Updated on 07.30.14

What, Why, and How I Read

Trent Hamm

This post isn’t strictly about personal finance; instead, it serves to answer a question that a lot of readers have asked me over the past few months. What do I read? How do I read? Why do I read? Instead of having a “Simple Dollar reading week,” I tried to compress all of this information into one entry, answering most of the regular questions on the topic that I get from readers. Don’t worry, there is a bit of personal finance buried in here and there.

Why do I read?
As a general rule of thumb, I read primarily to inform myself and improve my understanding of the world. With a few exceptions, the books I read are nonfiction and what I would describe as “heavy” literature; the magazines are also weighty, as well.

How much do you read?
In a given week, I read about four books and about four magazines cover to cover. I also browse dozens of blogs of all stripes.

That’s a lot! How do you keep up?
I devote a minimum of an hour each day specifically to reading, and it’s often more than that. Plus, I have taught myself to read quite quickly.

What do you read regularly?
The magazines I am currently subscribed to are The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Consumer Reports, and Money, the latter two primarily for The Simple Dollar. My wife subscribes to Discover. We seem to also get Wired and Mother Jones, both of which are apparently gifts of some sort, though neither of us really recall the gift. We’re also hoping to add a subscription to Make in the future. If I had to keep only one, I’d easily choose The New Yorker, as there’s something I truly enjoy in every single issue and it’s a weekly.

Isn’t that expensive?
Not really. Magazine subscriptions are one of my favorite gifts, and so I often get a couple of renewals for Christmas gifts.

How do you read magazines?
I basically have a “last in, first out” stack of magazines beside my bed, as I do most of my magazine reading in the hour or so before sleep. I usually mark things with a pen that are interesting that I want to look at later on. We don’t save them at all, though we do occasionally save articles in electronic form by scanning them, and we would save each issue of Make if we were to subscribe because we see lots of possibilities for parent-child projects in it.

What about books?
I usually devote about an hour per weekday and two-three hours on a weekend day to reading a book. This timeframe enables me to read about four books a week on average. I usually try to do at least some of this where my son can observe me, so he can see that reading is a thing that people do as part of the normal course of a day.

Wow! Four books a week! Isn’t that expensive?
Not really. I have a lot of tools for getting books on the cheap: PaperBackSwap, the library, and a volunteer book exchange program that I’m involved with. I do occasionally buy new books, but not very often and usually only after some extensive research.

What were the last ten books you read?
This is as of April 25, 2007, and gives a pretty good snapshot of what I’m reading right now (and also a preview of some likely future reviews on The Simple Dollar):
The Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
The Random Walk Guide to Investing by Burton G. Malkiel
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
The Truth About Money by Ric Edelman
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

Again, why read so much?
I’ve read at a similar pace for my entire life (actually at a higher pace during my high school and collegiate years), and as a result I have a pretty firm basic understanding of almost any topic. Because of this, I can now go to a dinner party and be involved in one conversation on the changes in music distribution caused by the 1980’s “do it yourself” methodology, then turn around and talk about Milton Friedman’s Chilean Miracle with someone else, then just as quickly be involved in a chat about … well, pretty much anything. More than once, this has proved very useful to me, and here’s an example.

When I interviewed for a job a few years ago, I was asked to wait in a waiting room until the time of the interview, so I pulled out a copy of a book I was reading at the time, Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton. The person who was to interview me noticed this book and we started to discuss it, and from there the discussion branched out into many different areas. By the end of the interview, I had not been asked a single question that was really related to the job, but I got the job anyway. Later, I found out that the person interviewing me was blown away with how well-read I was and how well I could assemble the ideas, and that was enough.

If you choose stuff that makes your mind work, reading is far from a waste of time.

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  1. eR0CK says:

    How did you get to a point that you can read swiftly? I can read very fast, but I don’t comprehend what I read so I typically read slow.


  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    For me, it was just lots and lots of practice.

  3. Tyler says:

    For me, it’s a matter of sitting in one place for that amount of time that is difficult. I wish I could concentrate for that long but if the book is not interesting, there is no way I’ll do it. I have to be active. But this is one of my goals this year – to read a lot more. I need to practice because there is so much information out there that I need to grasp and experience. I hope someday I can catch up to your level!

  4. UncleOxidant says:

    Trent: Are you going to do a review of “The 4-Hour Workweek”? I’d be interested to find out if it’s worth reading.

  5. Martin says:

    I must say that I’m extremely impressed with how much you can read per week (just books, not counting magazines and blogs).

    I did a few calculations and it just blew my mind. If you read 4 books a week that’s about 1,457 pages. Hard to tell how many pages a book has, I know, but I took the list you posted in this article, left off Wealth of Nations — 1,200 pages — and another one I couldn’t find the numbeer of pages for and came up with an average of 364 pages per book — which seems quite reasonable as an average book length to me.

    So, 364 x 4 books = 1,457 pages divided by 11 hours (1 hour per day for 5 days and 3 hours a day for each of 2 days) = 132 pages per hour!!!

    That is mind boggling. I spent my whole working life reading (I was a literature professor and researcher/writer) and really read fast. But I never, ever came near 132 pph. And the stuff you’re reading is not simple, mindless, escape literature either.


  6. !wanda says:

    Have you tried The Economist? I absolutely love it. It’s very meaty and has better foreign news coverage than any other weekly newsmagazine I’ve seen. (It’s far from just economic news, by the way, although it covers international finance and economy issues well.) It’s expensive, though. I’ll mail you some back issues if you want to take a look.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    wanda: I used to subscribe to The Economist, but I was starting to get behind on my magazine reading and one of the several we subscribed to had to go.

    UncleOxidant: I liked it. It’s not really a personal finance book, though – not sure where it would fit here.

  8. neilxu says:

    Trent: I am an international student in US. I started to read your blog from this Feb. You mentioned the book “How to Read a Book” which changed your life. Can you tell us how you practice these skills in that book?

    I borrowed it and had a general idea but it is difficult for me to practice.


  9. Amy says:

    Here are some more suggestions for reading more (I usually read 2-3 books a week, plus significant portions of the NY Times and WSJ every morning).

    1. Always carry a book. You’ll be amazed how much reading you can get done in waiting rooms, lines, elevators, lunch breaks, and other odd snippets of your day that would otherwise go to waste.

    2. Read multiple books at a time. It’s easier to get excited about picking up a book if you have three or four you can dig into depending on your mood.

    3. The best way to learn to read faster is just to read more. And the best way to maximize the amount of time you spend reading is to read all sorts of things, not just good-for-your sorts of materials. Murder mysteries, romance novels, thrillers, etc. are all quick, undemanding reads that can provide the same sort of escape as movies or television, but as you get used to reading more you’ll find it easier to read more serious works as well.

    4. If a book just isn’t speaking to you, no matter how much of a classic it is, or how highly recommended, stop reading it. Life’s too short to read dull books.

    5. Make reading a social activity. It’s much easier to get excited about reading if you know friends will read and discuss the same books as you.

    6. I find I concentrate best when I’m engaging more of my senses – listening to music, eating dinner, reading in the park or at the beach. However, my boyfriend concentrates best in a silent, empty room with no distractions. It helps to figure out which kind of reader you are.

    7. Unless you’re trying to fall asleep, don’t read last thing at night or in bed.

    8. When you’re tackling complex, sophisticated works, look for essays or reviews that discuss the book and can support your own reading. You wouldn’t get very far understanding art history just looking at rows of paintings at a museum, or learning a programming language by looking at lines of code. Similarly with literature, it helps to have an expert voice to guide you.

    9. I don’t go for this, but some people swear by audiobooks, especially if you have a commute. These can often be checked out from the library as well.

    10. The best books are worth revisiting. I reread my favorite books every few years, and get something new out of them every time.

  10. Rob says:

    How much time do you spend reading blogs? I’m assuming you’ve got a feed reader in place…

    A quote you’ll appreciate: “The only thing worse than not reading a book in the last ninety days is not reading a book in the last ninety days and thinking that it doesn’t matter”.

  11. jake says:

    Not sure if this is call speed reading but some times I skip entire paragraphs because i already know what its going to talk about (mostly detailing of something like a building). I sometimes skip pages too when it runs into long conversations. Problem is i have to reread because the parts i skip even though they are boring still is important.

    When you guys mention speed reading are you guys reading everything and comprehending everything? i want to increase my reading speed because I read incredibly slow. It takes me a week for a single book, that’s with putting in an hour a day.

  12. lorax says:

    You read The Wealth of Nations, along with three other books, in a week? And you have a 40hr/wk job, and you have a kid? And you mind your finances, go comparison shopping, and take care of a house?

    Do you sleep?

  13. lorax says:

    BTW: just to take Martin’s calculations one level deeper: that’s more than 2 pages a minute.

    I forgot a few more: time with your wife, time to visit the parents, and inlaws, and (ta-dah) time to read blogs!

  14. stayfly says:

    great post (and great blog)

    do you make notes to help you remember what you’ve read or do u have some type of read and review method?

  15. rohit says:

    Amazing article, can u suggest any book or tools to help one become a fast reader

  16. My RSS reader is what I use with my GTD methodology. I subscribe to newsfeeds (like Harper’s), and just read them as they come in. An hour in the morning after my exercise and before my shower, and likewise an hour before I go to sleep.

    But day-um! You read a lot Trent!

  17. rhbee says:

    I have to agree with Amy, read a lot, read different, read with friends, and especially, with your mate. Border’s and Barnes&Noble are also great sources for reading material since they bring in all the new stuff and serve coffee too. I prefer Border’s and Seattle’s Best because the coffee is milder and the store is warmer but that’s just me. And finally, if you are looking for a magazine to challenge your mind and refresh your idea bank, try AdBusters.

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