How to read a lot of books

This post was republished on Lifehacker

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.

My Evernote

A screenshot of a few lines from my Evernote list

I have a two pronged solution for this:

1. Evernote

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 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.”

My Books Trello board

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 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:

My notes from the last book I read "Fooled By Randomness"

My notes from the last book I read “Fooled By Randomness”

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?

12 Jun 2013, 6:08pm | 78 comments

  • Guest

    Your lasts couple of posts have really resonated with me. I also use Evernote and Pinboard to manage my list of books. Just yesterday I moved all of my “Book” bookmarks in Pinboard to my list in Evernote. It is way too big, so I was wondering how I could go about prioritizing the list based on how excited I am to read the book.

    I think there’s room for a web app here. I might get started on one. If nothing else, I want it for myself. Let me know if you want to brainstorm some ideas.

    • Robert Picard

      This comment was me. I accidentally clicked the delete icon in Disqus. Note to developers: Use the word “Delete” for delete buttons. Icons aren’t clear enough.

    • Louie Dinh

      I’ve thought about building a webapp to mange book lists as well. However, I feel like everybody has their own specific needs and preferences. For instance, I email myself any new books I want to read, and then once every few months I enter them all into Org Mode (Emacs) where my master list lives.

      Ping me if you’re starting one and need feedback though =] Don’t let my naysaying stop you.

      • DanShipper

        I agree we all have our specific processes – but they all have some kind of common thread. Would be cool to see this solved in a way that’s not piecemeal / using 4 different applications to accomplish one task

    • DanShipper

      That makes me happy to hear.

      There’s definitely room for a web app. I think Trello is nice because it’s 95% of what I want without having to use another application specifically tailored for it – but I would definitely try one.

      Ideally the app would also have a way to save notes about the books once I read them. I’ve been thinking of building something similar as a side project but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Happy to give feedback / be a beta user if you start to build it. Just let me know!

  • Gustavo Freitas

    Those are really good practices. I use Evernote for annotations and page markers, since writing them down (I know it’s good for handwriting purpose) makes me forget them all.
    For my “read list” (books I intend to read) I keep them in Amazon’s wishlist.
    I bought a Kindle recently, so I’m using it for bookmarking and parts highlight.

    • DanShipper

      Yea I like the highlighting features of the Kindle, but can’t bring myself to take notes on it. Maybe I’ll switch to using Evernote for annotations – but there’s something about writing by hand that seems more convenient/nicer to me.

      • Gustavo Freitas

        Particularly I like to take “writing notes”, but I found myself never reading them. That’s the only reason I decided to change this. I’m going to try Trello for this purpose. I’ve being using Trello for task management and reading a book, definitely fits well in a task =)

        • DanShipper

          Yes I find the same thing – been thinking about ways to have old notes “pop” up to refresh my memory. Or scheduling time to go back through them. But I don’t have any good ideas yet

          • Aaron W.

            @DanShipper:disqus, you may want to try out spaced repetition software. My favorite is AnkiSRS:

            It allows you to create flash cards for later review, which is governed by an algorithm that predicts when you’re “about to forget” the information (this is the space repetition part). The psychology behind this is fascinating and there is loads of evidence that it works for enhancing retainment.

            I currently use it for learning vocabulary and coding, but I’ve toyed around with including bits that I pick up from books. There are a lot of ways you could potentially do this!

          • Graham Schmidt

            i highly agree with using anki. it’s taken my retention to a whole new level

          • DanShipper

            I actually downloaded it to my computer last week but I’m trying to figure out how to use it for books. Do you have suggestions?

          • Graham Schmidt

            I user it to grok technical books. I’ll usually write on a scrap piece of paper the important parts I want to remember, and then input those into Anki. You can also just input directly if you’re near a device.

            What’s awesome is the syncing feature that comes with the mobile app. I can review cards when I’m on the subway (offline) and still retain knowledge nuggets that I’d most likely forget weeks/months later.

          • DanShipper

            Yea I write down important bits too. The hard part is formulating the question and answer style for the notecards. But I’m trying a few different things

          • Aaron W.

            It’s hard, but it plays a big role in helping you recall the knowledge better. Good luck!

          • DanShipper

            I actually downloaded it to my computer last week but I’m trying to figure out how to use it for books. Do you guys have suggestions? @GrahamSchmidt

          • Aaron W.

            There are two ways that I’ve thought of thus far, and I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t:

            1. Use quotes as the front of the flash card, and put the author, book, and page number on the back. Pretty simplistic, and doesn’t go beyond rote memorization. But maybe some prompt you to go back to the book and your notes.
            2. Use quotes as the front of the flash card, and put your interpretation of it on the back. Much more work, but more flexible and valuable. You could try to recall the notes you made on the passage, or the other books it connects to, or anything really.

          • Aaron W.

            Also, here’s the best article I’ve seen about using Anki. It’s by a software engineer, but as one you can probably understand it well enough make some parallels to learning from books.


      • kreighwilliams

        I have got in the habit of reading most books on a kindle, highlighting passages I find interesting and tweeting them to my evernote. It works really well and is a great way to keep track of the things that interest me. Then for each book I read I just throw all my tweets/highlights into a folder.

  • @RayWu

    Dan, excellent. I keep everything on Google Spreadsheet. I create a new sheet each year and migrate the titles I didn’t get to to the new sheet. This way I can see the progression (and history).

    Retaining what I learned was the harder part as I read everything on tablets. I tried jotting down notes, but ended up never going back to it.

    • DanShipper

      Oh wow that’s cool. How long have you been doing that? It must be pretty interesting to see the progression.

      • @RayWu

        Since 2009/2010, originally on one email chain. 2011-13 are on a spreadsheet. My observations: I read similar genre year over year. Here: (would love to see other people’s progressions, too)

        • DanShipper

          thanks for sharing, that was really cool to look through

  • Rebecca Thorman

    You could also just take a picture of your handwritten notes and store that in Evernote via their app. That’s one of my favorite things about Evernote, not having to type, when I feel like writing with a pen and paper.

    • DanShipper

      I should really do that. Does Evernote’s text recognition work with handwriting? Also can you really read the notes well with an iPhone picture?

      • Rebecca Thorman

        Yep. It’s pretty good. If your handwriting gets too messy, it doesn’t work, but then, I can’t read my messy handwriting either. And you can always title the note with search terms. You can read the notes just fine – you can take a normal photo or use their special documents setting (like a scanner) – both are available within the Evernote app.

        • Gordon Bowman

          Does Evernote’s text recognition work well enough to search through those main themes? That’s the main reason I write out my book notes in google docs, so that I can easily search them.

          • Nils Davis

            If you’re going to type them in anyway, first take the picture and put it into Evernote, then transcribe it into the same note in Evernote – then you have both forms, in a mobile form factor that’s searchable. I do that all the time.

      • Rob Maguire

        If you have a scanner (I use the wonderful Doxie), you could scan the pages as well. Unfortunately, if your handwriting is as atrocious as mine is, Evernote won’t have a clue what you’re writing. It works wonders for my penmanship-perfect partner, however!

        • DanShipper

          Yep I have that problem πŸ™

      • Ravi Mikkelsen

        Another option would be the LIveScribe pens which automatically feed into your Evernote account.

  • sgerstenzang

    I’m curious why you feel like you have to finish every book you start. I used to have a kind of reader’s guilt that drove me to to do this too– then I realized that some books simply weren’t very good or had information that I didn’t care about. Now, at least for non-fiction, I ruthlessly skim and cut. I find many books that are 300 pages really could be about 100… Of course, there are many worthy exceptions.

    • DanShipper

      I try to pick only books that I know are good enough to finish. There are a few books that I haven’t been able to get through – but as a rule, if it’s good, I want to read it start to finish. Otherwise it’s too easy for me to get distracted and start something else

      • sgerstenzang

        I think you must be better at choosing good books (or have more patience) than I do πŸ™‚ I find many very good books to be poorly edited. I “finish” each book I start, but I might skip a page or section here depending on relevance. I’ve found this gives me far more time to read what I want. Of course, this does not apply to fiction or some very linear non-fiction. And some books are just too good and well-edited to skip anything at all.

  • Michelle Pfennighaus, CHC

    I once heard, Life is too short to finish a book you don’t like πŸ™‚

  • Ryan Hoover

    Great idea to use Trello to manage your backlog. πŸ™‚

    I’ve considered using this for my owner personal to-do list. Sticky notes are great but a little unwieldy.

    • DanShipper

      I use Trello for my todo list as well. I just have a “Daily Planner” board where I set up tasks in different categories.

  • Gordon Bowman

    Great idea w/ Trello. I just use Amazon’s wish list but I’ve found it to be too unwieldy. I end up adding too many books to it and then have to sort through to prioritize.

    Any strategies to read faster? That’s what I’m working on lately. How can I read more while not losing anything on the retention side.

    • DanShipper

      1. Point at where you’re reading with your finger tip and try to follow along at the speed that you’re moving your finger
      2. Time yourself as you read and figure out how long it takes you to read a page
      3. Slowly increase your reading speed by moving your finger faster

      Rinse and repeat.

  • Heath Rost

    Great post Dan. I have a similar method for maintaining the list of books I “want to read” vs the ones I have immediately on deck. I used to have a bookmarked folder containing links to the book via Amazon and the person who recommended it. I soon switched to going straight to iTunes to purchase a “Sample” of the book. That way it stays fresh in my head as I see it in my iPad library.

    I found I was writing down too many books I and putting them in the “backlog” pile–so now I only had a book to my One list I maintain–and thats as Samples from iTunes. I only add it after I’ve received recommendations for the particular book 2 or 3 times. Its seemed to work great for me! Keeping track of my reading via a resources page has helped me immensely as well (sorry for linking but I think you’ll gain something from this)

    Btw, your post gave me a killer idea.. so-thanks πŸ™‚

    • DanShipper

      Glad you liked it! Thanks for sharing.

  • Sudhir K

    Good article with useful tips. I also found it useful to highlight and write on the margins. Recently I got gel highlighters, which do not bleed on even cheap quality paper. Usually, if I read from a library book, retention rate is too low for me since I don’t get to highlight/note on that. I hardly refer back to those notes/highlights but the simple act of doing this helps me remember, as you rightly pointed out. For fiction books, though, I simply read.

    • DanShipper

      I’ve been trying to do periodic reviews because I think it helps with retention. I use Flare pens for highlighting – generally red. They work nicely but they do bleed.

  • Adnan Siddiqi

    Long time back I made an iPhone app: Snapmarks ( which is used for offline bookmarking. Sadly it is not active right now on Appstore due to expiration.

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  • Earle MV

    I use Goodreads, great for keeping track and getting recommendations, surprised no one mentions it here.

    • Aaron W.

      I second this recommendation; it’s especially great for recording what you’ve read. You can even update your status in a book (e.g., “I’m on page 56 of 189”), which results in a nice data set showing how you progress through different books over time. You can write a review (that you build from your awesome note-taking system!) which gets them all in one place and accessible to your friends and other users.

      • DanShipper

        interesting. I’ll have to think about this. That’s something I really want.

    • aboer

      me too. End of the day, keeping track of the things I want to read isn’t a core problem. Finding time to read them is.

  • Pulkit Agrawal

    I have a Google Doc with all the books anyone ever recommends listed with the person who recommended them so I can get a sense of how much I value those suggestions. I know use a Kindle and so highlight sections as I read which I can then come back and review afterwards. I also write a synopsis of what I got out of the book in a blog

    • DanShipper

      Do you think you remember the books that you write a synopsis for better than the ones you don’t? Do you periodically go back and look at your synposis’s?

      • Pulkit Agrawal

        At the minimum it helps me consolidate my views and structure my opinion on the book.. At times I’ve reviewed my writing but that’s mainly after a trigger (e.g. someone asks about the book or I’m discussing a related topic etc.).. so I definitely consider it a useful exercise and valuable archive

        • DanShipper

          Gotcha. Thanks for sharing man.

  • Sam Joslin

    Good article. Most of my experience is In the dead-tree world, but I agree that reading a lot of books doesn’t have to be all that difficult, especially if you have a coffee table at either end of the sofa. Here’s the process: 1) You borrow or buy books, and then 2) You lie down with a stack of books behind your head, and 3) Keep your eyes open, turn the pages and end with a stack of books by your feet. Note: As far as retention goes, I follow a simple rule: Don’t give away books.

    • DanShipper

      Yea I HATE giving books to people. You never get them back, or you don’t get them back in the same condition you gave them away…

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  • Ravi Mikkelsen

    I’m definitely a multi-book at once reader and I too find this annoying sometimes. But its usually 1 fiction and a few non-fiction and magazines. The fiction book helps to break up the monotony I find.

    • DanShipper

      Yea that can work. If you use a book as a breather from what you’re reading instead of as a competing source of information I think it can be helpful.

  • nipulpatel

    For physical books — I take your paper idea, but do it on the 1-2 blank pages at the end of the book.

    On my kindle — it’s pretty simple to review your old highlights and notes. As well as most highlighted sections by other readers, which is kind of cool.

    • DanShipper

      Interesting. The blank pages is a good idea since they can’t get lost. The nice thing about the paper method is that it doubles as a bookmark.

  • Primoz Bozic

    Hey there!

    Thanks for the article, great stuff!

    If you want to read a lot of books, I would also recommend reading the book “Breakthrough Rapid Reading” by Peter Kump :). It has helped me increase my reading speed and comprehension immensely!

    There are some other things you can do in order to read more books:
    1. Read on the toilet
    2. Read on the bus/train
    3. Always carry a book with you and read it while you’re waiting for a friend/doctor appointment

    4. Make a habit out of reading a book for 15-30min daily before going to sleep
    5. Audiobooks!

    There’s also an article I wrote on WHY it’s so awesome to read books in case anyone’s interested :).


    • DanShipper

      Thanks for sharing! I do almost all of the above except for number 1. I’ll have to read Breakthrough Rapid Reading, though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read faster without my comprehension going down. I read about 1 page a minute, how about you?

  • Eduardo

    I use dragdis ( ). I just need to drag and drop. Sometimes I just save the cover of the book, if it is a list of books I just save the entire web page, if it is text you can highlight and save it as well, pretty useful extension. When I need something new to read I just go back and look at what I have saved. But from now on, I will start using trello to organize it all. Would you mind sharing with us a list of your personal favorites?

    • DanShipper

      I tried Dragdis but ultimately stopped using it in favor of Pinboard and Evernote web clipper.

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  • Ricardo Bueno

    I like a good old fashioned, hard cover book. But lately, I find myself buying books on Kindle for the simple reason that I can highlight something, then later, access my Kindle highlights online without having to flip through all of the pages of the book, or even go looking for the book in the first place.

    I’ll still buy a hardcover or softcover version of a book I really like, but I’m really finding this a much simpler way to read, highlight and revisit notes.

  • Nathan Zaru

    I take notes in the book. Then I draw a small circle at the top corner of every page with a note or important passage/quote. Once I finish the books I type up all important notes in Evernote (finding them is easy because all I have to do is look for pages with cirlces).

  • bbfbbf

    – To-Buy List: Amazon wishlist. Sorted via folders: Read Next, Topic A, Topic B. I go to the topic I’m interested in, and move a few to the “Read Next” folder.

    – Notes: I highlight/circle with a fluorescent pink highlighter right on the pages.

    – Retention: I flip through the book, looking for the pink. I transfer/copy the info in point form to a “Knowledge Chest” Google document. Topics are like chapters of my book, with each chapter being a list of bullets (with multiple indents if required).

    Even though I kept the books, I found myself never going back to them. So this way I extract all the useful info from the books and dump it all into the google doc and never have to go back to the physical book. The doc is in point form so it’s easy to review periodically and from anywhere.

    I do not sort the info by book. I read multiple books on the same topic so I don’t care which book the info comes from. My goal is to suck all the most important / impactful info from each book, then compile the knowledge in one easy-to-get-to place, organized by topic. This way I only review the topic I’m interested it at that moment.

    Keeping notes in Evernote / on paper / flash cards is too disjointed and cumbersome. Can’t beat a bullet list for simplicity and ease of absorption.

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  • Kirill

    Actually, some people say that there is going to be about 5 books that will make a difference in your life. So maybe quality of reading is more important than quantity. It is important to have relationship with books that you’ve read, so that they have something to say on your life situations.

    • Kirill

      I also noticed that certain books don’t let you have relationships with them until you grow up to them. And others part your ways with you once you grow out of them.

  • Evelyne

    I think your system with a folded paper sheet is very interesting. Is there any particular reason to fold that sheet in 4 (ex.: have 4 different subject aereas)?

    • Daniel Chang

      methinks it may be the perfect size for a bookmark

  • Alex

    Great article. I noticed your last book. If you are into the world of uncertainty/probablity as a predictor, I’d highly recommend “Signal and the Noise” by Nat Silver. It serves as a historical account of the usage of statistical analysis, so is very readable. No academic or technical. some incredible facts and thought bombs.

    Also as a guy who ponders why constantly I’ve been using an incredible book as my “life reference” lately. Marcus Aurealius’ “Meditations” – trying to live like a 2nd century emperor who struggled with our same problems, epic times. A guide to being a gentlemen if anything at all.

    • DanShipper

      Thanks! SN has been on my list for a long a time. Hopefully will get a chance to get through it soon.

      I love Marcus Aurelius πŸ™‚

  • Mathias Verraes

    I’m continuously updating a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago, where I collect my own little tricks to read more books:

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