My Secret To Reading A Lot Of Books

My Secret To Reading A Lot Of Books

My girlfriend says I have a thing for books. I probably spend more money on books than any other expense, aside from food. Walking into a bookstore with a good selection makes me want to rent a truck and haul their entire stock away to pile in my house so that I can read every single one of them.

Picture: tuku/Pixabay

If your goal is to read a lot–like mine is–there are a few obstacles to overcome:

  • Keeping track of the books you want to read
  • Refining the list down to ones you’re going to read in the near feature
  • Actually reading them
  • Retaining the important parts

Keeping Track of What You Want to Read

Nothing is worse than wanting to get a new book and facing the empty Amazon search bar, their shallow recommendations staring back at you, KNOWING that there’s something better out there for you, but not being able to remember the 10+ books that you really wanted to read but never wrote down.

I have a two pronged solution for this:

1. Evernote 2.

I have one Evernote note (started in 2010) with almost every book that has caught my eye in the last three years. It’s pretty huge. Evernote is great for this purpose because it also has a mobile version, so wherever you are you can pull out your phone and type the book in for later.

I also use which is a really simple bookmarking service to collect books. Typically these are ones that I find on Amazon that I want to save for later. Both of these options are good for maintaining your list–though if you have to choose one, Evernote is probably the best because it works on mobile.

The biggest problem with this is that it gets really unwieldy after a while. It’s hard to keep track of which books you’ve already read, and it’s hard to find the books that you have top of mind in a list that’s 100s of lines long.

Refining the List

To refine my list I use Trello. For example, earlier in the year, I took a bunch of the books from my Evernote list that I felt like I wanted to read and put them into a Trello Board called Books. On this board I categorise them into two lists: “To Read” and “Backlog”.

My Secret To Reading A Lot Of Books

Above: My “Books” Trello board

“To Read” is composed of things that I want to read immediately. “Backlog” is composed of things that I want to read some time this year. Whenever I’m in a bookstore or I get a book recommendation that I’m really excited about I put the book into my “To Read” list.

What I find often is that when I first hear about a book it will get me excited and I’ll want to read it immediately. But after a few days or weeks it will excite me less. If that happens I’ll move the book from “To Read” to “Backlog”. And after a while if it stays in “Backlog” I’ll move it back to my Evernote list.

The advantage of using Trello is a few-fold:

  • It keeps everything much more organised than Evernote
  • It allows you to keep track of what you want to read, what you’re reading, and what you’ve already read in a pleasing way
  • By putting books that you’re excited about into the list and letting them sit there for a few days or weeks, it allows you to separate the books that you actually want to read from the books that lose their appeal quickly

Actually Doing the Reading

I have a rule for myself: I never read more than one book at a time, and I always finish every book I start.

I started doing this because I had a tendency to read five books at once. When you get into the habit of doing that, you end up never actually finishing anything. You’ll read a book for a few chapters, and then put it down for another one. This is annoying and doesn’t get you the satisfaction of reading a book from start to finish. By limiting myself to one book at a time and committing to finish it, I actually end up reading more books than if I read a bunch of them in parallel.

Retaining What You Read

My Secret To Reading A Lot Of Books

I have a couple of techniques for this depending on the book. For every (important) physical book that I’ve read since I high school I do exactly the same thing: I take a blank sheet of paper and fold it four ways into a square. I put the title of the book at the top and the date. Then as I’m reading I take notes on important themes or messages on the piece of paper, and write the page number that it shows up in. If I see the theme pop up in another section of the book I’ll go back to the original note and add the new page number.

Pictured at right: my notes from the last book I read, Fooled By Randomness

By the time I’m finished with the book I have a list of all the things I found interesting/insightful about it, and a list of all the page numbers where those things were discussed. This makes it really easy to pick up a book a few years after you first read and it figure out exactly what I thought was important about it. It also makes it easier to write about the books because I can usually pull out good quotes really quickly.

The other thing I’ve started to do recently is to write up my notes in Evernote. Having a piece of paper stuck inside the physical book is great (and doubles as a nice bookmark) but if you’re somewhere other than your house, it’s frustrating to not be able to access the information wherever you want. Typing the notes into Evernote on the other hand gives you access any time, from anywhere.

The other good thing about writing things out (whether by hand or by computer) is that you tend to remember them better. I’ve always been bothered by not remembering the things I read, and this seems to be a nice way to get the most out of the time you spend reading.

Now you know how I read. What do you do?

How to read a lot of books [Dan Shipper]

Dan Shipper is a programmer, entrepreneur and writer from Princeton, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter@danshipper.


    • Me too – once upon a time I used MS Word and had a list alphabetically by author surname, but that got unwieldy, and with Goodreads, you can export it as a .csv if you ever decide to leave. (Though why you’d want to is beyond me, when it can recommend books for you and give you the chance to ask authors about their writing!)

  • I spend a lot of time walking and driving, and generally have an audiobook playing to pass the time and keep my attention from wandering. It’s basically doubled the number of books I’ve read, and I often can’t remember when thinking about the book later if I read it as text or heard it as spoken word.
    I’m currently listening to Ulysses, which I haven’t read for decades, and it’s actually much better as an audiobook. It’s much clearer which bits are internal monologue vs narrator vs dialogue!

    • This, this is the smart way to do it

      I just got done with ‘Wired for War’ by Peter Singer, it was amazing!

  • To manage my list, I have a Google Drive Sheet where I note down authors, titles, and other information. I also have one to manage my library with. I have started using the “Book Catalogue” app for Android, which adds books by scanning the barcode and downloads the cover from Amazon, and also syncs with Goodreads. This is a pretty neat system for managing what you own, and you can have multiple shelves for want to read, own, reading etc.

    My advice for actually doing the reading is simple. Get enough sleep. I can’t read if I’m tired. I catch the train every day, and if I don’t get enough sleep I’ll just nap the whole way in, rather than reading. If I do get enough sleep, I can generally finish a medium-sized novel a week.

    • Oh yeah I love the scanner app that then updates Goodreads, so easy to mass add shelves of books.

  • For nonfiction reading, I can’t recommend enough the classic “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler.

    It changed my reading life.

  • The only thing I’d add to this is to make a regular time to read. Personally I read for about 30 minutes every night before going to bed – a good way to wind down from all the happenings of the day.

  • That seems rather convoluted… But then I:

    1. Have a wishlist on (for books i want to read/buy – even if I go for an eBook instead, I add it here to keep track of what i want to read).
    2. Have a to-read shelf on Goodreads (for books I have bought) and then rate them and move to “have read” shelf when done.
    3. Use a Google Docs spreadsheet to list the books I have read by year and series (mostly Fantasy and Sci-Fi) – it’s not strictly necessary but it enables me to keep track of which book I’m up to in a series and in which year I read it.

    I also use the online spreadsheet method for movies I watch as I watch a couple hundred every year and score/rate them before adding that score on IMDB. I’m thinking of starting to add slight blurbs of what the film is about as well since I look back at some titles (especially from Film Festivals) and think “what the Hell was that film?”

  • Some great tips here. Thanks!
    I user evernote as well.
    A great way to make a not of things on the run.
    I’ve been meaning to organise them better though so your tips with Trello look interesting.
    However, to be honest I probably use amazon wish lists the most in organising my reading. Largely because I read mostly on my kindle now. I have been meaning to organise those better though and create a “must read” list for the books I want to read first.
    Give I now travel 3 hours a day in the train it has allowed me to catch up on a lot of my reading which has been great.
    I used to do the 5 books at once thing when I was younger also. Definitely keep it to one book at a time these days though. 🙂

  • I read about one book a week on average, but I’m afraid I don’t have any fancy ways of doing it. I go to the book store, pick up a book I like, then I read it, then I put it on my shelf or give it away.

  • How do I keep track of my books?
    Like others a) Goodreads
    b) A little notebook with dates and book names as backup
    c) What to read? Wishlist on bookdepository or I download a sample of any ebook I intend to read and keep them on a “To read” shelf on my ereader. That way I always try before I buy and I remember what takes my fancy.

    My recommendation to increase your reading volume? Turn off the TV. Read it years before HBO ruins it.

  • Thanks for this article.
    I found it really useful in helping me get back into reading – not just for personal pleasure but also for uni and work. Keeping track of these things (retaining themes, concepts, etc) using trello is a good idea, and the suggestions in the comments section is something I’d def look into as well.

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