I read a lot. A whole lot. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions why, but probably more so, how. These kinds of “how-to” posts on reading are all over the place. My advice is not more sure-fire than plenty of others who have written on these things, and I definitely haven’t read books as long as most of them. With that said, here are the six keys from my personal experience that have helped me learn how to read a lot, and read it all well.
Read in Transition
This is the number one tip I have to offer, and this has been the one thing that more than anything else has helped my reading. It’s so simple, no matter where you’re at with your reading habits.
I always have (at least) one book with me. Nearly everywhere I go, that book is coming with me. Whether I am heading to an appointment or a meeting, or I am going to grab lunch, or whatever else I may have during the day, having that book with me is so essential, and I have found it to drastically increase the time I have to read and my ability to get through books quicker. Why?
The scenarios are endless. You know those mornings where you arrive right on time for a 10AM meeting, and you get a text saying “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” What do you do? Normally, we browse Facebook or just sit staring into space. Having a book in the car, rather, I can devote those small windows to getting through a few pages, or even a chapter. These small “waiting times” throughout our day — whether it be waiting on our coffee order or we have fifteen minutes until our appointment — start compounding throughout our day. If you’re looking to find the time for reading, start bringing your book wherever you are, and when dead time unexpectedly comes, you’re ready.
Read On Schedule
Not only would I advocate for reading when the opportunity arises, but I would also argue that devoting specific, dedicated time to reading helps us stay disciplined in getting that accomplished.
Oftentimes, we let reading suffer because we struggle to let it take precedence over other pressing matters. What I have found personally helpful is making a daily checklist. What are the 6–7 major things that I need, then want, to accomplish today? I schedule what needs to be done first off, fitting it into my daily schedule. Then where there are holes in my schedule, maybe I pick a 20-minute window to spend reading.
Obviously, plans change, and things come up, so sometimes this window of reading time is cut out. But this should be the exception, not the norm. If we want to discipline ourselves into better reading habits, we have to treat it as important enough to belong on our calendar.
Read Multiple Books
This seems like an odd tip. “In order to read faster, read multiple books?” Or, “I want to learn how to read more, I didn’t mean go crazy!” I get it. It seems laborious for many of us to get through one book, much less 3–4 at a time. But I have found that reading multiple books, especially multiple books that each have a different genre/theme, is actually very helpful in improving reading habits.
For example, I recently read Total Truth, a weighty 370 pages about the secularization of America and developing a Christian philosophical worldview. Needless to say, that wasn’t light reading. It was a book that really needed to be carefully read and over multiple sessions.
Psychologically, only going through this kind of book would have been really challenging. Night after night I’d face the reality of this daunting task. But having other shorter books I was reading at the time really helped me to stay encouraged in my reading, and not get flustered with the challenge of the longer book. Plus, when I was growing tired in reading the more massive stuff, reading a light fiction, a small biography, or personal letters helped refresh me.
Read With Instruments
I used to never mark in books. Books felt “sacred” to me and I didn’t want to mess them up with my annotations. As it turns out, annotating and making marks in books has been exceedingly valuable to me.
My underlining system is unique, but really saves time: If a notable quote is over 3 lines long, I make a vertical line in the margin instead of a bunch of horizontal lines. I also use rulers or bookmarks to make straight lines. This makes note-taking look clean and presentable. The best part about doing these things is when you come back to reference a book. I read a lot of theology, so having things marked when I come back to reference saves a ton of time and allows me to not have to read something over and over and over again to find it.
Read at Varying Speeds
One of the biggest hindrances to reading speed and efficiency is the feeling that we have to read every single word of a book. We shouldn’t be so high-closure with books! They are meant to serve us readers, so we have to remember first why we are reading it at all. Is this a book that demands undivided attention, that needs to be carefully studied? Or is this a book that looks interesting but more for reading pleasure?
Some books lend themselves to skimming. Others lend themselves to needing to be carefully read. I will skim a book when looking to understand general arguments. Sometimes this is reading the first and last sentence of paragraphs, sometimes it’s checking out the heading points found throughout chapters. Sometimes it’s skipping a chapter altogether that I’m not particularly interested in. Other books, such as Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for example, is not a book you can skim and walk away from knowing well. This is a book that should be read very slowly, with great care, and not rushed through.
A great example of this is when I recently went through some of John Owen’s classic works. The first time I went through it, I just wanted to finish it. But due to Owen’s highly technical sentence structures and sometimes tiresome phrasing, I lost a lot of the hidden wisdom for the sake of finishing. After going back through again only a few pages at a time, I began to really ingest Owen’s work and better understand the scope and points of the book. Sure, it took a while to get through at that pace, but the payoff was worth it.
There are even, dare I say, books that should not be finished! If you get into reading a book and you’re just not feeling it, it’s okay to put down and come back to eventually, or never. That’s hard for many of us. It was really hard for me before I realized how much time and pain I was saving myself in stopping these books short. If you’re not compelled by the first half of a book, you’ll likely not be compelled by the last half either.
Read to Recharge
Many of us want to read more, but we’re just so tired and busy that we feel like it’s just one more add-on. In reality, reading is not meant to be exhaustive. The goal of reading books should be for us to feel recharged. Whether that means reading (especially fiction or biography) is our means of resting from a long day of work, or that means reading (especially theology) is helping reorient our focus on God. Read because you value being recharged. God completely understands our need to rest and refuel. It’s why our physical bodies need sleep daily, and why we eat three times a day. Reading, in many ways, is a recharging station for your mental performance.
There is plenty more I could say about reading, but I’ll close with this: reading is important. I firmly believe if you know the importance of reading yet are struggling to figure out how to apply it to your own life, try some of these suggestions out and see what happens.
Maybe nothing changes for you. But maybe, just maybe, it will be worth it.