How to Read: Start Many Books, Finish Few

When I studied music in college, I listened a lot.

As music majors, my friends and I treated it like a job. We listening to all kinds of things with a fury and a passion unlike anything I’ve experienced since. We immersed ourselves in the things we loved, always on the hunt for something new and interesting. We listened to anything– mostly jazz and classical music, but also blues, R&B, hip hop, funk, rock, and country. When you dig deeply, it’s incredible how much commonality you discover across wide stylistic and historic diversity.

We didn’t just listen casually, like you might put on the radio while you clean the house or work out. We would sit still in our living room with the lights low, our attention rapt. Instead of a TV, we had a stereo and a record player, and listening to music was it’s own activity. We didn’t do anything while we listened. We just listened.

If one’s personality is in some ways an empty container, then it was my task to fill it with the most beautiful and creative influences I could find. I concentrated deeply on whatever I was listening to, trying to absorb it into my being. When I found something new and excited, it felt like I had conquered it, and I when i finished an album, I would proudly place it on my shelf as a new part of my collection and a new part of my soul. I wasn’t content to absorb the stuff I was listening to. I wanted to devour it.

It was almost a literal hunger, this desire to fill my self with great music, and it became overwhelming. No matter how much I listened, there was always more. Each new artist or album only opened up more possibilities, and each conversation with a musician elicited scores of new recommendations. Great, I though, more shit that I need to research and listen to and study. More money that I need to spend on iTunes.

Once, I told a friend how it depressed me that there is so much great music in the world, and that I will never find time to listen to and appreciate all of it. He told me it didn’t make him sad. Just the opposite, in fact; he loved that no matter how long he lived, music would always be a deep well of happiness and inspiration that would never run dry.

It took me years to understand what he meant, but now I get it. I imagine the entire collection of the world’s music as the ocean. I realize now that I was trying to drink it and make it all mine, which is impossible. I wanted to own it. My friend made me realize that the right thing to do is to swim in it.


I don’t study music anymore, but I think about this a lot when I read.

In the past two weeks, I’ve started five or six new books. Most were terrible. I’m only reading one now, because I put the rest of them on the shelf or I abandonned them on the subway. I do this in hopes that someone else might enjoy them. Sometimes if they’re really bad, I’ll actually throw them away.

Here’s the thing that most people don’t understand about books: The function of reading is

  1. to educate, and
  2. to entertain.

If a book is doing just one of those things,that’s a good start, but don’t force it.

If it’s doing both in some combination, congratulations. You like this book. Keep reading.

If it isn’t doing either, then it’s time to give up and try something else.

This is not rocket science. Books are meant to be enjoyed and they’re meant to teach you things. If you are not learning about something that interests you– human behavior, psychology, philosophy, birdwatching, Spanish, Grover Cleveland, whatever—and you’re not having a blast doing it, put the book down. Step away. Then pick up another book and start reading that one. It’s OK to be picky.

But this is not easy. It requires your ego to take a blow, since you have to face an uncomfortable fact: If not finishing a book doesn’t make you stupid, then likewise simply finishing a book does not make you smart.

The truth is, it’s not unnatural or shameful to give up on a book, it just seems that way because we’ve all spent so much time in academia, where we’re forced to read books in a very particular way: front-to-back, dryly, at the teacher’s pace and not our own. Reading any other way is literally cheating. Throughout all our education, it never once mattered whether we liked the book or not. The professor had a syllabus that she had to stick to, and she only had a few short months to do it.

This approach requires a certain amount of unlearning. You’re not in school now, and there’s no syllabus for your own education. You can read whatever you want, however you want. There are no rules. Read the Sparknotes first. Ruin the ending. Read the chapters out of order, if it makes the task easier. Who’s going to tell you you’re doing it wrong? Any way to digest a book and figure out the author’s message is the right way to do it. And be sure to quit whenever you get bored.

Smart people know this. Montaigne, one of the most influential writers and intellectuals in history wrote:

“If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.”

He meant that if he wasn’t enjoying something he read, he had no problem with moving on. He knew that most books are terrible, or at least ill-suited to him at that particular moment. He wasn’t afraid to put a book down, and that sentiment is echoed by some of the smartest and most interesting people the world has known.

Do you realize how many books there are? Almost 130 million, according to Google. If I read at my current pace–about 100 books per year– for the rest of my life, I’ll have read only 6,000 books, or 0.004% of all books in existence.

My advice: It’s largely a matter of quantity. You need to be starting a lot of books, but only finishing the really good ones. Take lots of little tastes of material that you thing might be a interesting or useful to you, and spit most of them out. What is the sense in getting bogged down in a single book, when there are so many others out there waiting to be discovered?

Don’t try to conquer the books you read. Don’t feel proud when you finish them. Don’t use books merely as bulky physical tokens of how smart you are. They are not trophies. They are tools. Be proud only once you find a way to apply what you’ve learned. Be a doer and not merely a scholar.

Don’t feel bad when you don’t finish them. Brush up against the books that you love. Don’t try to own them or make them yours. Just let the dust from their covers rub off and permeate your thoughts, then move on to the next one.

Don’t try to drink the ocean. Just swim.