Six pieces of reading advice, with some notes on how I read

Wondering how you’ll ever get through your stack of unread books? My reading advice might help, when paired with your effort. Photo mine.

Read for yourself.

My reading list was once described as “a brutal course of veggies, being shoved down a kid’s throat.” I get it. My list mostly contains classics, and philosophy. Of the maybe 200+ books listed, you’d find many on “Great Books” lists.

But the thing is, I do enjoy Plato, and Dostoevsky, and Descartes, and Epictetus, and Proust, and Molière. They’re on my reading list because I want them to be there. That’s it. I don’t really look for other reasons, nor need them.

To be fair, people tell me to read a lot of things. As my friends on Instagram can attest, I love getting book recommendations. But there have been times when a person told me to read a book, but I knew that the genre, or style, wasn’t for me, or I just wasn’t interested, so I said no.

I’ll say it as much as I have to: read for yourself.

Your reading list should be about what tickles you. About what you actually care for. Don’t add Spinoza if his philosophical approach gives you hives, even if he’s a healthy addition.

In this, obey Gary Vaynerchuk: self-awareness is king.

It’ll take as long as it takes.

Readers like to compete. This is an inexorable fact, as true as the age of the Earth.

You get any group of readers together, and they’re going to compare times and achievements, the way normal people talk sports scores. One goes, “This is going to be my 34th book this year.” And another says, “Oh, this is #92 for me.” And they’ve got that trying-not-to-be-smug look on their face.

And then you have that poor schmuck in the corner, who’s internally going, “Fuck me, it takes me four hours to read a single essay, not even a full book.”

If you’re that poor schmuck, and trust me, we’ve all been that poor schmuck, remember this: it takes as long as it takes.

Who gives a shit if Person X can read a 300-page book in 3 hours? That person’s not you, their life shouldn’t concern you. Read at your pace, and sometimes, let the book dictate the time needed.

Yeah, I can blow through a normal-sized book in a day, but even so, Les Misérables took me an entire month. And I didn’t care that people were finishing 3 or 4 books, in the time it was taking me to finish one.

To me, it took as long as it took. End of story.

Quit, if the book’s really not doing it for you.

People can be such masochists.

They’ll slog through a book they hate, in the name of some woo-woo rule that you can’t quit a book, once you’ve started. PSA here—you are not, in fact, chained to the book you’re currently reading. Free will’s a thing, you know.

Admit it. Within the first 60 pages, you’re likely gonna know if the book’s hitting you right, or leaving you frigid. If it’s not doing it for you, quit. It’s not a war crime.

A caveat, though—you can quit, but make a good faith effort first.

Me, I quit books a lot. But I do a diagnostic of sorts, before I say goodbye.

Some examples: am I just not getting the book because I’m too tired? In that case, I rest, or drink water, and try again another time. Or, do I not like the book simply because the author opposes my views, and I’m not used to the dissent? If I know the book’s written conscientiously—it’s not, like, full of lies or anything—and my hurt only comes from the differing opinion, I try to keep going. After all, if you only entertain books that already confirm your views, you won’t grow.

(But hey, some books aren’t worth entertaining. I’d never read a “the Earth is flat!” book. The Earth is not goddamn flat, and your dissenting opinion can die in a ditch.)

So yeah, quit books. But really, really, really try to read them first.

A quick case study: Crime and Punishment.

Early in 2019, I started reading Crime and Punishment. For some reason, I just couldn’t get past the first 50 pages. Page 50 was like some Korean DMZ border wall. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get through. I bonded well enough to Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky’s ideas were interesting, even at the start. And I had no problem with the translation, which was tens across the board. And it wasn’t like I couldn’t handle C&P—I’d finished Les Misérables. That was much harder.

So why couldn’t I get past 50 pages?

I did my usual checks: was I too tired, was it dissenting, did I just not understand it? I tried all my usual solutions too, and nope. Crickets.

By the end of Failed Try #4, I thought, “Fuck, I really am going to quit this book. I’m going to quit Crime and Punishment.” You have to understand, I’d given it four tries already. Four attempts were enough, no? But even in that muck of hopelessness, for some reason, I summoned a last burst of energy. I said, “In good conscience, I’ll try one last time, next week. If that doesn’t work, fuck it. Forever count me among the philistines who haven’t read this book.”

Luckily, fifth time was the charm.

Like I said, you can quit. But you never know.

Maybe you just need a few tries. Find the right chink in the book’s wall, and that wall might just crumble.

The only way to read regularly is to make it part of your schedule.

People always ask me how I read so much, and they deflate like pricked balloons, every time I answer. I say, “Oh, I set aside 1-2 hours daily, and read. That’s it. Just day in, and day out.”

Without fail, by the end of my answer, their faces freeze, like they’ve gotten a shot of botox. Scratch that. Not botox—formaldehyde. Just like fucking corpses.

My answer’s not sexy, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The only way to read regularly is to make it a part of your life.

Here you might say, “Yeah, but I can just binge-read. I’ll take a day, and blast through, I don’t know, three books.” Sure. Let’s see how that pans out for you. If you make it happen, congrats. I don’t mind being proven wrong. But for the vast majority, binge reading will never achieve much.

After all, you say you’re going to take a day, but let’s be real—when’s the last time you had a full, free day? Look at me, I seem the ideal person for binge-reads: I’m 23, single, no kids, have my own room, and my own office space. I’m wonderfully unencumbered. But even for me, free days don’t just fall down from the sky. They’re most assuredly not like cartoon anvils.

The solution, then, is inescapable: make the time.

And no one’s saying you have to set aside 2 hours a day. I do that amount, but my life is centered around writing and reading. I do it for a living.

For most people, I’d say 30 minutes a day is a good start. 15 minutes can work, but you’ll be too pressed for time. Go for a half-hour. Work up from there.

Fuck up your book, don’t just read it.

My niece, Chermelle, would slap me in the face if she read this part.

Okay, wait—she wouldn’t really have the guts to slap me, but I see how it kills her inside, when she sees me dog-ear my books, and write in them, and sometimes, tear the pages, because I’ve been reading so much. In that case, out comes the scotch tape, along with my regrettable inability to tape in straight lines.

I’m sure it all gives her heart palpitations.

I’m sorry about those, but I stand by my advice.

What I mean by “fuck up your book” is this: do things with it. Engage. Don’t just let the words fall down on you like rain, which you’ll later pat away with a towel.

Frankly, I don’t care for those who advise that books shouldn’t be defaced. They’re books, not UNESCO heritage sites. If it’s a library book, fine, don’t write in it. It’s public property, and don’t be a dick. But if you’ve bought the book, one of the beauties of capitalism—not that it has many—is that now you own it, and can do what you want with it. So, do things!

For myself, if I’m reading a paper book, I’ll dog-ear, and annotate to my heart’s content. I don’t highlight very much in a paper book: I’m more of the take-notes type. My marginalia can go overboard at times, but who cares?

A photo of my marginalia.
Some of my marginalia for the short story “Crazy Sunday,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story is in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison. Photo mine.

I also have a small notebook, where I take down even more notes, about what I’m currently reading—things to apply, how a passage relates to something previously learned, interesting people I now want to check out, etc.

The volume of my marginalia, especially for good books, is one of the reasons I go mostly digital now. I read about half on iBooks, and half on Kindle. There, the highlighter function does go wild. I use different colors for different things.

Blue is for especially beautiful passages. Pink is for actions I want to take. Yellow is for normal things I just want to mark. And in iBooks, if I’m reading fiction, green is for my chapter summaries, with questions, and other curiosities, added. On Kindle, my summaries have an orange highlight.

As for what I write in the margins, they can be anything.

Sometimes I’ll write REL: — and then it’ll be the name of someone who’s said something similar, etc. Or I’ll write “Think about this! Do I agree, or not?” beside certain points. Or I’ll put asterisks, stars, brackets, what-have-you.

You’ll develop your own way of fucking books up—you don’t have to follow mine. One of the pleasures of reading is developing your own annotations.

What’s important is that you’re doing something with what you read.

Engage deeply with your books, or resign yourself to forgetting them. There’s no middle choice.

Keep the lessons with you.

Wondering what I do after I finish a work?

I keep a commonplace book.

I won’t go into the intricacies of what a commonplace is, nor discuss things like its historical context. For now, see it this way: a commonplace book is just a system, to help you organize the important things you come across, when you read.

My commonplace system is pretty much a copy of Ryan Holiday’s.

(I picked up the practice from him.)

On a 4-by-6 index card, I’ll write the passage I want to keep, in the middle of the card. The top left is for the author of the book, or the person who said the thing, or the maker of the video, whatever. The top right is for the category—say, Stoicism, or Writing, or Art, or Good Questions.

And then, after I’ve written down the passage, I’ll move two lines down, and put the title of the work, or any other data that I think relevant.

For example, one of my quote cards, has the following information on it.

  • The top left corner says Charles Bukowski. He’s the one who said the quote.
  • The top right corner has the category Life.
  • The middle of the card has the quote itself.
  • Two lines down, you have the other data: that it’s quoted in Mark Manson’s book, titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.
The card I talked about above. Photo mine.

And that’s about it.

I make time every week to add to my commonplace, or else I get swamped with pending entries.

In summary

Forget everything I advised you, if you like. But read. That’s it.

It’s labor-intensive, the sort of reading I advocate. Especially if you’re going to keep a commonplace, or hand-write long notes. But this is the one area in which you should be happy, doing something that doesn’t scale.

Read regularly, read well, and you’ll see. It’ll change you.

Endnotes

  • Gerard, thanks for the, ahem, honest description of my reading list.
  • I use a Pentel EnerGel, for writing the entries in my commonplace book. Black ink, with a 0.5 mm tip. I’m fucking married to this pen, and use it for everything. Been exclusively faithful to it since 2013.
  • You can lounge about my Instagram, if you want more book photos and discussions. I’m always glad to connect with fellow book addicts.