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How to Read More (and Better) Books

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
3 min read

I love books. I just struggle with finding enough time to read all the good ones. I focus on non-fiction, because it's always stranger and more entertaining to me than fiction. I imagine this struggle is even worse for fiction lovers.

A good book, to me, distills years of knowledge and research into something clear, understandable and entertaining. It has no fluff. It teaches me something. It respects my time and attention.

Still, even with that criteria, there's just not enough time in my life to read all the good books I want. So, like any geek, I devised a system.

At its core, my system is just a set of 4 lists. You can put the lists in a text file, hand write them in a notebook or attach verbs and add them to your to-do app of choice.

Books to Evaluate

This is a long list of books recommended by friends, bloggers and other people I respect. These are the books you want to check out.

For most people this is where their list begins and ends. They keep meaning to check out all of these titles, so they end up checking out none.

It's overwhelming.

I make a promise to myself not to commit to reading any of these books. They are evaluated first. Here how:

  1. Check the library to see if they have a copy or can get one from a another library in their network. This covers 90% of the books on my list.
  2. When I get the book, I read the intro, skim the chapters and get an overall feel for the book.
  3. For the 10% I can't get through the library, and even for some I did get, I look on the web for reviews, summaries or interviews.
  4. I make a decision about whether this book is really worthy of my limited time and attention. Very few books pass this test. Questions may include: Is it clear? Is it as brief as possible or is it just one theory back by endless anecdotes? Is it just a business card in book form for a consultant who needs more clients? Do I like the writing itself or is it to technical, verbose or flowery? Would it be a good book to listen to as an Audible book or on CDs if the library has them (especially if the author is reading it and gets very passionate about his subject)?

Books to Check Out Again

This is a list of books that didn't make it through the full process above, because evaluating a stack of library books in a leisurely manner (not taking up valuable time - just when I have a few minutes or can't sleep) means some books have to go back to the library. I keep a list of the intriguing ones I don't want to forget. That doesn't mean they pass the test above. They just get another shot.

Books to Read

This is the important list. This is the 1% of books that passed the tests above and I'm committed to reading. This is maybe 1 book per month or less. That's about my capacity at the moment.

Books to Buy

If I've read the book and love it enough for it to occupy space on my shelves, it goes on this list. If it's purely for information, I'll get a used copy. If it's for art, I'll get the new version direct from the artist.

If I really love the author's point of view, and he's reading the Audible version, I'll get that first. In fact, some authors are so good at audiobooks, I buy them immediately without going through this whole process because it's a performance, not really a book. Then, I may buy the book as well, just to support the author or take notes.

Schedule It All

You need to have 30 minutes to an hour per week blocked off for library visits. Put books on hold ahead of time through your library's website so no time is wasted. Return the books that are due that week. Spend the saved time browsing the new books and finding more candidates for you evaluation list.

That's it. I get through way more high quality books per year this way than when I just plowed through a list of recommendations.