📖 How I became a better reader

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Some time ago we were talking and our editor said, ‘Books are to your mind what gyms are to your body.’ Books do great things to your mind. But there are way too many books out there. Over 500,000 books are published a year in the United States alone.

It takes about 10-15 hours to read a 300- page book. Assuming you’re able to read one every two weeks, that’s 2 books a month or 24 books a year and in a lifespan of say 80 years, we’re talking about 65 years of reading. That’s about 1500 odd books. That’s not even scratching the surface.

I missed out on reading for quite a few years because I didn’t start reading early like my sister. And I’ve tried to find the best way to read so I don’t feel like a complete idiot. I have a bit of a system that helps me. Let me back up a bit.

I read a little bit of fiction in my early childhood. It started during the years in which we didn’t have a television at home but we had a shelf full of books. At first, I couldn’t bear to look at them. But slowly I started reading.

I found my way to some books like The Name of the Rose and other reads ranging from Louis’ L’Amour, Sidney Sheldon, Robin Cook, Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie, Bill Watterson, and Earl Stanley Gardner. I also read a bit of Chekov, Gogol and Dostoevsky (not Crime and Punishment).

As I grew up, I stopped reading fiction and switched completely over to nonfiction mostly because of work. The books I read included The Story of Philosophy, The World of Cinema (Malayalam) and Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

By the time I joined work, I’d covered some ground. But nonfiction took off big time around 2008-09. This was a particularly crazy period in my life and I didn’t get to read much. When I was with friends or family who’d discuss books like we discuss Netflix shows these days, I’d feel like I was way behind.

So I figured there must be a way to optimize my reading time. But first, I had to get into the habit again. Here’s how I did it.

Easy books to start with

To get back into the habit of reading, I picked easy books. Graphic novels like Osama Tezuka’s Buddha, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Nicolas Wild’s Kabul Disco were some of the books I read in those days. They were easy yet profound. As you complete each book, you also get a nice feeling of time well spent.

Recommended books for discovery

My sister, mother, and some friends are voracious readers. This really helped me. I’d ask them for recommendations on what to read next. The good thing about this is they really know me well and are capable of making surprisingly good recommendations. They also have a stake in seeing me succeed. So they’d recommend books that help in that direction. Algorithms will never get close I suspect. These days, I also look for recommendations from Bill Gates and some business leaders.

Wide-ranging books

In topics that I have a passing interest in, I like to read books that have a wide range and covers a lot of ground in one go. For instance, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is a wide-ranging book. Story of Philosophy by Will Durant is another one of those books. The Gene, an intimate history by Siddhartha Mukherjee is another.

Books for deeper reading

In topics that I’m writing about or researching, I like to go deeper. It usually starts with a wide-ranging book in which I’d find a reference or two and then go deeper. When I started reading about New Journalism, Tom Wolfe’s anthology was a wide-ranging book. From there I discovered Hunter Thompson and many others. That was deeper reading. I do a lot of focused reading to improve my writing. While I was learning business reporting, for deeper reading I’d pick up books written by journalists. Barbarians at the Gate, Moneyball, and Too Big to Fail were some of my all-time favorites.

The one hour rule

I picked this up from the internet. I try to set aside about an hour every day to read. Just like how I spend at least an hour in the gym. I miss a few days every now and then. But it’s about forming the habit. It helped me focus, and over a period of time, I ended up covering a lot of ground.

Cheating

Sometimes I just watch the movie and be done with it. Sometimes I also listen to the author on a podcast and be done with it.

News diet

I don’t really read headlines online anymore. I get newspapers at home and read it when time permits. I also control my news consumption to a great extent. It’s practically pointless to try and stay on top of headlines unless you are in the news business.