How to get smarter isn’t mysterious and it isn’t complex. The answer has been the same for millennia. Read more (though it’s true these days we do now have lots more delivery methods for insightful words). The trick isn’t in figuring out what you need to do–it’s in actually managing to do it.
Which is why I’m always on the lookout for great, unexpected ideas to squeeze more reading into our lives. Previously, I’ve uncovered ideas like hijacking your impulse to check social media to advance your reading goals, shaming yourself with a little math, and letting your book-buying impulses run wild. But when I came across a recent Financial Times article by Pilita Clark promising tips from “super readers,” my ears perked up in anticipation of more good advice.
Is it possible to read hundreds of books a year? Apparently, yes.
The whole article is worth checking out if you’ve vowed to read more in 2022. But one particular “super reader” Clark spoke to stuck out. “All pale before Tyler Cowen,” she writes. The economist, blogger, and author “has claimed that on a good night he can get through ‘five whole books.'”
That sounds impossible, but if you’re familiar with Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution, which offers an absolute avalanche of wildly eclectic book recommendations and commentary, you know that it appears to actually be true. How does Cowen manage to get through hundreds of books a year? Another blog, Driverless Crocodile, has done us all the favor of gathering up much of what Cowen has publicly said about his reading habits.
While it’s unlikely us mere mortals will manage three digits’ worth of titles in 2022, here are some of Cowen’s best tips to at least significantly increase the pace you get through books this year.
Be ruthless. Not captivated by a particular book at a particular time? Then on to the next. “Just stop reading, put them down,” Cowen advises. A boring intro, bad design, or hard-to-read font is enough to persuade Cowen to chuck a book. There are countless amazing books out there. Don’t settle for less than good.
Go ahead and skim. At least in the case of nonfiction, if you already know the material, feel free to skip ahead. “When you go to read actual books you’re like, ‘I know that, I know that, I know that,’ and you keep on going, and you read much more quickly. And that’s really the way to read a lot,” says Cowen. (This also creates a virtuous cycle in which the more you read, the more you’ll know, and the more you can skip.)
Read to solve problems. “The best reading is focused reading, when you’re trying to solve some kind of problem,” Cowen believes. You could aim to answer a specific question, investigate a given author, or scratch an itch of curiosity. “You want to start with a problem or question when you’re reading,” he insists.
Read in clusters. This naturally follows on from the point above. If you arrange your reading around questions or areas of exploration, you’ll end up reading multiple books about the same topic. That allows you to “do a kind of cross-sectional mental econometrics and see which pieces start fitting together,” says Cowen.
Read fiction. Gathering a stack of non-fiction titles to explore a topic is great, but don’t neglect fiction. “Reading fiction is important to understand the cross-sectional variation in humanity, to understand how difficult generalizations can be, to just get a sense of how different social pieces fit together, and to get a sense of different historical eras — and plus, reading fiction is often just plain flat-out fun,” explains Cowen. Amen to that.
Read books about topics you know nothing about. “Every area you don’t give a damn about you probably should read at least one book in. Because the very best book in that area is superb, and you’re not going to know what it is. So if tennis is something you don’t know anything about, well, read Andre Agassi’s memoir. That’s a wonderful book. You don’t have to know about or care about tennis,” claims Cowen.
Have fun. “Take reading seriously, develop a passion for it, and view it as part of your practice as a knowledge worker to get ahead, but along the way, having fun doing so,” Cowen concludes.
Happy (and bountiful|) 2022 reading!