How I Read 63 Books in a Year Without Really Trying

Since 2013, I’ve made a goal every year to read 52 books. I’ve always struggled to hit the goal.

But in 2017, I not only hit the goal, I surpassed it. Without really trying.

It’s not like 2017 was a quiet year. I transitioned to a new job, refinanced my house…. oh, and had my first kid.

Here are the steps I took to drastically up my reading consumption without putting in a lot of extra effort:

Recognize that reading books is important

It sounds basic, but it’s important: You need to value reading before you can read a lot. Otherwise, you’ll just find ways not to.

This article isn’t about why reading is important, but let me give you the short version: Significant evidence links reading to improved mental health and happiness.

Non-fiction teaches you how to do stuff, how stuff works, and what happened. Fiction connects ideas and themes by engaging our innate desire for narrative. Both fiction and non-fiction are important for improving your thinking, and both can be a whole lot of fun.

To quote A Dance With Dragons: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”

Find your no-hands times, and fill them with audiobooks

The big breakthrough to my book count in 2017 actually came from trying to make the best of a bad situation: A new, long commute. I found myself stuck with 90-120 minutes a day by myself. No free fingers to poke devices.

I started listening to audiobooks. I realized how enriched and focused I felt when I did this. I figured out how to make the most of listening, and decided to do it all the time.

Then, I started finding other quiet times when I was “stuck” in one place with no free hands: cleaning dishes, holding a sleeping baby, folding laundry, riding a stationary bike at the gym, etc.

Of course, there’s no need to be zealous. Enjoy the quiet. Listen to Tchaikovsky. Talk to people. But make your default be listening to books.

(Semantic clarification: Yes, listening to audiobooks counts as “reading.” So call it reading. Treat the books as if you read them on paper or e-ink. My friend who’s a librarian says there are studies showing your brain processes print and narration the same way. I haven’t read the studies myself, but librarians never lie.)

Cut back on podcasts

Previously, I’d fill time by turning on podcasts. I had a half dozen weekly podcasts on rotation.

I’ve consciously decided to cut out podcasts. There’s so much great content out there, but I find better return on time investment when I listen to audiobooks.

Again, no need to get zealous. Some mornings I just want to listen to unscripted chatter. There are a few shows I need to keep up with. But listening time is scarce and precious, so I defer to books.

Turn up the speed

Every audiobook app I use has the ability to listen to books at higher speeds than they were recorded. I highly recommend you take advantage of this.

I typically go for 1.75x. Sometimes I’ll bump down to 1.5x or up to 2.0x. I’ve experimented 2.5x. (Not for rookies.)

You get through books so much faster. A 14-hour book suddenly becomes 7 hours — less than a week’s worth of commutes!

This takes some getting used to. Brains aren’t used to hearing voices at that speed. Ease yourself in: Start with 1.25x, then try 1.5x, then 1.75x. Once you’re used to it, anything slower than 1.5x will sound the DMV in Zootopia.

Find your sources

It shouldn’t be hard for you to get a book to listen to. I recommend three sources, and regularly use the app for each:

  • Overdrive/Libby: My public library lets me borrow audiobooks for free. Yours probably does too. Overdrive (often via the Libby app) is the most popular provider, and takes two minutes to set up if you have a library card. The selection isn’t outstanding, so it’s better to approach Overdrive when you are open-minded about selection. I typically browse currently available books, sorted by popularity. Overdrive is not great for when you have specific books in mind. For those must-reads, I suggest…
  • Audible: They make it super easy to find, buy, and listen to audiobooks. Their selection is the best in the world. They even have the incredible “Whispersync” feature, which my wife adores: Your audiobook and Kindle book will stay in sync as you read and listen. Of course, there is a catch: It ain’t cheap. $15 / month gets you one book credit. I go for $23 / month for two credits. (Rates are lower if you pre-pay for the year. You can buy extra credits, and you can save credits you don’t use.) To me, the value of Audible surpasses its price.
  • Librivox: Public domain recordings of public domain books. These are almost all classics of fiction made by amateur enthusiasts. As such, the quality is hit-or-miss. But it’s free and gets the job done for classics.

Pick the right type of books for listening

Now that I’ve listened to 75 or so audiobooks since I started my commute, I have an approximate hierarchy, in descending order, of which types of books make good high-speed commute listens:

  • Fiction: Full cast recordings (like The Golden Compass)
  • Anything read by its author (like Brain Rules)
  • Non-Fiction: Idea books (like Freakonomics)
  • Non-Fiction: History books (like Alexander Hamilton)
  • Fiction: Plot-heavy books (like Senlin Ascends)
  • Fiction: Internal monologue-heavy books (like Go Tell It on the Mountain)
  • Fiction: Dialogue-heavy books (like Eleanor and Park)
  • Non-Fiction: How-to books (like Clean Code)

This ranking should be pretty intuitive, but here’s a summary: Books with full casts or the author’s voice have a ton of personality. Non-fiction books that break down easily into main ideas and key events work great for sped-up listening. Fiction can be spottier, but if there’s less need for voice (especially multiple distinct voices), the hit rate is higher. And anything with code, diagrams, or step-by-step instructions are usually a tough fit.

Accept that you’ll miss some details and sensory delight

It’s so easy to zone out for a few seconds here or there when listening. I try not to rewind: Few books lose much value if you skip a few sentences. This makes it much easier to power through audiobooks.

It also represents a philosophical shift to book-reading: indiscriminate and consumptive. The more ideas and concepts and stories you engage with, the better.

Sure, pick some to savor. Slow them down to 1x. Heck, by the hardcover. But for the majority, use your hands-free time to tear through them like it’s 2 PM at Chipotle and you skipped breakfast. This is your nourishment, and it’s delicious.

Think about what you read. Talk about it. (Log it, too.)

Books are about engaging with ideas, information, and stories. They’re about learning (even when it doesn’t feel like it). Share these things with your peers and loved ones. Think about what you valued out of what you read and what you didn’t.

I also suggest using Goodreads to track what you read and when. This is how I know how many books I’ve read each year. I also write brief reactions to most of the books I read, and often add on a star-rating out of five.

But that’s optional. If it feels like overhead, skip it. The rating and counting aren’t the point. The ideas and stories are.

Don’t give up your regular reading time!

All of this is a supplement to my “regular” reading time. You know: glass of wine in a recliner; in bed as you doze off; when you want to teach yourself something. About 12 of my 63 books were not audiobooks.

It’s also okay if you don’t have much time to do that. As long as you have fairly regular hands-free time, you can still get through plenty of books.

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