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The good: I try to read as much as possible - I would like to understand the world, as ongoing learning, as professional and personal development, just because I like it.

The bad: I am a slow reader, I don't like speed reading because I want to concepts and topics to sink in and I like to understand them and visualize. Which means it takes me a long time (a month or 2 months) to finish one book.

Since my overall goal is to be a well-rounded knowledgeable person, what is the solution to this? Is it reading multiple books at one time? Or is it best to simply take it at my own pace? Any advice appreciated, thank you.

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Some of the answers to this question might help: productivity.stackexchange.com/questions/7010/… –  Kramii Jul 5 '13 at 9:18

9 Answers 9

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I struggled with this for years, so think I understand what you're getting at. I've always had lots of books I wanted to read, and when I was younger I would try to hurry to finish one so I could start on the next. I tried learning speed reading a couple times, but found it very unsatisfactory. I, too, like to reflect on what I'm reading, pretty much the opposite of speed reading.

I finally began to grasp that it was GOOD for me to read a book slowly - I ended up getting a lot more out of it that way. Then it became obvious that I should dispense with the whole notion of reading one book at a time. Now, I read dozens at a time. Not sure if there is an optimum number, but I actually made a list of all the ones I'm currently reading so I could keep track of them.

This advice isn't for everyone - I've spent decades doing research on psychological typing and believe I understand the reasons why it's good for some, but just bear in mind that others' advice of what works for them might be exactly the opposite of what will work for you. I'm sure there are many smart people who read like this. Here's an interesting tidbit about President Bill Clinton:

"Rather than concentrate on one book at a time, aides say, Mr. Clinton usually reads several simultaneously, gulping down literary caviar and pretzels with the same enthusiasm. A typical load of books in the bag of reading material he travels with would include the latest Walter Mosley murder mystery, a biography of Lincoln or Churchill, a pop futurology selection like "Megatrends," a serious treatise on world economics like "Head to Head," by Lester Thurow, and a collection of Plato's Dialogues."

http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/10/books/books-books-and-more-books-clinton-an-omnivorous-reader.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

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The good: I try to read as much as possible - I would like to understand the world, as ongoing learning, as professional and personal development, just because I like it. The bad: I am a slow reader, I don't like speed reading because I want to concepts and topics to sink in and I like to understand them and visualize. Which means it takes me a long time (a month or 2 months) to finish one book.

I like to do the same. However, there does come a time, when you realize there is just too much to read and know and not enough time. This is when I started to prioritize my reading process. I selected topics that interest me the most and made reading lists for each of them. These lists at any point contain enough to occupy me for at least 2-3 months ahead.

Basically, I suggest you should start doing the same, if you dont already. Focus on the things that matter most.

Since my overall goal is to be a well-rounded knowledgeable person, what is the solution to this? Is it reading multiple books at one time? Or is it best to simply take it at my own pace?

Your goal is best served by focusing on areas that affect you the most. Spending 3 months reading about wood-working when you will never actually do any of it practically doesnt make sense. It is not a good investment of your time. So, emphasizing again, prioritize, prioritize.

Reading multiple books is a good workable solution that I apply myself. I make sure to read books from different genres though. Also, I have over time, almost stopped reading fiction.

Try to read a technical book whose learning you will be able to apply in the near future alongside a book that may be purely thought-provoking or theoretical. If you want to be more adventurous, you may add in a third book which is about a topic that you have some previous knowledge about, and you are only attempting to make your knowledge concrete.

Lastly, you may need to devote more time from your schedule to reading if you feel you are not reading enough. This of course should be balanced with your real world activities (job, family). Try to read while commuting. Switch from your car to public transport and read during the journey.

Every minute you are able to utilise takes you deeper into the pool of knowledge. Enjoy!

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Thank you!! I love your 3rd point, that the 3rd book I should already have some background in. –  Dina Jul 5 '13 at 13:39

There are several avenues that could we worth exploring:

Reconsider Your Overall Goal

You said, "my overall goal is to be a well-rounded knowledgeable person...". To be honest, I'm not persuaded that this is a worthwhile goal - or even a meaningful one. The truth is, nobody is ever really "well-rounded". We all have our areas of knowledge and areas of ignorance.

Personally, I choose to embrace that imbalance rather than to fight it. I do this by playing to my strengths and enjoying becoming more knowledgeable in those areas. At the same time, I leave other areas for people who are gifted in those areas. When I need to know something about ballet or football (not my areas at all) I ask someone else. If other people need to know about LEGO, they ask me.

BTW, I'm not saying you should never read books on subjects outside your areas of expertise - if you did that, you'd never develop other interests. Rather, I'm suggesting you read books that really interest you, not just because you think they will make you "well rounded".

Choose More Suitable Books

If it takes 1-2 months to read a book because that's how long it takes to let the ideas sink in then perhaps the books you're reading are at too high a level for you? Can you find introductory texts on the same subject? That way, you'll have the foundations in place when you tackle the more advanced texts.

Prioritise Your Reading

Given how long it takes to read a single book, it is really important that you choose books that give you the most "bang for buck" - by which I mean, will give you maximum understanding about the most important topics in the least amount of time. I've written an article on choosing books that you might find helpful.

One possibility is to focus your reading on the things that you can put in to practice. The things you learn from books are are negligible compared to the things you'll learn from actually doing things.

Or, you could just pick books that are both exceptionally well written and extremely interesting.

Speed Read Anyway

Another approach is to speed read and risk missing important stuff - but not to worry about it. I suggest that you might learn more overall by speed-reading two books than slowly reading one book. Of course, only you can make that call, and I totally respect you if you carry on reading the way you do just because that's your preference. But if you're reading to learn, consider skimming and skipping bits that are less important.

Read Books in Parallel

Your own suggestion - reading more books at the same time - has certain merits. However, rather than debate these, why not just give it a go? Whilst other people have all sorts of experiences that could usefully inform your decision, nobody else's experience of reading will ever be the same as yours. The only way you can know for sure is to experiment. And I can understand your reluctance - why waste valuable reading time on an experiment like this? However, when you consider the potential benefits, I think you'll agree that the risk is worth it. So give it a go and see what happens!

Just Be Slow

Finally, you could just accept that you're slow. Being a slow reader isn't necessarily a bad thing. And being a reader is an awesome thing.

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I personally consider reading a form of relaxation and simultaneously mental stimulation. I do not think of it in terms of goals or something to do. In fact, reading for accomplishing a goal will turn it into an extrinsically motivated activity and will slowly reduce the intrinsic motivation that the OP already has. Hence, deciding or focussing on a specific goal might not serve this well. In this scenario, an open-ended goal such as being well-rounded will work best, IMHO. –  AsheeshR Jul 5 '13 at 13:41

My recipe is simple. I always read two books simultaneously. I have divided my day into two parts: morning and evening reading. In the morning (while going to work by bus) I read a professional book, while in the evening I read fiction or documentaries. At the weekend I read mostly articles, both professional and hobbystic - by the priority.

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I think the answer will largely depend upon some further details as to why you read slowly.

You say that you want time to have the book sink in, so that presumably you take the chapters slowly with some time between.

If that is the case, it may be realistic to also be reading/consuming a book on a separate topic at the same time, to overlap the digestion periods so to speak.

I suggest a different topic so that you are not mixing among several authors' presentations of the same topic at the same time. (similarly, I don't personally have problems mixing almost any Fiction and almost any non-Fiction at the same time)

That said, unless your pace is causing you specific issues, I would not worry about it too much. You may well be better off knowing a few things fully, than many things partially.

Good Luck

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Thank you!! Sink in = understand the science, political concept, etc. Not taking breaks from reading per se. But reading that's not speed reading. Reading a sentence, thinking a little bit about it, then reading on. :) –  Dina Jul 4 '13 at 18:03
    
In that case, just keep at it, perhaps making more time if needed by changing your other activities somewhat. –  sdg Jul 4 '13 at 18:29

I think you should read mutliple books at the same time. Pros:

  • Some books are not worth reading, you should learn to skim through them or skip them altogether.
  • Reading content-rich books is a strenuous activity. You might get tired and bored. Switching to another one might be a good refreshener.

However it is best to avoid reading multiple books on the same subject at the same time. Authors present different perspectives on the topic and introduce different composition of knowledge. It may disrupts knowledge sinking in.

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One advantage of reading multiple books at the same time is that some books are more suitable for certain times than others. When a screaming baby has finally fallen asleep at 10.30pm, the last thing I want to tackle is the complete works of Plato, in fact if that is all that is available I am likely to turn on the TV instead. If, however, the latest blockbusting non-fiction is also on my bedside table I am likely to pick that up and read it.

The disadvantage, however, is that when I have the time and energy to tackle the complete works of Plato, I will inevitably be tempted to finish the more accessible blockbuster first.

Increasingly I am more concerned with what I read rather than how much I read. I have always chosen to make time for reading, and easily exceed the book-a-week so many people aspire to, but all you discover is there is so much more you want to read and so little time if you are to fully understand the world. Although we are often obsessed with the new, when it comes to information we should consider it's half-life. Most of the books that fill the bestseller charts will not stand the test of time, and we would do better to spend our time focusing on those that already have: If a book has been in print for a couple of thousand years, it's probably going to make you a more well-rounded and knowledgable person than anything on the bestseller list. Even in a modern field such as computer science, there are many classics from the 60s, 70s, and earlier that continue to be important and would give a far better understanding of the subject than multiple more recent books.

So, if you need different types of books for different times read multiple books, but however many you read make sure they're worth your time.

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Spend more time reading: take a look at other tasks you are doing. I don't know what type of book you're reading but if it's taking you 1 or 2 months to read a book you may be devoting so little time to the task that you are expecting miracles.

Read less books: not all knowledge has the same value. Every idea or neural connection that you make costs time and gives some benefit. Look at how you use the knowledge you're acquiring and identify the knowledge that gives you the highest ROI. In a given field, for example, you will invariably find a few primary sources and a lot of secondary sources that summarize, paraphrase over the primary sources.

Improve your reading skills Practice makes perfect. I would also give speed reading another try: not every field, every book or every chapter requires the same level of attention.

When asked how to get smarter, Buffett once held up stacks of paper and said “read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”

From Farnamstreet.

Also make sure that you are getting the most out of what you currently read, summarize, explain in your own words, be critical.

Regarding your original question about reading multiple books at once or not what works for me is to stick to reading one or two books at the same time. Anything else besides that increases mental confusion and makes me forget what every book is about. Multitasking with books has, for me, the same negative impact as multitasking while doing things has.

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Here is what has worked for me.

One Non-Fiction book a day

Your brain needs time to digest information. You'll notice that after you read a good non-fiction book, you'll start daydreaming or applying the things you learn, maybe even dreaming about it. Digesting is normal.

If you have to switch, make notes, or at least highlight important points. I don't quite like highlighting, because a good book will already put important points clearly or repeat them for clarity.

Try to summarize chapters. For difficult books, make a 'glossary' for important terms, along with the page number that details what they mean, so you don't waste time looking for what terms mean.

As many fiction books as you like

Fiction is ok. It's easy to drop, easy to pick up again.

Learn to skim non-fiction

Read intros. Read table of contents. Read the end of every chapter. Read the content superficially (without trying to understand). Then do a second, more thorough reading.

This really helps you learn a lot faster. Think of it like learning a language... if you look up every word, you'll never learn the language. If you learn the important words and see how they work in a sentence, you'll understand what the words in between mean.

You should learn speed reading to improve the rate at which you go over non-important content. Read difficult/important content slowly, but skim through fillers and stories. Use fiction and Facebook to hone your speed reading skills.

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