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 (like Strand in New York, or Pyramid Books in Princeton) 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.
If your goal is to read a lot – like mine is – there are a few obstacles to overcome:
1. Keeping track of the books you want to read
2. Refining the list down to ones you’re going to read in the near feature
3. Actually reading them
4. 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:
I have one Evernote note (started in 2010) with almost every book that has caught my eye in the last 3 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 Pinboard.in 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.
How do you cull things down?
Refining the list
To refine my list I use Trello. For example, when this summer began 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 categorize them into two lists: “To Read” and “Backlog.”
“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 summer. 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:
1. It keeps everything much more organized than Evernote
2. It allows you keep track of what you want to read, what you’re reading, and what you’ve already read in a pleasing way
3. 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 5 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
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 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.
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?