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Monday
Oct292007

Reading gone wild! How to read five books a week (or why Scott Ginsberg is my hero)

One of the most popular topics here is reading efficiently, including How to read a lot of books in a short time and A reading workflow based on Leveen's "Little Guide". Using Leveen's terminology, I have a candidates library of at least 50 books (i.e., purchased and in my bookcase), and a pre-candidates list of around 600 (kept on Amazon, but it's not perfect). So I really want to read a lot (actually, to learn a lot), but the problem is my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and I've fallen behind. This is in spite of outsourcing voice note transcription [1].

Thankfully, I came across Scott Ginsberg's post [2] Before we make our move, let’s call... where he writes in passing:
(FYI, I read five books a week.)
This was just the whack to the head [3] I needed! The essential idea I forgot? I don't need to read the whole book. D'oh! He elaborates in How to read a book (part two here):
You don’t need to read every word.
You don’t need to devour every page.
You don’t need to understand every concept.

Just get the key ideas.
(See his post for details.) I have to say, it's great to reminded of the basics, but humbling as well.


So in true Ideamatt fashion I decided to try an experiment: I would read five books, one hour per book, for five days straight to test and cement the idea. (This is really just a straightforward application of Parkinson's law, commonly "Work expands to fill the time available," a principle I've avoided before now.)

Guess what? It works. The one hour limit really focuses the mind, and makes it a challenging kind of race. To be honest I've only tried it for three days, but so far I've read: I hope to keep this pace up.


Does it apply equally to every book? No; some clearly are worth further study. But can it be applied to every book? Sure! An hour will still give you a good sense of the concepts, and whether the work warrants more time. (Note that this philosophy is an nice application of The 80/20 Principle, which says not all books are of the vital few. Many books - esp. time time management books at this time - are in the trivial many.)

Up for a challenge? Try it for a week and share your results! Here's a summary of the steps:
  1. Choose a nice reading spot.
  2. Block out an hour of uninterrupted time.
  3. Calculate briefly how fast you'll need to go. A simple baseline is average time/page. For example, a 250 page book means you can only spend about 15 seconds/page! Clearly skimming skills are crucial.
  4. Gather your supplies - timer/watch, water, book, note-taking tool.
  5. Start your timer and dig in using your favorite reading method. I had good luck with SQ3R, though a teacher friend of mine was able to rattle off six from the top of his head.
  6. As you read, keep focused! You are a machine, enjoying pushing as fast as necessary.


References

Reader Comments (18)

I'm told that the speed reading tip #1 is to never ever back track. don't let your eyes have the luxury of passing twice over a word if they didn't get it the first time.

October 29, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

Hey Brent, good point! It's analogous to [ my post last week | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/10/got-email-blues-only-three-things-you.html ] on email... Just thinking here: To read faster either a) read fewer books (i.e., be choosier), b) read faster (your comment), or c) read selectively (scan).

Thanks!

October 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt,

I've tried this at various times with little satisfaction. I fall under the a) category...be choosier.

When attempting this faster method, I felt cheated and generally went back to "fill in the blanks" and wound up reading the whole book.

I subscribe to Tim Sanders method of reading which requires more investigation on the front-end before undertaking the actual reading (aggregation). I'll generally spend 15 minutes investigating before undertaking. By being choosier, you can eliminate before you need to abort.

I guess I'm old fashioned in that I would rather consume a book, ring it for all it's worth before moving on. I set weekly reading goals of 500 pages. This is generally two books a week, which figures to be about 100 books a year. I read two hours a day, seven days a week. For example, last week I read Viktor Frankel's "Man's Search for Meaning" and Maxwell Matlz's Psycho-Cybernetics. Pretty heady stuff that requires focused reading. This week I'm reading Brain Tracy's "Eat That Frog!" and Liz Davenport's "Order from Chaos". Light reading in comparison. Depending on the subject and the depth and focus required to understand the material, I can throttle up when required. Any Ayn Rand book will take at least two weeks, I spent three on the "Fountainhead".

In the end, Zig Ziglar said it best, "It's not what I get out of a book, it's what the book gets out of me." I keep trying the short-cuts but always digress.

Thanks for the insightful post. Your thoughts always inspire and get me thinking...so keep up the good work. As always, best to you and your continued quest.

October 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Hi Davey,

I subscribe to Tim Sanders method of reading which requires more investigation on the front-end before undertaking the actual reading (aggregation). I'll generally spend 15 minutes investigating before undertaking. By being choosier, you can eliminate before you need to abort.

I couldn't find Sanders work, but I appreciate your approach - makes sense.

I guess I'm old fashioned in that I would rather consume a book, ring it for all it's worth before moving on.

As I said, I think there's a role for this, but not for every book. I've been infected with the 80-20 principle! ;-)

I read two hours a day, seven days a week.

Wow! I need to discipline myself to this.

I read Viktor Frankel's "Man's Search for Meaning" and Maxwell Matlz's Psycho-Cybernetics. Pretty heady stuff that requires focused reading.

Excellent choices; they are both on my bookshelf, and - for me - are in the same "read it all/dive in" category. But for me that causes some resistance - something I need to work on...

This week ... Brain Tracy's "Eat That Frog!" and Liz Davenport's "Order from Chaos". Light reading in comparison.

Totally agree. Light, skimmable, fun.

Any Ayn Rand book will take at least two weeks, I spent three on the "Fountainhead".

Anyone with a site named [ The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism | http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_index ] has got to be deep. I like this editorial comment about [ Atlas Shrugged | http://www.amazon.com/Atlas-Shrugged-Ayn-Rand/dp/0452011876/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-9472048-4474359?ie=UTF8&\1s=books&\1qid=1193747304&\1sr=1-1 ] : Atlas Shrugged is the "second most influential book for Americans today" after the Bible, according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club. As is unfortunately the case, my education is sorely lacking around this type of reading.

Thanks for the insightful post. Your thoughts always inspire and get me thinking...so keep up the good work. As always, best to you and your continued quest.

Much obliged, Davey. Your insightful comments here really deepen the conversation, and take it beyond the starting point - which is one of my goals.

October 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

My problem with books is less budget (which is at the moment for all the right reasons a problem too), but that it still requires physical place, which we (both bookworms) do not have anymore. I want my tech stuff in virtual form. And I want a good, DRM free reader now, but that's another tangent.
I actually read out of fun, but read some of the techniques for better reading. I am a natural fast reader and have a pretty good memory, but I am open for new stuff.
What I wanted to point out is that you can actually get a good overview by using Amazons Inside. You can get a pretty good idea about what is important in some field that way. Just for budget conscious students and physical space conscious people, who just want to get one book, not all.
The library near me sucks, by the way, and that is a mayor problem.

October 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hi Anonymous. Good points re: space. My wife did *not* like my having stacks all around the dining room, I have to tell you :-) Now she's talking about built-ins!

> I am a natural fast reader and have a pretty good memory, but I am open for new stuff.

You're fortunate. Davey's post reminded me of something very important that I forget to mention in my post: When I was planning my resignation from NASA in the mid-80s to go to graduate school, I realized I needed some study skills. So I read [ Triple Your Reading Speed | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0743475763?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0743475763 ] (and really learned it) and learned to meditate. The former really stuck with me, and I use it daily. In fact, I think it's an important prerequisite to reading a book in one hour.

I'd like to hear how others have sped up the act of reading (separate from selective reading).

> you can actually get a good overview by using Amazons Inside

Yes! I use the Table of Contents and Surprise Me features to browse a book. I also take into consideration the reviews before making a decision to buy. Good point.

> The library near me sucks, by the way, and that is a mayor problem.

That's too bad. I will hold my tongue about the state of public spending and my government...

Thanks for your comments!

October 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, I sincerely think during my PhD program that I read five books a week. One thing that really helped me remember was to write questions I thought I'd like to find answered in the book before I read it. That helped me to bring some of my own thoughts to the reading but to see how the book might actually shape my thinking as I interacted with it. Thought you might enjoy that too, so I'm passing it on.

You are doing well to share these great strategies with each other.

I appreciated your visit to my blog and for your thoughtful comments, too. I think I'll come back here now and again to see what you are doing.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRobyn McMaster, PhD

Hi Robyn,

during my PhD program I read five books a week ... write questions I thought I'd like to find answered in the book before I read it.

Thanks for the good tip. I guess that's why they put the "Q" in SQ3R (Survey/Skim, Question, Read, Recite/Recall, and Review).

You are doing well to share these great strategies with each other.

Glad to - that's one reason I do this.

I appreciated your visit to my blog and for your thoughtful comments, too. I think I'll come back here now and again to see what you are doing.

You're welcome, though I only read blogs I find useful :-) For others, here's a sample of Robyn's topics: [ How Can Smell Change Your Decisions? | http://brainbasedbiz.blogspot.com/2007/10/smell.html ], [ Reduce Stressors, Boost Mind-body Performance | http://brainbasedbiz.blogspot.com/2007/10/reduce-stressors-boost-mind-body.html ], and [ Laugh - Bust Your Stressors! | http://brainbasedbiz.blogspot.com/2007/10/laugh-bust-your-stressors.html ].

Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt,

I have to admit that the writer in me bristles at this concept, however pragmatic it might be. I've even applied it (in college), mostly due to procrastination and being down to the wire in my reading for class.

Ego aside, I do understand this concept and like you said, it is definitely applicable to some books more than others. But it does bring up the question of waste...if you can get what you need out of a book just by skimming it, what is the point of having the book in the first place? Why not post some power point slides to a blog?

I always enjoy your posts.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Hi Rebecca,

the question of waste...if you can get what you need out of a book just by skimming it, what is the point of having the book in the first place? Why not post some power point slides to a blog?

Great points and a good question. I think I have a compelling answer. First, regarding your PowerPoint idea, if someone else summarizes it, it's not as valuable to me. Why? Because reading is always interpreted through each reader's brain. What's important to you may be very different to me. Of course this is true for the same person over time, which leads to your other point:

Why buy the book? I keep books as references. I index every important idea/tip/trick/concept/etc. in my log file, and when I need something (for a client or blog post, say) I need to put my hands on it quickly.

Also, I want to have it in hand when I'm ready for it (not have to wait). Just browsing my candidates shelf is a kind of mirror (bound paper Tarot cards, if you will). When I'm tracking a topic, a book will stand out that didn't appeal a week ago. So I get read it right away - strike while the iron is hot, in a way.

I bet other readers can put it more eloquently.

I always enjoy your posts.

Thanks! That's why I do it.

Appreciate your reading.

November 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Matt,

Another good post. I'm curious, after you've ripped through these books in an hour, how are you re-scheduling the ones that merit a further in-depth study? Do they simply go back into your candidates library or do you flag them in some other manner?

cheers,
Doug

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

Hi Doug. Thanks for the great question (and compliment).

re-scheduling the ones that merit further study? Do they simply go back into your candidates library or do you flag them in some other manner?

Right now I'm doing two simple things - making an entry in my log file (tagged BookNotes, OneHourBookScan), then either moving to my Après 1 shelf (if I'm done with it), or keeping it on my candidates shelf.

This is my current approach - I'd love to hear suggestions for improvements!

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

What a great idea. I really enjoy the content of your blog. Keep up the awesome work.

Love & Gratitude,
Tina
Think Simple. Be Decisive.
~ Productivity, Motivation & Happiness

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTina Su

Hi Tina. Thanks a bunch! I appreciate your reading. Love your blog - very beautiful, and good posts. Keep it up.

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hero?

Aw, shucks. Thanks hommie.

Made to Stick = book of the year

Also, just finished a really hefty, dense, content packed book called "Questions That Work."

Best book on questions ever, and I've read a LOT of books on questions.

Buy it today.

Keep readin...

November 15, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterhellomynameisscott

Hey Scott, nice to hear from you.

Hero? Aw, shucks. Thanks hommie.

I meant it. Plus, I recommend [ HELLO, my name is BLOG! | http://hellomynameisscott.blogspot.com/ ] to all my readers. Short, high-value posts, something I'm thinking of converting to. (People like my long-and-deep style, but they're work to write.)

Made to Stick = book of the year

It's good, and an example of one of those important-but-way-too-long books, IMHO. I book-snacked it (AKA one-hour-ed it).

Also, just finished a really hefty, dense, content packed book called "Questions That Work." Best book on questions ever, and I've read a LOT of books on questions. Buy it today.

Thanks for the tip - done. The book is here, FYI: [ Questions that Work | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814470777?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0814470777 ].

Appreciate your comment.

November 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Hey Matt,

I've just stumbled into your amazing blog. (I was doing some research on how to read at least 5 books a week.) The ideas you mentioned in this post seem pretty reasonable but my only doubt is how do you actually learn from a book if you 'read' so fast and only search for key ideas? I've tried to read only the important parts of the book (while skipping over the unnecessary ones) but somehow I seem to fail to grasp the whole book in this way and I want to get the most out of it. Any ideas how I should deal with this problem?

Thanks for your reply in advance!
January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKyle
Hi Kyle. Thanks for commenting. I agree that there's a tradeoff with reading fast vs. reading deep. Looking back, I think authors of non-fiction books like I read a lot of at the time tended to write too many words to get the ideas across. There are lots of exceptions, but I think that's the prime mover behind the post. Plus, it was a fun experiment in the http://thinktrylearn.com vein. Feel free to report back if you try it!
January 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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