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How to read a lot of books
Last year I read 90 books. That’s the most I’ve ever read in a single year. I set a goal of 52 books every year, but for the past few years, I’ve read at least 80 books. If you’re curious about ways to read more, I’ve outlined 5 economic principles that help me reach my goal each year.
A little background info…
I remember being an avid reader as a kid, but my love of reading sort of fizzled as I got into middle school when reading became required. I don’t recall enjoying most of the books that were assigned so I insisted on not reading at all. I took that mindset into college and didn’t read unless it was assigned for class.
I started reading casually again in 2012 because I was getting burned out from graduate school. I thought some good fiction would help break up the monotony of school. I found Goodreads and set a reading challenge of 12 books for the year. I figured that 1 book per month would be attainable. I finished the year with 19 books. I was pumped! Each year the goal increased until I finally felt comfortable setting a goal of 52 books each year.
The following are some of the ways I manage 52 books per year, but I also think they can help you start reading more each year, too. I’ve matched them with an economic principle since everything is about economics, even reading books! If you know someone who has wanted to read more, share this with them:
Principle #1: Scarcity & Opportunity Cost
Let me guess. You want to read more, but don’t have the time. I don’t think you’re being completely honest with yourself. You probably wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t believe you could do it. You’ve prioritized other activities ahead of reading, and that’s okay! Our lives are full of unlimited wants, but our time is scarce. We all make decisions about how we spend our time, and you’ve chosen to do other things instead: working out, watching Netflix, or gardening.
You can read more, but you’ll have to give something up. I don’t work out and I don’t garden, but on most days I do spend about 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening reading. I’m not a fast reader, but I can usually read about 20-25 pages in each of those time blocks. That means I finish about 40-50 pages every day. Multiply that by 7 days and I read 280–350 pages each week. That’s roughly 1 book per week. The way I get to 80+ books is by spending a little more time on the weekends reading.
But maybe you’re not trying to get to 52 books (yet) and just want to read more than you were before. If your goal is to read 26 books then you just need to find about 30 minutes every day. Can you split that in half and do 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night? I think you can!
If you’ve convinced yourself that you still don’t have time to read, even for a total of 30 minutes each day, perhaps you need some more important people to motivate you? President Obama shared hundreds of books every year while he was in office and Bill Gates has released his reading list every year since 2012. Both are highlighting their favorite books from the year, but they likely read some that they didn’t love. I don’t think there are very many people out there who are busier than a sitting US president and a global business leader.
Principle #2: Diminishing Returns
Now that you’ve allocated some time to read each day, how do you ensure that you don’t burn out? If you’re going to read every single day, it’s important to get the most out of your allocated time. We need to fight the concept of diminishing returns: the moment when each additional hour you do something is less productive than the hour before it.
I’m REALLY good at starting books, but I can sometimes get tired in the middle of a story that slows down. Once I get toward the end, I have more motivation to finish the book. I used to read only 1 book at a time. Once I set a goal of 52 books, I started actively reading at least 2–3 books at a time in any given week. This is my method of fighting diminishing returns.
I may read a bit of one book in the morning and a bit of a different book at night. Depending on where I’m drinking my morning coffee, the morning book isn’t even the same book each morning. This helps me overcome diminishing returns because each time I come back to read is a different story for that time of day. If the book that I’m reading is really good then I’m even more excited to come back later.
You may be worried you’ll mix the stories up and won’t remember what’s happening in each book. This isn’t really all that different from watching 2–3 television shows in any given week. Once you start back on the next episode, you usually remember what happened the week before. The same works for books.
Principle #3: Product Differentiation
I am of the mindset that audiobooks count as books. While I personally stopped listening to audiobooks a couple of years ago, I don’t discount anyone else’s reading list if they chose the audio version. I don’t really care if that’s a controversial take. You should read what (and how) you want! The biggest change for me over the past two years has been more ebooks. I used to hate them. I was convinced I didn’t need more screen time than I already had, but thankfully, digital books have gotten much easier for me to read.
Having multiple formats of a book (audio, digital, paper) means that you can squeeze in reading all day long. Do you walk the dogs in the morning? Download an audiobook from your local library to your phone! Leave a cheap paperback in your car to read while you’re waiting for your next appointment. Digital books are a great way to bring lots of reading material on vacation and save space in your luggage.
I keep physical books around the house in different rooms so that the stories I read will be tied to a different location. My bedtime book is on the nightstand next to my alarm clock. I keep other books near the couch and in the kitchen near the coffeepot. If you’re going on a trip, grab a book that’s set in the location of your journey. It makes reading all that more fun!
Principle #4: Marginal Analysis & Sunk Costs
My goal for the year has always been focused on “how much” I want to read, but each week I focus on “which book do I read next.” Marginal analysis means focusing on the costs & benefits of that next activity, not the ones from before. I keep a large stack of books that I would like to read eventually, and I will often read the first chapter just to see if that book is the next one.
But just because you read the first chapter doesn’t mean you need to read the whole book! I’ll often read the first chapter to gauge whether I think it’s worth inserting that book into the active lineup. If I’m not hooked in that first chapter then the book goes to the bottom of the stack and I’ll read the first chapter of another book. If the library recalls that book, oh well! There are other books in the stack as well.
Remember, your time is valuable! You only have so much time in a given year (525,600 minutes) and reading an entire book just because you started the first chapter or because the library has issued a recall notice is a poor decision if you’re not enjoying the book. It’s okay to quit books you don’t like or that aren’t captivating!
Principle #5: Incentives
I have set a Goodreads challenge every single year since I started in 2012. It’s not much of a true commitment device, but it does remind me that my friends will know if I don’t make it. I update my progress regularly on the site and the little progress bar is enough of a motivation for me to get to 52. Using Goodreads regularly also helps me connect with a community of other readers who share what they’re reading. It helps me figure out what books I might want to read next.
I also use incentives to keep reading on the weekends when it’s easier to get distracted. The 30-minute blocks on most days are the easier ones because they happen around the same time every day and are now part of my daily routine. On the weekends, when I have longer blocks of time that I can read, I need more motivation. To help me stay focused, I use the Pomodoro technique:
That’s all there is to it. I’ve always been a bit shy when introduced at conferences or seminars and one of the talking points is that I read 52 books per year. I don’t see the big deal, but I’ve also been doing it for a while now. I really think the two biggest things for me are reading those 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night. Everything else just helps keep me motivated during the year.
A couple of years ago I outsourced a reading list of popular economics books that other educators would recommend. I’m always looking for book recommendations, so please don’t hesitate to tell me some of your favorites from the past year. I love all sorts of things beyond economics!
23% of US adults say they have not read a book (in any format) in the past 12 months [Pew Research Center]
In 2019, Americans spent an average of 5.19 hours per day engaged in leisure and sports activities [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
Project Gutenberg has over 60,000 free digital books that are part of the public domain [Project Gutenberg]
Freakonomics has 780,031 ratings on Goodreads and has an average rating of 3.99/5 [Goodreads]
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has 8,252,913 ratings on Goodreads [Goodreads]
The median annual salary for librarians and library media specialists was $60,820 in May 2020 [Bureau of Labor Statistics]