How to Read More: 8 Reasons and 7 Strategies to Read More Books
I probably get asked this question more than any other: How do you read so much?
I don’t think the question is really about me. I’m an author. It’s my job to read a lot. I think what people are really asking is how they can read more. Because as wonderful as reading is, in a busy, distracting world, it’s hard to find the time. Or rather, it’s hard to make the time.
So when people ask:
- How can I read more?
- How can I read more books this year?
- What’s the secret to reading a lot?
The short answer is just do it. (Nobody asks, “How do you find the time to eat?”)
But obviously you know that. What it’s really about, then, is finding the motivation, finding the justification, and building a reading practice that will help you do what you already want to do. Below are some strategies, from my life and from history—because people have always struggled to read in a distracted world—that will help you become a power reader.
- 8 Reasons to Read More
- Reading Is Your Moral Duty
- Reading Is the Way to Tell the Future
- Reading Prevents You From Being Functionally Illiterate
- Reading Makes You an Informed Citizen
- Reading Softens Your Solitude
- Reading Can Solve Your Problems
- Reading Is a Conversation With the Wisest to Ever Live
- All Leaders Are Readers
- 7 Strategies To Read More
- Read First Thing in the Morning
- Read a Page a Day
- Read While You Eat
- Read While You Relax
- Keep a Commonplace Book
- Read the Masters Again and Again
- Realize: You Are Not Too Busy
8 Reasons to Read More
Reading Is Your Moral Duty
As a young boy, the famed basketball coach George Raveling learned an invaluable lesson about the power of both knowledge and ignorance from his grandmother, who raised him.
“Why did the slave masters hide their money in books, George?” she asked the young boy, standing together in her kitchen.
“I don’t know, grandma,” he said.
“Because they knew the slaves wouldn’t open them,” she said.
There’s a reason it was illegal to teach slaves to read. There is a reason that every totalitarian regime has burned and banned books. Knowledge is power. It sounds like a cliché, but clichés only sound that way because of the generally accepted truth at their core. What is less of a cliché, but actually more true, is the converse of that idea: A lack of knowledge is weakness—it engenders supplication and makes resistance harder.
From this early lesson, George Raveling came to see reading as a moral duty. To not read, to remain in ignorance, was not only to be weak—it was to ignore the people who had fought so hard, who had struggled at such great cost to read and to provide for future generations the right and the ability to do so. It was to spit in the face of Frederick Douglass, of Booker T. Washington, and, of course, of Martin Luther King, Jr. who Raveling had gotten to know.
It is worth pointing out today that money is still hidden in the pages of books—though not because someone put it there in order to keep it from you. Think about how many people want to get better at something, anything, everything. Look at how many people are desperate to be successful, or to extricate themselves from this cycle of mediocrity that has trapped so many of our generation. These people look everywhere for the solution to their problems. They seek out secret formulas, shortcuts, gurus. They will turn their entire world upside down before they stop and look at the one place where you can always be sure to find answers—the book shelf.
We read because it makes us powerful. When we don’t read, we become weak—easy to manipulate, less than what we are capable of being. It’s in our self-interest to read (there’s money in it), but it’s also our moral duty.
Reading Is the Way to Tell the Future
Let’s imagine a scenario in which almost all our modern scholarship was lost. Imagine if some great fire at the Library of Alexandria wiped away the last few hundred years of breakthroughs in psychology and biology. Suddenly, countless research papers and books and discoveries were turned to ash. The cost would be immense, no question.
And yet, somehow, we’d be fine. Even if all that remained were just the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus. Because as much as our species craves newness, the truth is that most truths are very old. In fact, it’s these timeless truths that teach us more about the future and about our current times than most of our contemporary thinking.
As Douglas MacArthur wrote in the early 20th century, speculating about the future of warfare, the best lessons about what’s coming next come not from the recent but from the distant past. “Were the accounts of all battles, save only those of Genghis Khan,” he said, “effaced from the pages of history, and were all the facts of his campaigns preserved in descriptive detail, the soldier would still possess a mine of untold wealth from which to extract nuggets of knowledge useful in molding an army for future use.“
Of course, one should always avail themselves of the latest research and the newest books. The problem is that, for far too many people, this comes at the expense of availing themselves of wisdom from the wisest minds who ever lived.
The Stoics say over and over that it is inexcusable not to learn from the past. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his diary at some point during the Antonine Plague, the future is the past repeated. “Look at the past,” he says in Meditations, “and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing. No escape from the rhythm of events.”
It is from this learning, from the learning of the distant past, from the wisest minds who ever lived, that we can know how to prepare for the future. Everything else is noise. Everything else should be ignored.
Reading Prevents You From Being Functionally Illiterate
General James Mattis is part of a long line of tradition of Stoic warriors. Just as Frederick the Great carried the Stoics in his saddlebags as he led his troops, or Cato proved his Stoicism by how he led his own troops in Rome’s Civil War, Mattis has long been known for taking Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations with him on campaign.
“Reading is an honor and a gift,” he explains, “from a warrior or a historian who—a decade or a thousand decades ago—set aside time to write.” Yet many people spurn this gift and still consider themselves educated. “If you haven’t read hundreds of books,” Mattis says, “you’re functionally illiterate.” Channeling Marcus Aurelius, Mattis notes that human beings have been fighting and dying and struggling and doing the same things for eons. To not avail yourself of that knowledge is profoundly arrogant and stupid. To fill up body bags of young soldiers while a commander learns by experience? It’s worse than arrogant. It’s unethical, even murderous.
Well, the same is true for much less lethal professions. How dare you waste your investor’s money by not reading and learning from the mistakes of other entrepreneurs? How dare you take your marriage or your children for granted, thinking that you can afford to figure this out by doing the wrong things first? What is the upside of trying to make it in the NFL all on your own, and not looking for shortcuts and lessons from seasoned pros and students of the game who have published books? There is no real job training for an emperor or the advisor to the emperor, but you can imagine both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca read heavily from and about their predecessors. The stakes were too high for them not to.
In Mattis’ view, no Marine, nor any leader, is excused from studying. Consider this your assignment as well. It’s wonderful that you’re reading this article, but more is demanded of you. Drink deeply from history, from philosophy, from the books of journalists and the memoirs of geniuses. Study the cautionary tales and the screw ups, read about failures and successes. Read constantly—read as a practice.
Reading Makes You an Informed Citizen
When people hear Epictetus quoted to justify not watching the news—“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters”—they get upset. It’s understandable. For generations, especially in America, people have been conditioned to think that consuming journalism, be it in newspaper or television or online form, is the duty of every informed citizen.
Unfortunately, only the second half of this supposition is correct. Yes, it is the duty of every citizen—especially those with voting rights—to be informed. No, the news is not the way to do that. In fact, in today’s world of clickbait and sensationalism it may be the worst.
The best way to be an informed citizen is to follow the path of the Stoics, who had no such thing as real-time journalism. You should study history. You should study the law. You should study human nature. The early American founders said it, too. “There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this useful purpose than that of Thucydides,” as John Adams wrote to his son in 1777. “You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher.”
If you want to be an informed citizen, if you want to actually understand—rather than know trivia about—what’s going on in the world, then pick up a biography. Pick up Thucydides. Pick up Plutarch. Pick up Robert Caro or Doris Kearns Goodwin. Forget tweets about political witch hunts, read Stacey Schiff’s book about actual witch hunts. Read Machiavelli. Read Seneca. Read psychology. Go read the actual constitution of the country you live in. Read The Federalist Papers or Magna Carta.
Go deep. Go backward. Go to the real truths. That’s what informed people do. And they are fine being seen as ignorant about every other silly thing.
Reading Softens Your Solitude
In The Library Book, her beautiful book about the Los Angeles Public Library fire, Susan Orlean captures the magic of what libraries can offer. She describes walking through the empty library in Downtown LA, not a soul in sight, and feeling connected to all the different voices represented on the millions of pages that surround her.
“A library is a good place to soften solitude,” she writes, “a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.”
Books, in this way, are wonderful friends. They are always there. They speak wisdom, but offer their advice quietly. They have an unlimited capacity for listening. They offer so much and ask for essentially nothing in return. They don’t yell. They level no personal attacks. No, they just call upon you to be better. They are there whenever and wherever you need it. They soften our solitude. They are true friends.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world,” James Baldwin said in a 1963 profile in Life magazine. “But then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Books, especially those about philosophy, are that friend who should always be within arm’s reach, who we should turn to constantly. Today, when we have some downtime. Next week when we run into some trouble. In the morning when we are lonely or struggling to start the day. Pick up a book. Read a passage. Listen to the person who truly believed that if they spoke—if they wrote—someone would listen and that it would make a difference.
They weren’t wrong.
Reading Can Solve Your Problems
Maybe you’re having a difficult time in your relationship. Or work has worn you down. Maybe things have gone exceedingly well in your business and now you’re dealing with opportunities you never thought possible. Or you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. Or trying to figure out how to help your kid—who has struggled for a long time now—to figure out what to do with their life.
These are tough situations. Just a sample of what the days can throw at us… on top of all the things the world likes to throw at us, from economic instability to brutal wars, to snarling traffic and bafflingly incompetent governance.
Solving all these problems is probably impossible. Which is why most of us would likely settle for their proper management or at least some amount of pain reduction.The good news is that this stop-gap remedy is readily at hand. It’s just a book or a letter or a lecture away. As Seneca writes, “Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel.”
For thousands of years, the wisest minds have been offering counsel and wisdom to those who seek it out, those who go forth to look for it. Will you be one of those people? Or will you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them? Will you endure the same trials just hoping one day they will magically change? Will you stick to your own guidance? Will you stumble through life as, to borrow Mattis’ term again, a functional illiterate?
Or will you let those wise minds help you out?
Your problems—our problems—are not new. They are not different. They are the same things humans have always struggled with, just dressed up in modern language and contemporary garb. They fall neatly in the same category that problems have always fallen into (what’s in our control and what isn’t), which means they present the same opportunities that every problem offers (to become better for it… or worse for it), and require the same virtues that all problems require (justice, temperance, wisdom, courage).
Fortunately, a guide for this gauntlet exists and has for thousands of years: Philosophy. It offers counsel. It offers you help. But only if you avail yourself of it. If you make use of it… and actually listen.
Reading Is a Conversation With the Wisest to Ever Live
Zeno was a young man when he was given a cryptic piece of advice. “To live the best life,” the Oracle told Zeno, “you should have conversations with the dead.”
What does that mean? Like with ghosts and goblins? Go spend time chatting in a cemetery?
No, of course not. The Oracle was talking about reading. Because it’s through books that we really talk to people who are no longer with us. Their bodies may be rotting in the ground, or long since turned to dust, but in the pages of a book, they are alive and well.
Harry Truman was one of the greatest readers to ever occupy the White House. As a friend observed, to Harry “history was the men who made it, and he spoke of Marcus Aurelius or Henry of Navarre or old Tom Jefferson or old Andy Jackson as if they were friends and neighbors with whom he had only recently discussed the affairs of the day, their day.”
That’s the beauty and the power of books—they can bring the past to life; they can annex, as Seneca said, all ages into your own.
You can put yourself in the same room as Lincoln. You can chat with Shakespeare. You can be inspired by Porcia Cato. To do this isn’t scary, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s incredibly reassuring, because it means you have permanent access to the wisest men and women who ever lived.
It’s also an incredible opportunity to learn. To ask questions. To be taught. If there is anything at all scary about this, it’s that millions of people decline to do this every day, day after day, for the balance of their natural lives. They reject this superpower. They decide to be illiterate. They ignore the dead, choosing to listen to the chattering voices on their television and their Twitter feed.
Be smart, be brave, talk to the dead.
All Leaders Are Readers
A friend stopped Marcus as he was leaving his home one morning. Where are you going? To handle business? No, Marcus was on his way to attend a philosophy lecture. “Learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old,” Marcus told the stunned man. “From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not yet know.”
Harry Truman famously said that not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers—they have to be. And they certainly aren’t reading to impress people or for the mental gymnastics. It’s to get better! It’s to find things they can use. Not at the dinner table or on Twitter, but in their real lives.
The same must be true to us. We have to learn how to read to be better leaders, better people, better citizens. We must learn how to read for our own benefit—and so that we might have aid to offer to a friend in pain, or a soul in crisis. Seneca’s point was that only knowledge that does us good is worth knowing. Everything else is trivia.
7 Strategies to Help You Read More
Read First Thing in the Morning
A good morning, according to the Stoics, was one that would “shake the laziness out of [your] system.” Seneca believed that reading was an indispensable part of the daily routine, particularly early in the day, because “reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it.” He’s right. Who doesn’t feel better after they’ve read? Who ever regrets picking up a book? And how much better are our days when we frontload them with good inputs (and how miserable are they when we kick things off with bad choices?)
Another recent student of Stoicism agrees: Hugh Jackman reads right after he wakes up (early) in the morning. As he explained:
I read a book with my wife. So we get up and we read to each other for half an hour. It’s the best. I recommend it to anyone…It’s the greatest way to start the day. Right now I’m reading Stillness Is the Key, by Ryan Holiday… I’m really into philosophy. So we read, and we talk, because stuff’s on your mind. You don’t realize how much has been on your mind overnight, and it comes out in the morning. That way, no matter what happens through our day, we know that we’ve had quality time together. You always think, tonight; after work; after this; when we put the kids to bed, but that doesn’t always happen.
The day so easily gets away from us. Well-intentioned plans fall apart. Our willpower evaporates. So it’s key that we prioritize the important things and it’s key that we habituate doing them early.
This way, we’ll, you know, actually do them. This way we can make sure we have a successful day.
Read a Page a Day
A lot of people think that finishing a certain number of books is the mark of a good reading habit. I am going to read 100 books this year. I am finally going to finish the entire works of Howard Zinn.
The Stoics might urge caution.
They would encourage you to think not in terms of reading widely, but reading deeply. To dive into a handful of the wisest texts and come to know the authors like you had lived with them. As Seneca advised Lucilius in one of his letters:
Everywhere means nowhere… And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner… There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.
I encourage you to follow that timeless wisdom. Listen to David McCullough’s advice, too. “Study a masterpiece,” he says, “take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again.”
While I’d never claim that The Daily Stoic is a masterpiece, it is one of those books you can return to again and again. It’s designed that way, in fact. Of course, I don’t read my own book, but I do read a page from several daily devotionals every day. I love Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom, which is basically a collection of his favorite passages from the ancient and classic texts, with excellent supplements from his own considerable wisdom. And I recently added two new books to my page-a-day routine, both edited by Allie Esiri: A Poem for Every Night of the Year—a wonderful mix of old and new, classical and didactic poems from authors all over the world, and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year—a sort of greatest hits of Shakespeare, tied well to each date with a nice intro that either reminds you of the plays you’ve read or gives you a nice path into the ones you haven’t.
You could also break down Seneca’s letters this way—read one letter a day. Or one passage from Marcus each morning. Or one poem from Emily Dickinson each day. Or one page of the Bible each evening before bed. For thousands of years, the Jewish people have divided up the Torah in what they call Parashat HaShavua (portion of the week) to be read aloud at synagogue, so that the entire Torah can be cycled through annually.
Read While You Eat
If you want to read more, you should always have a book with you. Always.
People often assume something about me: that I’m a speed reader. It’s the most common email I get. They see all the books I recommend every month in my reading newsletter and assume I must have some secret. They want to know my trick for reading so fast.
The truth is, even though I read hundreds of books each year, I actually read quite slowly. In fact, I deliberately read slowly. But what I also do is read all the time. I always carry a book with me. Every time I get a second, I crack it open. I don’t install games on my phone—that’s time for reading. When I’m eating, on a plane, in a waiting room, or sitting in traffic in an Uber—I read.
If there’s any trick, it’s to stop thinking of reading as some activity that you do. Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.
Read While You Relax
The great William Osler (a founder of Johns Hopkins University and a fan of the Stoics) told his medical students it was important that they turn to literature as a way to nourish and relax their minds. “When chemistry distresses your soul,” he said, “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare, ten minutes with Montaigne will lighten the burden.” Shakespeare’s plays are free online to print out. Montaigne’s essays are a couple bucks as used copies on Amazon. Both of these writers have provided centuries of pleasure and wisdom to minds even more stressed than yours.
We know that Seneca and Marcus were big readers. Their works abound with quotes and allusions to plays and poets and the stories of history. They read to relax and to be at leisure. It kept their minds strong and clear. How could you not do the same? Why do you turn instead to the TV, or to Twitter?
Let us follow Osler’s advice:
Start at once a bedside library and spend the last half-hour of the day in communion with the saints of humanity. There are great lessons to be learned from Job and from David, from Isaiah and St. Paul. Taught by Shakespeare you may take your intellectual and moral measure with singular precision. Learn to love Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Should you be so fortunate as to be born a Platonist, Jowett will introduce you to the great master through whom alone we can think in certain levels, and whose perpetual modernness startles and delights. Montaigne will teach you moderation in all things, and to be “sealed of his tribe” is a special privilege.
Get to it!
Keep a Commonplace Book
In a way, Meditations is really Marcus’s commonplace book—a central depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information he came across in his reading. He twice quotes from the comedies of Aristophanes, the Athenian comic playwright. Half a dozen times, we see him quote the tragedies and plays of Euripides, as well as the teachings of Epictetus. He quotes philosophers like Epicurus and Plato, as well as poets like Empedocles, Pindar, and Menander. As Seneca wrote:
We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works.
Petrarch kept a commonplace book. Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Ronald Reagan, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Ludwig van Beethoven—they all kept a commonplace book.
In the book Old School, Tobias Wolf’s semi-autobiographical character takes the time to type out quotes and passages from great books to feel great writing come through him. Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Ricks wrote something similar in his book charting the intellectual development of America’s founders. On “Jefferson’s literary commonplace book, into which he copied passages from authors who had caught his attention,” Ricks adds: “There are few better ways to study a literary passage than to write it out in one’s own hand, feeling each word and following the flow of thought.”
You might be saying, But I don’t write and speak about things for a living. I don’t need this resource. But you do. You write papers, memos, emails, presentations, notes to friends, birthday cards. You give advice. You have conversations at dinner. You console loved ones and tell someone special how you feel about them. All these are opportunities to use the wisdom you have come across and recorded—to improve what you’re doing with what you’ve read, with the knowledge passed down through history.
Read the Masters Again and Again
Do you know the investment Warren Buffett considers to be the foundation of his multi-hundred billion dollar empire? A book. Buffett can’t put an exact number on the number of times he’s reread The Intelligent Investor since he first read it at the age of 19. And “I can’t remember what I paid for that first copy,” he explained in his 2013 letter to shareholders, but “of all the investments I ever made…[it] was the best.”
In the late 1940s, that book would have cost a dollar or two at most. That’s a pretty good ROI.
You don’t have to read hundreds and hundreds of books. In fact, most people who make it their goal to read a certain amount of books each year inevitably fall off pace, get discouraged, and stop reading altogether. You’ll both read more and get a better return on your investment if you do what Buffett did and what the Stoics advised. As Seneca put it, “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”
Over and over again, the Stoics pored over the same texts. So the ideas could take firm hold. So they could be absorbed. So it could become muscle memory, infused into their DNA.
Once? Ha! That’s not enough. It’s about the reading and the re-reading. Writing, journaling, discussing, reflecting, experiencing. As Epictetus commanded: “Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand—write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”
Marcus would later talk about how the philosopher is one with their weapon—like a boxer, more than a swordsman. A boxer just clenches a fist and has their preferred weapon; a fencer has to pick something up. That’s what we’re trying to do as we study: we’re trying to create a practice—get the reps—that fuses us with our philosophy. That makes us one with it. That inserts it into our DNA so that we are forever changed by it.
Make that your reading goal. It’s not about skimming. It’s not about having done it once. It’s not about “getting the gist of it,” as Marcus derided. It’s about making it a part of your life and your mind. It’s about lingering and digesting until it takes firm hold, never to be dislodged.
Realize: You Are Not Too Busy
You have kids. You have a job—maybe two. You have these things you are trying to accomplish. You have to get to the gym. You have a long commute. You have all these projects around the house.
With all this, you say, I just don’t have time to read.
Which of course is ridiculous. It’s not true. It’s not even remotely true. Marcus Aurelius had all those same kinds of goals and responsibilities. Seneca did, too. You know what you don’t see in their writings? Complaints about not having time to read. In fact, if anything, they chide themselves for spending too much time with their books.
The fact is, people much busier than you have been prioritizing reading for centuries. They have been making wisdom part of their daily lives, no matter what’s going on in the world or in their jobs. As Andrew Roberts (listen to our discussion with him on the Daily Stoic podcast) writes in his epic biography of Napoleon, on his Egypt campaign,
[Napoleon] took 125 books of history, geography, philosophy and Greek mythology in a specially constructed library, including Captain Cook’ three-volume Voyages, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and books by Livy, Thucydides, Plutarch, Tacitus, and of course Julius Caesar. He also brought biographies of Turenne, Condé, Saxe, Marlborough, Eugène of Savoy, Charles XII of Sweden and Bertrand du Guesclin, the notable French commander in the Hundred Years War. Poetry and drama had their place too, in the works of Ossian, Tasso, Ariosto, Homer, Virgil, Racine and Molière.
If Napoleon, commanding an army of 40,000 men, could find time to read on a march over 1,600 miles from home, you can find it. If Marcus could read while he was ruling the world, if Seneca could do it while studying the law, suffering from tuberculosis, while in exile, in the Senate, as consul, while he dealt with Nero’s insanity, you can, too.
Leaders must be readers. There is no good life without study and practice and wisdom. Don’t find the time. Make the time. You’re not too busy.