Why (& How) You Should Read 50 Books a Year

Updated March 2018.

I’ve never been much of a New Year’s Resolution type of guy. I hate the swarms of new people in my gym January through Mid-February. But, I did come up with a resolution of sorts a few years ago that totally revolutionized my life. Now I set this goal each January 1st: read 50 books per year (roughly one book per week).[1]

As Ernest Heminway said, “There is no friend as loyal as a good book,” and I’ve found that the benefits of reading extend beyond the friendship, entertainment, or even the mental stimulation. Simply put, they bring ideas and opportunities, which are hard to even put a value on.

Why Reading?

I don’t have to sell myself too hard on reading’s benefits. But just in case, here’s a roundup:

  • Mental Stimulation
  • Stress Reduction
  • Knowledge
  • Vocabulary Expansion
  • Memory Improvement
  • Stronger Analytical Thinking Skills
  • Improved Focus and Concentration
  • Better Writing Skills
  • Tranquility
  • Free Entertainment

With most goals, specificity helps. When you read a list of benefits like this, you’re like “yeah, I should read more.” But “read more” is a recipe for failure, because other priorities will jump up. You’ll get busy. When you read 50 books a year, it’s a measurable goal, and you know how you’re tracking against it.

Personally, my goals need to be measurable. I can’t just “lose weight,” “read more,” or “try new things” I need to lose 10 pounds, read 50 books, or go to Brazilian Ju Jitsu classes twice a week. I think most people are the same. If you really want to change, you need something to measure, something to define whether you’ve succeeded or failed.

But, why 50 books per year?

I like the number 50. It’s about one book per year. It’s a good round number, and it sounds impressive (better than 30, or even 40).

You could also say, “read one book per week,” and that would be roughly the same thing. Except I think that carries some downsides, notably that if you define the pace at which you read you’ll define the books you pick out. Some books take more than a week. Some less. You should give yourself flexibility to binge a few books in a week sometimes and to skip a week because you’re busy or traveling other times.

Some you might binge read and get a little ahead of schedule. But also, if I am too strict on “1 book per week” then I’m less likely to pick up overly challenging books. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged would be difficult to get through in a week (unless I drop all other actual work I’m doing). Therefore, I make my goal a more rounded 50 to account for the variance in complexity and length.

What happens when you read 50 books per year?

Here’s some math: 50 books times 200 pages per book equals 10,000 pages. 10,000 pages equal a lot of words, and some of those words are going to help you out.

It’s almost guaranteed that throughout the course of the year you’ll read something that specifically relates to a problem you’re trying to solve. It seems like a lot of effort to find a very specific solution to a very specific problem, but if you make reading a habit it will come naturally. You won’t even need to look for a solution when the time comes. That makes the entire process worth it.

I find that I apply ideas to situations now much more naturally. Due to the unnatural amount I’ve read on behavioral science, I can apply frameworks to problems that are better solved using such psychology and behavioral science. Due to the unnatural amount of content I’ve read on analytics and online growth, I have a better intuitive idea on how these things work than someone who solely looks at things at the tactical level.

Similarly, you can solve your own problems in the moment with good books (better than good articles). Straying from the modern, if a book has been around long enough you can almost assure that it holds some sort of universal or at least long lasting value.

When you read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius or even the classics of last century, you can pull patterns and ideas that have existed or millennia.

More importantly, when you read at a good breadth, you cross-connection subjects and see that, wow, what Marcus Aurelius talked about so long ago deals with the same thing as current neuroscience or social psychology or probability theory, or whatever.

I’m spitballing on the topics and genres there, but the point is that having a good understanding of multiple disciplines which helps you connect dots into patterns easier than those who have a narrow view of the world (if all you have is a hammer…)

There are other subtle benefits, such as those that follow.

Expanding Your Horizons

In addition to reading about specific things that will help you in specific ways, reading 50 books per year really broadens your horizons.

Inevitably, reading will take you down a few unexpected rabbit holes and you’ll emerge with new interests and knowledge. I’m now weirdly knowledgeable on John F. Kennedy and American History during the Cold War. I mainly read to improve my marketing and business chops, and the Cold War has nothing to do with that. But it’s influenced a lot of how I think about certain things. I also went down a rabbit hole of the history of Hollywood a few months ago. Random interests like these help liven up your conversations, and reading classics helps you relate and converse with almost anyone.

article-2342635-1a59837b000005dc-39_638x630

Become Articulate and Awesome

You’ll become more articulate if you read 50 books per year. Once you read enough, you’ll distinguish patterns that make certain authors more eloquent than others. This includes organization, sentence structure, word choice and voice. Once you distinguish these patterns, you really don’t even have to work to incorporate them into your own communications. It sort of just happens.

Writers read a lot, and good writers read a lot of good writing.

Substance Over Noise

When you read 50 books per year, you’ll become successful. You’ll develop a depth and breadth of knowledge. Reading pithy blog posts won’t make you successful. Sure, reading Seth Godin’s blog posts can inspire you – but you should really read 50 books per year if you want to be a smart, capable person. Otherwise you’ll be full of inspiration and lacking on substance. The true recipe for both failure and charlatanism.

Most importantly, reading 50 books per year will defuse the power that click bait still holds. I hate click bait. Journalism is at a depressing low right now, but people are hungry for depth and quality. When you read 50 books per year, sure, click bait still pisses you off. But you can be more zen about it because you know that real content awaits you in the form of a 800 page paperback about Teddy Roosevelt.

Self-Awareness

Reading 50 books per year defeats the illusion of knowledge.

You’d think it would make you feel much smarter, but it really makes you aware of how much you don’t know. However, this is a good thing. I bet some of your Facebook friends think they’re political experts because they read a blog post that said Obama is a socialist without an American birth certificate. No, these people aren’t certifiably insane (but close). But they could probably pick up a book or two this week, and it would help them be less vitriolic.

EH 3963 Ernest Hemingway reading outside at Finca Vigia in Cuba. Please credit "Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston"

Credit: Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

How To Read 50 Books Per Year

Let’s talk about the process. It’s not as bad as you think. All you need to do is create a habit. I talk about this with how I learn Spanish, too. Never rely solely on ambition or motivation or vague plans of “getting better.” Build that shit into a routine in your life so it feels weird when you break it.

Really, what 50 books per year looks like is about 45-60 minutes of reading per day. Maybe a bit more, if you add in weekends (I usually read about an hour on weekend days). How long is your commute? I walk 30 minutes to and from work and always throw on an audiobook. Done. The process really doesn’t take as long as you’d think, and if you eliminate an hour of TV and replace it with challenging books, you’ll be grateful.

I also find that if you build the habit into a certain time of your daily routine, it gets done always. I read for 20 minutes in the morning while drinking my coffee. Right before meditation, and right after waking up. Sometimes I read more if I feel like it (at night or whatever), but I never miss a morning.

There are many things you can do to improve your life, but reading 50 books per year might be what provides the most overall value. You get the most results out of what you put into it. If you’re looking for a new year’s resolution, don’t try to give up ice cream or go to the gym 8 days a week. You’ll fail. Try reading just a little bit a day, and reap the benefits that readers have enjoyed for centuries.

Update 2018: How I Read Now (and Why It’s Fewer Than 50 Books)

I don’t read 50 books a week anymore. I set my goal at a more moderate “30 books per year,” which is a bit over 2 per month. That’s still a shitload of books, so don’t get mad at me for bailing on my original intent. I read 50 books a year for (I think) 5 or 6 years. Lots of books!

I only read 30 now because I’m taking specific courses and educational activities related to my goals. I want to learn Spanish, Krav Maga, and get better at growth (and specifically data science). None of those are easy things to learn, and they take time. I sacrificed some of my book reading for other forms of education.

Here’s the thing: the time I carved out to read 50 books per year is still being used, just for other forms of education.

Now that I look back at this article that I wrote in college (junior year I believe), I’m impressed at my ambition to read so much, but I’m even more so just happy that my past self carved out such a significant amount of time in my day to focus on growth and self-improvement. Building out that habit and that priority was more important than the sort of arbitrary educational format of books (though I do believe there is a particular depth and precision of information transfer that you get from books).

Next year I’ll probably read even fewer books as I a) shift to move active forms of learning with language and data science and b) shift to reading denser books and rereading my favorite most valuable ones.

You can watch video lectures, meditate, play with Duolingo, or take Spanish Skype lessons – doesn’t matter too much. It’s really just a process of carving out that time and being deliberately dilettantish & erudite. Learn shit, ya know?

Second Update 2018: What I’m Focused on This Year

I decide to set my goal this year at 24 books. 2 per month. Still a lot, but not 50.

Why?

I want to a) focus on other courses and skills that require time and depth, b) re-read a few of my favorite books this year, and c) read some denser books than normal.

For my first point, I’m learning Spanish (lessons 2-4 times per week plus other activities), taking Krav Maga and kickboxing classes, taking Reforge & a course on machine learning (haven’t decided which course. Convince me if you have a good one), and focusing on doing more public speaking (through improv classes among other things). I’ve got a busy life. Reading is still a priority, but other stuff matters, too.

Point two, there’s a maxim in Taleb’s new book (Skin in the Game) about re-reading bringing more value than reading new books (if the value is sufficient in the re-read) because of the way memory works. Therefore, I want to re-read some of my favorites (including Antifragile and Black Swan, by Taleb).

Point three, I want to read some more challenging stuff. It was easy to breeze through 50 books (sort of) when I was just starting out in marketing, reading a lot of Seth Godin, and mostly putting down 200 pagers. I have a few on my shelf I’ve been meaning to get to that are more difficult – large 700 biographies, technical books on data science concepts, and some classics that will take me a while to get through. I’m indexing on quality over quantity now.

You can track my books here, though: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/10765202-alex

1 I just recently discovered that I’m not the originator of this challenge. Not even close. In fact, Julien Smith wrote an awesome blog post about it a few years ago that I just discovered: http://inoveryourhead.net/one-book-a-week-for-2007/

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

Comments are closed.