How I Read More Books

I read 61 books last year and it was easier than I thought

By Ken Norton

At the beginning of last year I decided to try reading more books. I set what seemed like an unreachable annual goal: fifty. I ended the year with sixty-one, and a conviction that anyone can do it. It’s much easier than you think to read about a book a week. I’m not a particularly fast reader, and, unlike Warren Buffett, I can’t block out 80% of my day for reading. So how did I do it?

1. Find time by cutting back on junk reading

When I analyzed my reading habits, I realized that despite only finishing five or six books a year, I was already spending a big portion of my evening reading: social media, the news, Silicon Valley think pieces, and my Pocket backlog. Some of it would be worthwhile, but I wasn’t deliberate in how I chose to spend my time (ahem, Wikipedia wormholes). Junk reading, like junk food, is momentarily satisfying but terrible for you in the long term. I didn’t need to read more, I thought, I just needed to read healthier.

Another habit I needed to shake was allowing myself to get bogged down by a book. I had an almost masochist need to finish any book I started, even if I got bored five pages in, found it repetitive, or decided the author was annoying. That meant a single book could take months to grind through, a page or two at a time. This probably slowed my book reading pace more than anything else. Now if I’m not enjoying a book, I quit and move on to the next one. No big deal. I find that’s another advantage of reading e-books (see below). An abandoned paper book just sits on my nightstand, a sad monument to my failed experiment. When I ditch an e-book, it just scrolls off the list into the void.

2. Create a distraction-free reading environment

To minimize the distractions that come from social media, politics, cat videos, work email, and app notifications, I bought myself a Kindle Paperwhite and haven’t looked back. The screen is crisp and easy to read, and the device is small enough to hold in one hand. There’s nothing else on it to distract me. (Kindle even integrates Wikipedia and a dictionary). It syncs to the Kindle app on my phone so I can keep reading even when I don’t have the device, such as while waiting for a meeting to start or when eating alone. Newer and best-selling e-books aren’t cheap, but there are lots of free and inexpensive options: BookBub notifies me of Amazon book sales. My local library lends e-books through Overdrive (although I wish the selection was better and there were fewer waitlists). The Gutenberg Project has thousands of free public domain classics.

Audiobooks are also an excellent option for many people, and several of my friends do the majority of their reading while listening. I find that I get distracted too easily with audiobooks and tend to prefer music or podcasts while in the car. I do make exceptions for certain books that I’d like to hear in the author’s own voice, such as Bruce Springsteen’s outstanding autobiography.

3. Track what you read

Goodreads’ annual reading challenge is an excellent motivator for keeping track of what I’ve read, gamifying my annual goal and allowing me to keep pace with my friends. The app also helps me quickly look up the names of books and authors when I want to suggest them to others (when you become a voracious reader you turn into that smart-ass who always has a book to recommend).

4. Your next book should always be waiting

It’s important to move straight from one book to the next to keep my excitement and momentum going. When I finish one book, I try to read at least one chapter of the next book before setting my Kindle down for the night. Again, something that’s much easier to accomplish with e-books. I keep a long list of “want to read” books on Goodreads. When I hear an interesting book mentioned on NPR, or when a friend recommends an author over lunch, I just pop into the app and add it. I can’t recommend Goodreads enough—seeing what my friends have read and recommended is a major source of book ideas (I find the automated recommendations to be lacking though). Curating my “to-read” list is fun, and it’s a continuous reminder that there’s always something I can’t wait to read.

What kinds of books should you read? Whatever you want. Anything where you think you can look back in a few years and say, “I’m glad I read that.” My book diet is now about 80% non-fiction, 20% fiction, but yours will be different. (Only about 20% of my reading these days is what I’d consider directly work-related, and that feels about right.)

5. Record the knowledge you’ve gained

Remembering that I’ve read a book isn’t sufficient if I don’t also keep track of what I’ve learned. I use Kindle’s highlights and notes features to mark interesting or representative passages as I go. I don’t tend to write lengthy book reviews, so I’ve started a note file to record three things I learned from each book. Within a few days of finishing a book, I review the Kindle highlights and then take five minutes to record my thoughts (I use the Bear app, but anything will do the trick).

Here’s a recent example, from Eric Schlosser’s outstanding book about nuclear safety, Command & Control:

  1. There have been way more nuclear accidents than I’d ever imagined
  2. Only sheer luck has prevented an accidental nuclear detonation
  3. For years during the Cold War the nuclear bombers were in the air at all times, armed and ready to attack

That’s it. (And sleep tight!). It’s just enough to freshen my memory and to remind me that it was time well spent. I do this for non-fiction and fiction, but for the latter it often includes characters or story elements I enjoyed, narrative techniques, writing style and the like. I’ve only been doing this for a few months so we’ll see how useful this over time.

If you try any of these, tips, let me know how it goes. And if you already read a lot of books, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you so I can share it with my readers.

In the meantime, here’s my profile on Goodreads. And if you’re looking for ideas to get started, here’s my list of Books for Product Managers.

Good Reads

Here are some more suggestions for becoming a better book reader:

Illustrations by Denis Sazhin, licensed under Creative Commons.

Originally published: February 22, 2017


Ken Norton spent more than fourteen years at Google where he led product initiatives for Docs, Calendar, Google Mobile Maps, and GV (formerly Google Ventures).

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