Original post
January 02, 2020 at 05:30 Tags Reading

In 2019 I’ve finished 63 books, which is a new personal record:

I began keeping detailed track of my when this blog launched in 2003. In case you’re wondering, the total count since 2003 is just a bit over 700, though this overcounts by 10-15% if we consider unique books, since I re-read books quite a bit (more on this later).

This seemed like a good time to reflect and also answer some frequently asked questions I get from followers about my reading habits.

Reading books is an important part of my life. Reading a good book is an activity I enjoy on a profound level. It’s not just for passing time; it’s for gaining a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit, and for shaping my own view of myself and my place in this world. Therefore, the effort to find good books to read is never-ending, and over the years my summaries have helped many people fill up their own reading queues – very happy to help!

I get many questions from followers about my reading habits. Here’s a bit of Q&A. The first question is by far the most common, but others come up quite a bit as well.

Q: How do you find time to read so much?

A: I make time.

It’s as simple as that. When people ask me this question, I always feel tempted to ask back “Why do you think you don’t have time?”. I’m convinced that anyone can find time if they really want it; it’s just a matter of priorities.

I feel compelled to add that I don’t see myself as any sort of record-breaking reader. There are many people who read way more than me, both in terms of quantity and quality. I still have much to learn about time management.

A more detailed answer is due, though. It’s a combination of several factors:

  1. Audiobooks: these make up a sizable chunk (at least a third) of my reading in the past few years. I can carve up a lot of reading time while commuting, working out, waiting at my kids’ after-school activities, washing dishes and doing other chores around the house. Over an hour a day spent on all these combined is not uncommon. At 1.25x listening speed, I can burn through an average-sized book in a couple of weeks.

  2. Making time: I find that I have some free time almost every evening to relax; it’s usually not much, maybe 30-45 minutes. Rather than watching TV or browsing social media, I read. I also spend some of my working time reading technical books; when I’m really into a technical book, this can amount to 20-30 minutes a day. Each instance in isolation is not much, but it really adds up over time.

    This is the place to mention that I prefer consuming slow media, to the extent possible. I should really write a longer blog post about this topic alone, but in the context of reading slow media means I prefer books to articles, magazines and blog posts. These, in turn, I prefer over social media. Therefore, given that I spend some small chunk of my day reading – meaning scanning text with my eyes – I strongly prefer this time to be spent on books rather than any other text organization format.

  3. Reading with my kids: this one is fairly new, from the last year or so. As my kids grow older, I find that I can read books together with them that both of us actually enjoy. There are a couple of instances of that in the most recent reading summary. This is just like audiobooks in a way – it allows me to “steal” reading time while doing something else. Reading together with my kids is a lot of fun, and it combines an activity that’s dear to my heart (spending quality time with them) with another activity – reading. I actually find that some “young reader” versions of books are better than adult books! They convey very similar amounts of information in a shorter, clearer way, without spending text on useless embellishments and trying to pad to 300 pages.

Q: Do you read paper books? Audiobooks? Ebooks?

A: Short answer: yes.

For audiobooks, see the answer above. The rest is split between ebooks and paper books. My heuristic here is pretty clear: I prefer an ebook, unless it’s a book that has graphics (like images, photos or charts), equations or code in it. I read ebooks on a Kindle, and I don’t like how Kindles do images, equations or code. But I do prefer them for pure-text books, because a Kindle is lighter, easier to hold with one hand, and easier to put down (in the sense that it’s easier to find where you left off).

Q: Do you speed-read?

A: No. I experimented a little bit with speed-reading many years ago, but never really warmed up to it. I did manage to bring my WPM much higher, but comprehension suffered, and I also found I enjoy reading less. Lately, the vast majority of my reading is non-fiction, which makes speed-reading even more challenging, because comprehension is crucial. I’d say I read physical books at a pretty average pace now.

As for audiobooks, I set them to 1.25x because the original speed is unbearably slow, but this is not fast by any means. Most folks I know listen at 1.25x at least, and some listen at much faster – like 1.5x or 2x. I found these higher speeds harder to concentrate with, and comprehension suffers greatly. So I settled for a more moderate pace.

Q: Do you re-read books?

A: Absolutely. I also group them separately in my reading summaries, so it’s easy to see which books are re-reads. I estimate that about 10-15% of the books I’ve been reading recently fall into this category. I’ve read many books twice, and some books three or more times.

Re-reading good books is very important for me. A while ago I made a resolution to read more for quality than quantity, but this is easier said then done. Yes, most of my reading is non-fiction, and I spend quite a bit of time vetting books before I read them. But the most effective way to keep average quality up is to re-read books I found great.

How often does it happen that I re-read a book and find almost nothing new in it? Almost never. Keep in mind that some books are a distillation of many years of an author’s diligent research and writing work; it’s very unlikely to “get” all of it in just a few hours. Reading a book and letting the material simmer in the back of your mind for some period (a year or more, typically), and then re-reading is a very effective way to extract more information.

Q: Do you always finish a book before starting the next one?

A: I always have more than one book in progress – one on audio and another in text. But usually it’s even more than one. For example, there is a technical book I’m slowly plowing through only at certain times (when concentration is easiest), and quite often if I’m reading something “heavy” I’ll put it aside for a while and read a lighter book. I also have at least one book “in progress” going with my kids at any given time. So the average is probably around 4.

The question is also sometimes asked in the sense of “do you finish all the books you begin”. Well, not always, but almost. I try to vet books very carefully before reading them, so I don’t get duds often. But every once in a while I do, and then I have no issue abandoning a particularly bad book in the middle.