Dear Lifehacker, Over the years I've collected hundreds of books I want to read, but no matter what I do they just keep piling up. Is there a way I can read faster and get through this backlog quickly? Sincerely, Buried Under Bradbury
We certainly understand your pain. It's easy to get buried under a bunch of books you purchased (or just find yourself with an Amazon wish list of 200 titles). Thankfully, getting caught up on all those books isn't always as hard as you might think. Here are a few different ideas for getting through you backlog.
Increase Your Reading Speed
Speed reading is all about reading as fast as you can, and it's a surprisingly easy technique to learn. You can teach yourself speed reading with a web app like Spreeder, but speed reading is based on a few key techniques that anyone can pick up:
- Stop saying the words in your head: Sub-vocalisation is the habit most of us have where we "hear" words in our minds as we read them. Breaking that habit can dramatically increase reading speed. All you need to do is disengage the speech mechanism in your brain, which means chewing gum, humming or even eating while you're reading. Another method is to repeat "A-E-I-O-U" as you read to teach yourself to stop reading with your mouth.
- Avoid "Back Skips": When we're reading we tend to skip our eyes back and dwell on the word we just read. This slows us down. Unfortunately, the only way to break this habit is to admit you do it and notice when you do.
- Point at the text: One of the more surprising speed reading techniques is "meta guiding". This simply means pointing at the text as you read it. You still need to concentrate on each word if you want to actually retain any information, but it's one way speed reading programs teach you to quickly get through a text.
Speed reading isn't for everyone, and while some people can certainly retain a lot of the information they read, many people can't. So, if you're interested, give speed reading a try, but don't feel like you have to commit to it just to get through all your books. You have other options.
Skip the Parts You Can (or Skip Chapters Entirely)
Another trick often associated with speed reading is skimming the text. As former British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour once said, "He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the more refined art of skipping and skimming."
Skimming is one of method of speed reading, and while it's not great for comprehension (don't do this in your college textbooks), it's a good way to quickly get through your backlog of books. This works especially well for non-fiction when you might not be interested in certain parts of a book. Professor David Davis shares his strategy for effective skimming:
- Begin with the introduction or preface. Read it carefully to find the main argument, strategy, and claims.
- Read the final chapter or conclusion.
- Finally, go through each chapter and read the introductory paragraph and the final paragraph.
Obviously you don't want to do this for every single book you're trying to get through, but it's an effective strategy for topics you're mildly interested in. Of course, if a few chapters sound more interesting than others, you can pop in and read just those ones. Skimming works especially well for history books, essay collections, memoirs or current interest books. Picture: Arria Belli/Flickr.
Listen to Audiobooks When You Can't Read
Chances are that you can't read all the time. After all, you have to drive places, cook meals, and exercise. For those times when you can't have a book in your hand (or it would be dangerous to do so), audiobooks are a great way to fill the silence and catch up on your backlog.
Most major book sellers like Amazon and iTunes all sell audiobooks. Also, Audible allows you to buy audiobooks and offers a subscription service that gives you one book a month for $US14.95 (a considerable saving since audiobooks tend to sell for $US30-$40).
If you're a little wary of audiobooks, you don't actually have to pay to try them out. You can find free books on Audible with a Google search, and grabbing one free book on Audible is usually pretty easy provided you're willing to try the service free for 30 days. Sites like Books Should Be Free and Open Culture also offer free audiobooks.
Read a Couple Books at Once
Last year, Jeff Ryan set a New Year's resolution that he'd read 366 books in a year. That seems like a hefty goal, but, writing for Slate, Ryan explains how he did it:
The idea of a full book a day -- going from title page to back-jacket blurbs -- went quickly out the window. I read lots of books at once, and can go days making progress in five or six volumes without technically finishing any of them. Then there are flat-out busy days, where the actual drop-dead demands of my job and parenting mean there is not a second to spare for reading. My worst lull was during a Florida trip, when I barely plowed through the 300 pages of John Irving's The Fourth Hand. And that was during a whole week of family vacation-the time when normal people read more. It took a month of catchup to get back at pace.
Of course, he combined that with a few other tactics, including listening to audiobooks, as well as comics and graphic novels. Still, his tactic of reading multiple books at once is one way to get through your backlog provided you can differentiate between all of them. In this case, it's likely best to stick to different genres so you don't confuse yourself too much. Picture: J Brew/Flickr.
Abandon the Books that Aren't Working for You
This seems like common sense, but it's still worth noting: if you're a couple chapters into a book and you're not enjoying it, stop reading it. Once you stop, think about why you're not enjoying it. Is it just the wrong book at the wrong time? Then put it back in your backlog and wait for the right time. Is it a book someone recommended and you're not enjoying it? Then return it to the seller, pass it along to someone else or donate it to a library. You're not going to enjoy every book, so don't waste time on books you don't like.
Depending on just how tall your backlog of books is, getting through them shouldn't take too much time. Set up a schedule to help you fit reading into your day, and start cranking through all those books. Picture: mikael altemark
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.