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3 Steps to Reading Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger

Speed-reading-vs-slow-readingAccording to a much-discussed survey, the average American adult reads about four books a year. It’s a depressingly low figure – and also one that I don’t attach much weight to – but I’ve always enjoyed that it makes me look really impressive. I read roughly 80 books a year. I always thought that was a pretty big number and I was proud of it.

That was until a few days ago, when I read an article by BookRiot’s own Liberty Hardy about her fascinating book-people-matching service. In the article, she casually mentions that she reads 200-300 books a year.

Cripes. What. I can’t even…

The odds of me ever managing to read that much are pretty slim, unless I find a way to stick my index finger on a book and absorb its contents, like Mork with a glass of orange juice. But I have recently been thinking about ways of accelerating my own reading nonetheless, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to share them.

(None of this is about speed-reading, by the way. I like the idea of speed reading, but I think skimming through books like that is kind of the pits.)

Don’t Do All Your Reading in Bed

LIFEHACK: Don't do all your reading in an airplane cockpit either.
LIFEHACK: Don’t do all your reading in an airplane cockpit either.

The thing about reading in bed is it’s really comfy. You’ve got a blanket, you’re stretched out, some tea that you can dribble all over yourself and your pillow (if you’re me), and some cats trying to lie on your book. It seems pretty nice!

The problem is, it’s also where you sleep, and your sleeping-in-bed time probably outnumbers your reading-in-bed time. This means that when you’re stretched out with a book, your body isn’t focusing on reading, it’s focusing on shutting things down and dozing off. If you do a lot of your reading before bed, it becomes a sort of trigger to relax you and help you get to sleep. That’s good for sleeping, I guess, but it’s lousy for your reading.

If you want to read for an hour without nodding off, go sit in a chair. Put a chair next to the bed, perhaps, or go out into the living room. This helps you make a clear boundary between wanting to get a big piece of reading done, or just wanting to flip some pages before dozing off. Both are okay, but knowing which is which can help you get more reading done.

Find Your Best Format

When I was a kid and teenager, I think 99% of the books I read were in mass-market paperback format. Hardcovers were too expensive, and trade-paperback wasn’t a prevalent form in the areas I was reading.

These days, I’ve realized that although hardcover might be my preferred format, my best format is the trade paperback. It’s the size and shape I find most comfortable. I haven’t bought a mass-market book in ages. Trade paperback hits the sweet spot for me and realizing that has helped my reading speed.

What’s also changed is, there are ebooks now. I’m not a huge ebook fan (although my find myself reading them more and more, to my surprise), but one of the huge advantage to ebooks is that you can change the type size, the font, the margins, the spacing between the lines. That is such an incredibly useful feature. Experiment with it! I only recently began playing with it and was surprised at what a huge difference it can make. (It can help with different types of books, too. A fast-paced thriller, made of lots of dialog and short, punchy sentences? Make it smaller, get more on a page. A very dense science book or a work of classic literature you find challenging? Make it much bigger. It can make it easier to get in, when there’s less to deal with.)

Carve Out Your Reading Time, Then Protect It

Please note that when I say CARVE, I mean METAPHORICALLY.
Please note that when I say CARVE, I mean METAPHORICALLY.

Reading is an active medium, whereas something like watching television is a passive medium. This says nothing about the intelligence of either form, mind (I’m too busy being blown away by the quality of Breaking Bad to rip on TV right now). With film, you can unfocus your eyes or stare at your phone and the content continues to happen. With reading, if you stop processing the meaning of the words, the story stops happening.

What this means is, how we consider time is very different with active and passive mediums…and this can be to your advantage when you’re aware of it.

The other day, I sat down intending to re-watch that masterpiece of a film, True Grit (the new one, with Jeff Bridges). But instead of turning it on, I decided to spend the 110 minutes sitting quietly and reading.

It’s amazing how much reading you can get done in about two hours…or even an hour.

Whenever I mention this, people point out they just don’t have time to do nothing but sit and read for an hour. But look…if you have time to watch Doctor Who, My Little Pony, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, or whatever, you’ve got the time for reading. You are just either choosing not to use it, or are unaware that you can carve it out and use it for a book. Read for one hour. See how much you get done.

You also need to protect that time. This doesn’t have to be that strict, but be defensive. Don’t google stuff, don’t check twitter, don’t wander off to pair your socks (Restrain yourself, you animal). You can do all of that in sixty minutes. Just sit and focus and read for an hour.

So, these are a few tips. They’re pretty basic and easy, and what they all have in common is, they treat reading faster like something you should be proactive in doing…and that’s really all it is. Make reading a focused activity, like running or cooking or sex (I hope) and I bet you’ll get faster.

We’ll still all die with more books unread than read, but what the hell, maybe we can make a dent.

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About Peter Damien

Peter Damien writes and publishes a lot of short stories and a lot of articles. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and two boys, and his house is made almost completely out of books at this point. He nervously suspects he would be the first to go in a slasher movie. You can find him on twitter @PeterDamien.