Reading When You’re Really Busy

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Giving advice on reading runs the risk of sounding pretentious, as if it’s a badge of honor to be a “serious” reader rather than just an ordinary reader of books. But I’m going to risk the danger of sounding elitist here, if only because I’m frequently asked how I read so much on top of a busy schedule, and because I’ve been helped so often by articles like this one.

Here are some tips that have helped me maintain a regular rhythm of reading.

1. Above all else, read what interests you.

Adam Gopnik says that “to be a good reader doesn’t mean being a discriminating reader” but an “omnivorous” one. “You never know what will grab you.” I don’t agree completely with this line of thinking; you have to be discriminating at some level, or you’ll never make progress in gaining knowledge of a certain field of study. But I do agree that in the hierarchy of reading decisions, discrimination should happen on a lower rung, well below the larger desire to devote time to whatever books capture your mind and imagination.

To read a lot, you have to like reading, and to like reading, you have to be interested in something. Alan Jacobs is right that we shouldn’t let the duty of reading certain books replace the delight of reading any book. Discrimination plays a role here, but your decision to read certain (required) books should be the exception within a larger world of reading where you explore what most fascinates you.

I start with this piece of advice because unless the subject of a book captivates you, the rest of these tips will be harder to implement. Your mindset will be one of duty (“I need to make time to read”) instead of delight (“I can’t wait to find time to read this!”).

2. Seek out the spaces where you are most likely to discover great books. 

The reason I subscribe to so many magazines is not because I read them cover to cover. I often find only two or three magazine articles or essays that interest me enough to read from start to finish. No, my magazine subscriptions are worth the subscription fee because they either (1) give me an overview of the important books being released, so that I’m knowledgeable about them even if I choose not to read them or (2) alert me to books I definitely want to read.

Two of the books on my favorite reads list last year are due to magazines. I came across an ad in National Review for Bob Spitz’s new biography of Ronald Reagan. I was familiar with Spitz because I’d enjoyed his book on the Beatles, but his biography on Reagan far made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in several years. On a similar note, I came across several reviews of David Blight’s new biography of Frederick Douglass—reviews that appeared in publications from various political perspectives, which helped me recognize the importance of this new title, regardless of political affiliation.

If you want to read a lot, set up a process for discovering the best books. Subscribe to magazines and peruse book reviews on websites so that you’ll know what books are most likely to interest you, and which ones you should know about but can probably skip. Out of all the books you buy, only one in five or so should disappoint you. That’s because you should have a pretty good idea about a book before you buy it, and in this way, you minimize the risk of getting stuck with one that’s not enjoyable.

3. Read different books in different ways.

Another insight from Gopnik is one I’ve found to be true, too:

“I’ve discovered that reading is actually one of those skills that increases exponentially the more of it you do, and it doesn’t stop improving the older you get, which is an encouraging fact.”

The more you read, the faster you get. And the more knowledge you accumulate, the faster you’re able to process additional books along the same lines.

This means that if you’re reading a third or fourth book on the same subject or in the same field, you will already know the terrain well enough to navigate through it faster. You will know what to look for. You may not read it word-for-word, but may get the gist of it in just an hour or two. You’ll figure out faster the original contribution of an author to a subject.

For example, I started reading books on the parables of Jesus when I was in college. Today, I have dozens of books on the parables. When new ones arrive, I don’t start fresh—I add to the library in my mind. I see where scholarship is going and can keep abreast of new developments in the field. The same is true of multiple areas of interest for me. And if I want to return to a field that I haven’t visited in a few years, I have underlined books that can refresh my memory, preparing me for the next journey.

4. Recognize that you have time to read. 

When someone tells me they don’t have time to read, I don’t believe it. I’m often as busy as they are, and somehow I manage.

If you want to read well and widely, have a book with you nearby at all times. When you’re waiting to get a haircut, or before a doctor’s appointment, or you’re five minutes early and you’re in the school pick-up line, you have a choice. Either scroll through Facebook and Twitter, or steal a few precious moments with a book. When you’re on your exercise machine, you can read books on your Kindle. When you’re on a commute, you can listen to audio books. In the evening, in those moments when everyone in the family is occupied with different things, you can spend a half hour or so in your favorite chair and make some progress with a book. Before bed, if you read just 20 minutes or so, you will make your way through multiple books a year.

So, set limits on how much Netflix you will watch, or how many games you will play on the phone. Develop the taste for cultivating your mind until you’d rather read than watch a movie.

Do all of these things now, not when you’re older or whenever you think things will slow down, and you’ll be surprised at how much you can read in five or ten years. If you’re in your 20s, don’t wait. Do it now. And when you’re 40, you’ll be glad you did.

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