Over the years, I’ve developed a system that lets me read somewhere between 40-50 books per year. This system doesn’t require a massive amount of time or brainpower, both of which I lack. It only requires a little bit of diligence and small pockets of time.
Here are seven techniques to help you can achieve your avid reading goals and get through your long backlog of books to read.
Make Your Book List
The first step is easy and fundamental. Making a book list allows you to stay on track with your reading goals and to always know what you’ll be reading next. When it comes to making a list, you can always use good old fashioned pen and paper, but if you want the searchability and ubiquitous access of digital tools, give Goodreads a try.
Goodreads (Web, iOS, Android)
Goodreads is a terrific reading app for several reasons. First, it allows you to connect with your bibliophile friends and see what they’re reading. If you see a book that looks appealing, you can immediately add it to your "Want To Read" list.
Goodreads allows you to create a variety of booklists. This is especially helpful if, like me, you’re a bit reckless in pressing the "Want to Read" button. This allows you to easily move books from an oversized "Want to Read" list to an easier to manage "2019 Reading List."
If you don’t know what to read, Goodreads also has a suggestions page which is populated based on genres you’ve specified and books you’ve already read. This is a great place to find books you might enjoy. Friends can also recommend books to you that they think you might like.
And if you have an Amazon Kindle, you can connect it to your Goodreads account to easily rate and mark books you've read as completed.
Of course, you can keep your reading list in your favorite notes app, too, such as Evernote or Trello. Firefly founder Dan Shipper details how he reads a lot of books and keeps a reading list on his blog post (Trello screenshot below):
Read at Least Two Books at a Time
If you want to actually get through your reading list, it’s important to be reading at least two books at once. Why? Because of changing moods and energy levels. There will be times when you’re in the mood for something light and fun—a mystery novel or romantic comedy, for example. If you’re only reading dense business books, you simply won’t read when you’re not in that kind of mood. (Unless all you like to read are dense business books.) So always make sure you have a shorter or easier read at hand.
Your energy levels will also dictate which books you read. After a long day, I’m not particularly interested in reading a 500-page treatise on the history of European armor. I need something that doesn’t require intense thinking power, so I always make sure I have some easy reading, like a Stephen King novel or a collection of short stories, at hand for those low-energy times.
Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading you will not be able to remember. The most formative years of my life were the first five, and if those years were to be evaluated on the basis of my ability to pass a test on them, the conclusion would be that nothing important happened then, which would be false. The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.
Take notes, if you like, to better retain what you read--pulling out good quotes, for example (Goodreads is a helpful spot for this too). But, again, don't worry about retaining everything.
Read In Small Chunks
Most people assume that reading a lot of books requires hours of free time, and so they defer picking up a book. It doesn’t. I’ve got three young kids who are constantly interrupting me. I usually only have about 10-15 minutes of free time at any point during the day.
But what I’ve discovered is that I can make surprising progress in just 15-minute chunks. It’s similar to walking. You may not be able to walk 100 miles in a single day, but you can walk 100 miles in a week. You make much more progress this way than if you ran 20 miles once a month.
This is where digital reading apps come in handy. I have both a physical Kindle reader as well as the Kindle app on my iPad. They automatically save my place, allowing me to easily hop in and out of a book on any device for short periods of time.
Here's a cool Kindle trick: Let’s say you’re tired and you want someone to read to you. If you’re an iOS user, you can make the Kindle app read to you, as if it’s your own personal butler (my iPad is named "Rupert"). It’s really easy.
Click on the settings icon on your iPad or iPhone home screen.
Go to "General" and then "Accessibility"
Then go to "Speech"
Now turn "Speak Screen" on.
The "Speak Screen" feature is how you tell your iPhone or iPad to read Kindle books to you.
Next, disable "Auto-Lock" on your phone or tablet. The speaking feature will disable once "Auto-Lock" kicks in, so it’s easier if you just disable it all together.
Now open a book in the Kindle app, put two fingers at the top of the screen, and swipe down. Snap! A robotic voice is now reading your book to you. No, it’s not exactly Samuel L. Jackson, but it’s nice when you’re worn out.
Learn To Increase Your Reading Speed
Obviously, one key to reading more books every year is to improve your reading speed. You can do that without lessening your reading enjoyment and without forgetting what you read. Several apps are here to train you to read faster.
Spritz works by removing what is called "saccade," which is when your eyes move from word to word. By presenting all the words to you at the same location, your eyes never move and your brain can process the words faster.
The Spritz speed reader is also integrated into the BookShout app, allowing you to speed read through digital books.
The Bookshout app does take some getting used to. Because it presents one word at a time in a steady cadence, it’s not as easy to get into the flow of reading. Additionally, if you break concentration for even a moment, you can miss words. In some ways, this is good because it forces you to maintain laser focus on what you’re reading, but it can also be a bit frustrating when you’re first starting.
However, you can start the reading at a slow pace, which allows your brain to adapt to the new style of reading. Once your brain is used to it, slowly increase the speed.
ReadQuick is an iOS app that works in a similar manner to Spritz. You can select a news article from one of ReadQuick’s news partners or you can import an article through a variety of integrations, such as Feedly, Instapaper and Pocket. Once you’ve selected the article and set your Words Per Minute speed, the app shows you one word at a time.
A Faster Reader (Android)
A Faster Reader is similar to ReadQuick, but for Android. Articles can be imported through a variety of integrations, and then the words are presented one a time. The better you get, the higher you can increase the Words Per Minute. Additionally, you can import .epub, .txt, .html, and .pdf files, allowing you to read eBooks in a similar fashion.
Spreeder (Web, iOS, Windows, Mac, Chrome)
Spreeder works in an entirely different fashion than the previous apps. It is a complete speed reading training software, equipped with a host of training exercises, a progress dashboard, and a social feature for connecting with others. Spreeder flashes words in front of you one at a time, but it also trains you to read more quickly offline through the elimination of bad reading habits.
By teaching you to eliminate subvocalization (saying words in your head as you read them), regression (reading the same words repeatedly), and to incorporate fixation expansion (reading in bigger chunks), you learn to read faster.
As you train your brain to read more quickly, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you begin to knock out the books on your list.
Supplement Your Reading With Audiobooks
Audiobooks keep you reading even when your hands are tied—when you're driving, when you're running, when you're cleaning, or when you just want to unwind sans-physical book. It's not cheating, either. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that your brain uses the same mental processes when you listen to an audiobook as when you read text.
Here are some of the best audiobooks apps you can use to read more and read more regularly.
Audible (iOS, Android, Web)
Audible is the grandaddy of audio book libraries, with over 425,000 titles in stock. If you need an audiobook, there’s a good chance you can get it at Audible, which is owned by Amazon. And if you don’t like a book, you can exchange it without a problem.
For $14.95 you can listen to 3 books per month: 1 audiobook plus 2 Audible Original titles. If you don’t use all your credits in a single month, they simply roll over for up to 5 months.
Scribd (iOS, Android, Web)
Scribd allows you to listen to audiobooks and read digital books, comics, and sheet music within the app. Scribd has a good selection of digital books and audiobooks, but their audiobooks selection isn’t as broad as Audible.
For $8.99 per month, you can listen to an "unlimited" number of audiobooks and read magazines, documents, and eBooks every month. Scribd may occasionally limit the number of titles you can access within a specific content library in a month if your account shows unusual activity.
Overdrive (iOS, Android, Web)
Overdrive lets you listen to audiobooks and read digital books from your local library, all for free. It only requires that you have a library card. And get this: If you join a library in another city, you can access their audiobook collection too, thus expanding your collection.
Your selection will be limited by what is available at your local library, but I’ve found that my library still has a ton of books available. Also, there are limits to how many people can access a digital book at once, so you may have to wait a bit for a popular one.
Overdrive may not have all the options of Audible or Scribd, but you can't go wrong with free.
Increase Your Listening Speed
The human brain can process speech must faster than people actually speak. The typical speaking rate is between 140-180 words per minute, and the brain can understand an average of about 400 words per minute.
This means you can easily listen to audiobooks at a higher speed than they were recorded. No, you won’t get the full pleasure of an audiobook performance at normal speed, but the tradeoff is worth it if you want to read more books.
It can take a little getting used to. Hearing someone speak at double speed sounds odd at first, and you have to pay closer attention not to miss something. But it also means you can finish a book in half the time. I would recommend slowly increasing your listening speed as you get used it.
Audible, Scribd, and Overdrive all have speed buttons or options to increase the audio speed.
Be Selective With Your Reading Choices
If you've ever felt like you had to force yourself to finish a book, this tip's for you: Life is too short to finish a bad book. There's no shame in putting a book aside or not finishing it in order to get to the next book that you will get more out of.
And for some books, reading every word might be overkill if all you want to do is glean the most important information. Over at the Observer, author David Kadavy offers a "layered" approach to reading any book in 45 minutes. The secret is to not read a book from cover to cover, but instead get a general understanding of the book by strategically tackling the table of contents and each chapter.
Not every book needs to be read completely through for you to benefit from your reading. For some books, you might take this outline approach. And for others books, you'll reread them thoroughly time and again, savoring every word. Freeing yourself of the restriction to complete every book, however, will help you get to those page-turners faster.
All of these techniques are small and rather inconsequential on their own. However, when you put them all together, they can really supercharge your reading. Reading 50 books per year isn’t about spending 3 hours per day reading (although if you do that, more power to you). It’s about using reading to fill in the random open cracks in your day. Think of it like the mortar in between bricks. Bricks are big blocks of time dedicated to other things and reading is the mortar holding them together.
By implementing these techniques during your drives and downtimes and spare moments, you can easily read 50 (or more!) books per year.
And, really, it’s not about the number 50. It’s about what you learn and experience through those 50 books (or however many books you read). But, of course, the more books you read, the more you'll feed your brain.
Get Through Your Backlog of Books:
This post was originally published in August 2016 and was updated for current pricing.