading
Is there still room for innovation in reading? A couple of new reading tools say yes.
Spritz and Blinkist take unique approaches to helping you read more—one helps you read faster and the other helps you digest books quicker.
First, Spritz. As mentioned above in the speed reading section, there is a lot of wasted movement when reading side-to-side and top-to-bottom.
Spritz shows one word of an article or book at a time inside a box. Each word is centered in the box according to the Optimal Recognition Point—Spritz’s term for the place in a word that the eye naturally seeks—and this center letter is colored red.
Spritz has yet to launch anything related to its technology, but there is a bookmarklet called OpenSpritz, created by gun.io, that lets you use the Spritz reading method on any text you find online.
Here is what OpenSpritz looks like at 600 words per minute:
The Spritz website has a demo on the homepage that you can try for yourself and speed up or slow down the speeds as you need.
Along with Spritz is the new app Blinkist. Rather than a reimagining of the way we read, Blinkist is a reimagining of the way we consume books. Based on the belief that the wisdom of books should be more accessible to us all, Blinkist takes popular works of non-fiction and breaks the chapters down into bite-sized parts.
These so-called “blinks” contain key insights from the books, and they are meant to be read in two minutes or less. Yes, it’s a lot like Cliff Notes. Though the way the information is delivered—designed to look great and be eminently usable on mobile devices so you can learn wherever you are—makes it one-of-a-kind.
Here is an example of the Blinkist table of contents from Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things:
I’m sure we can agree that it’s a lot easier to read more when a book is distlled into 10 chapters, two minutes each.
3. Read more by making the time
Shane Parrish of the Farnam Street blog read 14 books in March, and he tackles huge totals like this month-in and month-out. How does he do it?
He makes it a priority, and he cuts out time from other activities.
What gets in the way of reading?
I don’t spend a lot of time watching TV. (The lone exception to this is during football season where I watch one game a week.)
I watch very few movies.
I don’t spend a lot of time commuting.
I don’t spend a lot of time shopping.
If you look at it in terms of raw numbers, the average person watches 35 hours of TV each week, the average commute time is one hour per day round-trip, and you can spend at least another hour per week for grocery shopping.
All in all, that’s a total of 43 hours per week, and at least some of that could be spent reading books.
4. Buy an e-reader
In the same Pew research study that showed Americans’ reading habits, Pew also noted that the average reader of e-books reads 24 books in a year, compared to a person without an e-reader who reads an average of 15.
Could you really read nine more books a year just by purchasing an e-reader?
Certainly the technology is intended to be easy-to-use, portable, and convenient. Those factors alone could make it easier to spend more time reading when you have a spare minute. Those spare minutes might not add up to nine books a year, but it’ll still be time well spent.
5. Read more by not reading at all
This is quite counterintuitive advice, and it comes from a rather counterintuitive book.
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, written by University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard, suggests that we view the act of reading on a spectrum and that we consider more categories for books besides simply “have or haven’t read.” Specifically, Bayard suggests the following:
- books we’ve read
- books we’ve skimmed
- books we’ve heard about
- books we’ve forgotten
- books we’ve never opened.
He even has his own classification system for keeping track of how he’s interacted with a book in the past.
UB book unknown to me
SB book I have skimmed
HB book I have heard about
FB book I have forgotten
++ extremely positive opinion
+ positive opinion
- negative opinion
– extremely negative opinion
Perhaps the key to reading more books is simply to look at the act of reading from a different perspective? In Bayard’s system, he essentially is counting books he’s skimmed, heard about, or forgotten as books that he’s read. How might these new definitions alter your reading total for the year?
3 ways to remember what you read
Train your brain with impression, association, and repetition
A great place to start with book retention is with understanding some key ways our brain stores information. Here are three specific elements to consider:
Let’s say you read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of our favorites here at Buffer. You loved the information and want to remember as much as possible. Here’s how:
Impression – Be impressed with the text. Stop and picture a scene in your mind, even adding elements like greatness, shock, or a cameo from yourself to make the impression stronger. If Dale Carnegie is explaining his distaste for criticism, picture yourself receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace and then spiking the Nobel Prize onto the dais.
(Another trick with impression is to read an important passage out loud. For some of us, our sensitivity to information can be greater with sounds rather than visuals.)
Association – Link the text to something you already know. This technique is used to great effect with memorization and the construction of memory palaces. In the case of Carnegie’s book, if there is a particular principle you wish to retain, think back to a time when you were part of a specific example involving the principle. Prior knowledge is a great way to build association.
Repetition – The more you repeat, the more you remember. This can occur by literally re-reading a certain passage or in highlighting it or writing it down then returning to it again later.
Practicing these three elements of remembering will help you get better and better. The more you work at it, the more you’ll remember.
Focus on the four levels of reading
Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book, identifies four levels of reading:
Each step builds upon the previous step. Elementary reading is what you are taught in school. Inspectional reading can take two forms: 1) a quick, leisurely read or 2) skimming the book’s preface, table of contents, index, and inside jacket.
Where the real work (and the real retention begins) is with analytical reading and syntopical reading.
With analytical reading, you read a book thoroughly. More so than that even, you read a book according to four rules, which should help you with the context and understanding of the book.
- Classify the book according to subject matter.
- State what the whole book is about. Be as brief as possible.
- List the major parts in order and relation. Outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
- Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
The final level of reading is syntopical, which requires that you read books on the same subject and challenge yourself to compare and contrast as you go.
As you advance through these levels, you will find yourself incorporating the brain techniques of impression, association, and repetition along the way. Getting into detail with a book (as in the analytical and syntopical level) will help cement impressions of the book in your mind, develop associations to other books you’ve read and ideas you’ve learned, and enforce repetition in the thoughtful, studied nature of the different reading levels.
Keep the book close (or at least your notes on the book)
One of the most common threads in my research into remembering more of the books you read is this: Take good notes.
Scribble in the margins as you go.
Bookmark your favorite passages.
Write a review when you’ve finished.
Use your Kindle Highlights extensively.
And when you’ve done these things, return to your notes periodically to review and refresh.
Shane Parrish of Farnam Street is a serial note taker, and he finds himself constantly returning to the books he reads.
After I finish a book, I let it age for a week or two and then pick it up again. I look at my notes and the sections I’ve marked as important. I write them down. Or let it age for another week or two.
Even Professor Pierre Bayard, the author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, identifies the importance of note-taking and review:
Once forgetfulness has set in, he can use these notes to rediscover his opinion of the author and his work at the time of his original reading. We can assume that another function of the notes is to assure him that he has indeed read the works in which they were inscribed, like blazes on a trail that are intended to show the way during future periods of amnesia.
I’ve tried this method for myself, and it has completely changed the way I perceive the books I read. I look at books as investments in a future of learning rather than a fleeting moment of insight, soon to be forgotten. I store all the reviews and notes from my books on my personal blog so I can search through them when I need to remember something I’ve read.
(Kindle has a rather helpful feature online, too, where it shows you a daily, random highlight from your archive of highlights. It’s a great way to relive what you’ve read in the past.)
It’s not important which method you have for note-taking and review so long as you have one. Let it be as simple as possible to complete so that you can make sure you follow through.
Over to you
How many books do you read each year? What will be your goal for this year? What’s your best tip for reading more and remembering more? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like The Two Brain Systems that Control Our Attention: The Science of Gaining Focus and 5 Unconventional Ways to Become a Better Writer (Hint: It’s About Being a Better Reader).