How to read 80ish books a year (and actually remember them)
Reading is a skill that once you’ve learned, you probably don’t spend much time trying to get better at. (Not all that different from, say, breathing.) And yet, many of us don’t have to look far to see signs that there’s plenty of room for improvement. We only read at the end of the day – and only for the three minutes between cracking open a book and falling asleep. We’re halfway through about nine books. And our bookshelves are littered with titles that we remember reading but don’t exactly remember anything about.
Shane Parrish is not one of us. He cannot afford to read at a lackluster level. His site Farnam Street has become immensely popular largely because of his ability to mine a deep library for ideas that will help “you develop an understanding of how the world really works, make better decisions, and live a better life.”
What does that mean? It means plumbing the roughly 4000 books in his office to aggregate ideas into posts like 109 mental models, The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything, and The Munger Operating System: How to Live a Life That Really Works. (His list of annual recommended reads usually lands somewhere around 80 books.)
It also means that Parrish is uniquely suited to give you some actionable advice on how to optimise your reading – to read more, to get more out of that reading, and, most importantly, to give you permission to quit those five or six books you started and really don’t want to finish.
First of all, figure out why you’re reading.
“When you think about it, other than your elementary teacher teaching you how to read words or sound them out phonetically, you've never actually learned what to do with that reading,” says Parrish.
He didn’t learn until he went to work as a cybersecurity expert (on Farnam Street, he writes that it was for a “three-letter-intelligence agency” and that he “can’t talk about anything interesting without going to jail”).
“I ended up in this small, elite group inside there,” he recalls. “They read for knowledge instead of just for pleasure. They read to learn how to do things that they were trying to do at work. They read to understand how things work so that they could pick them apart mentally. That stuck with me as something that was different than all of the other people I had known, who basically after school they got this job and went, ‘Finally, I can stop reading. I can stop learning.’”
Parrish learned that each book was an opportunity to learn something – or many somethings – that he could then incorporate into his ability to make decisions and move through the world. Of course, if you just want to passively read to turn your brain off at the tail end of a long, demanding day, then you should do that! But, as Parrish learned, “if I'm reading to get a competitive advantage over somebody else, well, then I want to think about, how do I optimise reading?”
The first step towards optimisation? Reading the right things.
Too often these days, Parrish says, we consume the wrong information.
“Most of consuming the news is us letting other people think for us,” he says. “Somebody else giving us an opinion that we take as our own. We forget that we get it from somebody else, somebody who's paid to come up with hundreds of opinions a year on a variety of subjects.”
We’re outsourcing our thinking, reading watered-down news summaries of a complex issue, or parroting the thoughts of our favourite op-ed columnist as if it were our own.
“Then you go talk about this thing, but you really have no idea what you're talking about,” says Parrish. “You don't know the nuances of the law. You've never read it. You don't know the second- and third-order impact. You know what this person in this newspaper or mainstream media wrote about it. That's the extent of your knowledge. That is the illusion of knowledge. I think I just get tired of being that guy.”
Instead of getting lost in a sea of hot takes, Parrish advocates approaching reading material with the same uber-consciousness we approach our diet these days. Where is this sourced from? Can I trust that it’s high quality? Will putting it in my body (or brain, really) be good for me? Then, instead of getting lost in the timely churn of bad opinions, focus on consuming timeless materials that will give “you different databases that you can put in your head, different lenses that you can use on the world to make better decisions, have better relationships, live a more meaningful, conscious life.”
For instance, knowing about the importance of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” (believing you can improve) or Howard Marks’s “second-level thinking” (learning to think beyond immediate consequences) might serve you better than getting mad on Twitter about whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich (it’s obviously a sandwich).
Develop a system of note-taking.
Parrish calls his system The Blank Sheet: Before he begins reading a new book, he takes a blank sheet and writes down what he knows about the subject. Then, as he’s reading, he uses a different colour pen to write down new ideas and connect them to what he had originally written, hanging the new knowledge on the old knowledge.
“Use a different colour every time, so you can visualise what you're learning as you're reading,” says Parrish. “Then before you start your next reading session, to ease your brain into it, you just review the mind map. That gives you the context of where you left off… Then when you're done with the book, you have this summary of the book.”
Say, for example, that you’re about to read Annie’s Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (which made it onto his 2018 recommended reads). Make a sheet detailing what you know about decision-making, even if it's just the stages of making a decision: narrowing, analysing, and evaluating your options; avoiding cognitive biases; making a commitment to whatever you ultimately choose. Then, as you read, fill in those stages as you learn Duke’s insights.
But, really, it doesn’t matter how your system works. It only matters that you have a system. Why? So that you can have a catalog of ideas that you can revisit. Parrish organises his blank sheets by putting them into topic binders (the notes on Duke’s book would go in a "decision-making" binder), and then sits down to look at his binders about once every two months. Over time, he finds himself remembering things and making connections he may not have otherwise, mastering these various subjects.
“Not only do you understand the book at a different level, but you're writing it down. It's tangible. Instead of rereading all these books, you can just pick up this binder. ‘Oh, this is great. I want to go back to this story. Maybe I missed something [here].’ You're connecting things across different domains or different situations. That's effectively how we improve our thinking.”
Don’t treat your reading as background noise.
Parrish has an analogy he likes to use to describe the way many of us read. Remember when you were younger and you’d have the television on while you were playing with something else? It was just background noise. Then, when your parents would ask you what you were watching, you’d realise: Wow, I have no idea what’s been playing for the last twenty minutes. Often, that’s how we’re reading.
“[Reading is] something we try to fit into nooks and crannies,” says Parrish. “We usually do it at the end of the day when we're pretty tired. We might have five or 10 minutes. It takes a little while to get into it, to remember the context if we're reading a biography, or the language if we're reading a non-fiction book, or the story if we're reading a fiction book. We're half-paying attention.”
This is probably how you end up finishing books that, two years later, you can’t remember anything about.
Be a quitter.
There are far too many books in the world to stick with the ones you don’t like.
“We feel the need to finish books, even if we're bored by them. This often gets in the way of people reading because they start a book and they're like, ‘Oh, it's boring.’ Well, that's fine. Put the book down and start another book. Most people don't do that because we've been taught since a very young age at school and at home that we start what we finish… It's the author's job to convince you to read the book. It's not your job to convince yourself that you need to read the book.”
And, along the same lines, worry about quality reads, not quantity of reads.
“I think there was a year where I read, I don't know, 160 to 170 books,” Parrish remembers. “It was misguided. Towards the end of the year, I was subconsciously picking books so I could get the number higher. Every year, I go through this December reflection thing, and [that December] I was like, ‘Man, I did a lot of reading this year, but it was ineffective reading.’ I think way less [now] about the number of pages I read.”