“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the past I’ve written about reading critically and taking notes in books, as well as about keeping a commonplace book. Here are other strategies that have allowed me to read an average of 2 or 3 books every week, and get the most out of them.
Treat Reading as an Investment
Obviously, books aren’t free. And they can be pretty expensive, I know. But one thing I’ve always believed is that reading isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. Especially since we just celebrated Merdeka (Independence Day) a few days ago, I’m reminded that our freedom to read and write, was what our forefathers so valiantly fought for. So let’s ask ourselves, have we been making the most out of this freedom?
Because you can’t truly place a monetary value on books. The return on investment, or the life-changing benefits of reading a good book, far outweighs its price tag. So, you need to first assess whether a particular book would make a good investment (which we’ll talk about soon) and you need to know how much you’re willing to invest.
In his book I Will Teach You to be Rich, Ramit Sethi talks about “Big Wins” — Allocating a fixed amount of your income on a handful of things that you like to regularly spend on, while still being able to keep a certain amount for savings. My Big Wins include books, coffee, and stuff for my guitar. So I allocate a fixed amount of my allowance for each of these things — And I cannot exceed that amount. This helps to make sure that I don’t overspend, and that I’m still able to save a good percentage of my allowance.
Make Use of Reading Lists
J.K. Rowling once said that “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” So how do I know if a book is good? Sometimes a book might randomly catch my attention at the bookstore, and it turns out to be a huge life-changer. But that doesn’t happen so often. Most of the books I read are based on recommendations from other people.
I do depend a lot on reading lists by my favorite authors. I can’t tell you just how many great books I’ve picked up from Ryan Holiday’s reading lists — From biographies and fiction, to marketing and philosophy. Other authors include Austin Kleon, Tim Ferriss, Jeff Goins and Seth Godin. It’s also very useful to turn to the bibliography section of a book that you really like, so you could see where the author got her ideas from, as well as expand your own understanding of the subject.
I also have a habit of researching about books that strongly influenced the figures that I admire. Other than having access to some of the most kick-ass books, I get to have a clearer understanding of the thinking behind the figures’ works. For example, John Steinbeck said that he would read anything that William Faulkner wrote, so I started reading Faulkner. Bob Dylan raved about Bound for Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, and On the Road, so I read those too.
Of course, recommendations don’t work for me 100% of the time, because what meant a lot for another person might not turn out to mean a lot for me. But it’s still one of the best ways for me to find good books. While we’re on this topic, you could also check out my monthly reading lists (wink wink).
Don’t Worry About Being a Collector
Remarking on his home library, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Ours is in no sense a collector’s library. Each book was procured because some one of the family wished to read it. We could never afford to take overmuch thought for the outsides of books; we were too much interested in their insides.”
Some people are a bit picky about getting books with the prettiest covers, or their limited editions, or box sets. Hey, if that’s your thing, go ahead. Those are cool decorations for your bookshelf, but if you’re like me, you properly don’t have the kind of money to be overly concerned with that kind of stuff. Because at the end of the day, knowledge is the real reason we buy and read books.
I only get picky about editions when it comes to classics that were not originally written in English. In that case, I’d be sure to look for the most modern translation, because believe me, it makes a huge difference. When I first got into the Stoics, I made the mistake of buying a very old translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations — It exemplified why most people find philosophical texts extremely boring, because the language is so arcane and complex, that you run in circles in your mind, trying to decipher the simple meaning in a single paragraph. Gregory Hays’s translation, however, was the real deal. The writing was straightforward, and had a sense of immediacy and urgency, that I felt compelled to return to it again and again — Just as philosophy should really be.
Use the Internet
I’m gonna tell you something you already know. With the Internet and your smartphone, you have a huge network of information at your fingertips. And they’re free! Free! So make the best use out of them.
Before I buy or start reading a book, I love checking out reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. With a book that I haven’t heard much about, it might help me to decide whether it’s worth buying. But especially with a book that was recommended, I get to have an inkling of what to expect for my future reading, based on other people’s reading experiences.
And especially when I’m reading a novel, I like to keep a study guide handy, like Lit Charts or Wikipedia. Because even in fiction, practical lessons are still a huge focus for me. I would really want to drink deeply from the lessons and themes that the story is trying to impart.
Also, you don’t have to pretend that you understand what a word means when you don’t. Pause your reading for a minute, look up that word in a dictionary app, or Google it.
Treat Books As Your Companions
Books aren’t meant to be quickly read and shelved. They’re meant to be digested, revisited, and practiced. They’re meant to give us counsel, not once, but again and again, till the very end of our lives. They fill our headspace and furnish our inner character. And like a great friend, their words comfort us in tough times, and their presence is felt, even long after their physical absence.
Alexander the Great slept with Homer’s Iliad by his bedside, as he constantly reminded himself to be like the character Achilles. Napoleon brought a traveling library with him during his military campaigns. Frederick the Great had a habit of carrying the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags.
Similarly, when I’m out travelling with my backpack, I carry 2 or 3 of my favorite books, along with the book that I’m currently reading. It comforts me to have a different world or rich troves of wisdom to turn to, whenever I feel the need.
Don’t just read books. Re-read them. Seek their advice. Keep them close to you.
Stop Seeing Reading as a Special Activity
Everyone complains about not having the time to read. But nobody complains about not having the time to eat, or to doomscroll on their phone. And that brings me to my point — The problem is not that you don’t have time to read, but that you don’t make time for it.
Let’s think about eating for a moment. You don’t find the time to eat. You don’t wait for perfect circumstances to have your meal. You just eat, no matter for how long or how short a duration, because it’s a must for you.
There might not always be huge, specified blocks of time for you to read every day, but there are always small windows here and there — When you’re waiting for the bus, when you’re in the train, when you’re having a 5 minute study break. Rather than playing with your phone or not doing anything during these small windows of time, pull out a book instead.
Stop seeing reading as something that you do at a specific time or only under certain circumstances, and start seeing it as something that you can do anytime, anywhere — And you’ll find that your reading will triple.
When we encounter something life-changing, it’s natural for us to want to share the experience with others, so that their lives could change as well. A book, especially, is one of those life-changing gifts.
In his essay The Gifts of Reading, Robert Macfarlane talks about his “gift pile” practice, where he would buy a few copies of a book that he loved, and gift them to his closest friends and family.
Maybe we might not have the means to do the same thing, but we can at least recommend a great book to other people. I also love lending my books to friends and family members — It makes me really happy to know that I’m sharing something invaluable, and to also hear their own unique takes or interpretations.
It reminds me of how lucky we are to have great books in our world, and to be able to read them.