The Forge Guide to Reading Better

How to Read

Humans have only been reading for 5,000 years, and we’re not that good at it yet

Illustration: George(s)

CCongratulations, humanity, on learning how to read! It took a long time — about 300,000 years — but it finally clicked. In the last 5,000 years that we’ve been reading, we haven’t missed a single year! It’s been one long reading fest.

Who wants a pizza party?!

When it comes to reading, we are, all of us, the evolutionary equivalent of a six-year-old. The timeline would suggest we have a lot of potential for improvement. We at Forge have been exploring how to get even better at reading: How to read more, and how to enjoy it more. How to remember what we read. How to pick a book out of the hundreds of thousands that are published each year.

We’re not talking about reading hacks, like playing your audio book at double speed or cleaving your books in two to make them easier to transport, although I’ve personally done both of these things. (A learning: Don’t play George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo at double speed. It loses a certain something.) We’re more interested in ways to enrich our reading, to get more out of what we read.

We think becoming a stronger reader comes down to four steps:

Increase your reading memory

There are dozens of books on my bookshelf that I spent hours with, but that I couldn’t tell you a thing about. Not the plot, not a character name, not whether the typeface is Baskerville or Bembo. Genius in Disguise, a biography of the founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross, for instance. I remember very little of that book.

But you know what I do remember about it? I remember a passage in the book describing his unassuming editing style, and how Ross once wrote in the margins of a story, “Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?” Even the editor of the New Yorker has a hard time remembering what he reads. As Emily Underwood (who always manages to explain science in a way that makes you want to… well, keep reading) says in her essay “How to Remember More of What You Read,” that’s probably because Harold and I weren’t employing a simple two-pronged process for reading that anyone can employ.

Choose your next book with intention

It’s impossible to know, but there’s a good chance that Amazon’s “Frequently Bought Together” feature has more influence on the next thing we read than the New York Times Bestseller list. But despite their power, both are impersonal — which means they’re inherently inadequate book recommenders.

You know who’s not inadequate at deciding what to read next? A real, actual person who reads a lot. A librarian or a bookseller, for instance. Reading books is an inherently “slow” process and it’s a real commitment. As Maris Kreizman writes in “How to Pick What to Read Next”: Don’t let an algorithm or a sales figure determine what you’re going to be immersed in for days, if not weeks. It’s a decision that deserves a human touch.

Track what you read

All over the internet, everyone seems to be reading performatively now — on Twitter, on Instagram, on Goodreads, on Art Garfunkel’s personal website (dude’s been book-tracking since before book-tracking was a thing). And it’s true that tracking your reading is a powerful way to increase your reading productivity — to, say, read 100 books this year. But it doesn’t make a difference if you track it publicly or privately. The key is tracking at all, writes Jennifer Locke (who read a personal best 107 books in 2019!) in “How to Read More Books.”

And for god’s sake, put down bad books

If you find that you don’t remember the last 20 pages of what you’ve read, or that you’re not reading but scanning, or that you’ve resorted to cleaning out the bathroom and/or your inbox to procrastinate opening a book, then just… put the book down. Put it down! And never pick it back up again. (Even if you’re trying to get to 100.) There are literally millions more to choose from. As Naben Ruthnum writes in “It’s Okay Not to Finish the Book,” you should “save your endurance for the books you find difficult but rewarding.” Added benefit: You’ll remember every word.

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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