How to Become as Well-Read as John Adams: 8 Tips From his Reading Life

John Adams was absurdly well-read.

His biographer, David McCullough, put it like this: 

“In an age when educated men took particular pride in the breadth of their reading, he became one of the most voracious readers of any.”

Here are 8 insights from his reading life for those aspiring to such heights of erudition:

1) A polymath, he read widely

John Adams read everything, from political theory and history to agriculture and mathematics. 

Such breadth of knowledge empowered him to make friends wherever he went. 

As Jefferson put it:

“He was so widely read, he could talk on almost any subject, sail off in any direction.” 

It’s long been my goal to become a polymath, to have a firm grasp of the major subjects — from my true loves, literature and philosophy to those subjects more foreign to me, like visual art and the sciences. 

Plus, my interests have always been wide. 

It’s nice to know Adams sometimes struggled to focus on one subject either. 

Worried about having too many interests? Don’t be. And check out why you shouldn’t be in my article Dear Generalist, Don’t be Ashamed, It’s a Superpower.

2) He kept a book of poetry with him

In a letter of instructions to his son, Adams wrote the following:

“You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” 

Refreshed by this idea, I began keeping a book of Wordsworth in my backpack. 

Does it beat my phone in the battle for my attention while waiting in line? 

Not always. I’m a 21st century chap after all.

But when it does, the world slows, my anxieties float away, and I’m right there with the great poet on the beach shore or a forest path.

Plus, I get to feel like an anachronism, which is always somewhat relieving, as if flouting the norms of the society puts one at a distance from the worries its members so often have.

3) One great book mined deeply can prove a powerful education 

When he began practicing law, Adams read and reread Cicero’s speeches over and over again to teach himself rhetoric and oratory. 

Especially the book, Cicero’s Orationum Selectarum Liber: Editus in Usum Scholarum. 

But he not only read it. He studied it obsessively.

Hoping to dig out all the wisdom he could, and retain it, Adams made comments in the margins and in his diary reflected on Cicero’s methods and techniques. 

“Tully, in that Peroration [in his defense of Milo], expresses the Passions of his own Mind, his Love, his Gratitude, his Grief and fear, and at the same time moves the Passions of the Judges, 

the Centurions and soldiers by appealing to them . . .” 

Through this intense study and emulation of Cicero’s tactics, he became one of the most successful lawyers and speakers in early America, even successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. 

4) Even future presidents fall behind on their reading goals

You may be happy to know, as I surely am, that Adams often struggled to focus on his studies, and was frequently angry with himself for being too distracted. 

At twenty, he wrote in his diary: 

“I have no books, no time, no friends. I must therefore be contented to live and die an ignorant obscure fellow.” 

At one point, Adams wrote out a rigorous study plan: 

“I am resolved to rise with the sun and to study Scriptureson Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, and to study some Latin author the other three mornings. Noons and nights I intend to read English authors… I will rouse my mind and fix my attention. I will stand collected  within myself and think upon what I read and what I see.” 

The next morning, he slept in and, a week later in his diary he wrote, “Dreamed the day away.” 

The number of times I’ve failed to hit my quarterly reading goals is upsetting – at least I’m not alone. 

5) Marginalia helps one learn and think

John Adams, like many great thinkers, knew that books were meant to be marked up.


  • To force yourself to think. 
  • To engage in conversation with the authors. 
  • To save your thoughts and reflections. 

Adams, an intense fellow, marked up his favorite book, Mary Wollenstonecraft’s An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, with more than 10,000 words of commons, notes, and, as you might expect, critiques. 

6) One must make sacrifices for a strong education

In his diary, the young Adams wrote,

“‘Let no trifling diversion or amusement or company decoy you from your books,’ he lectured himself in his diary, ‘i.e, let no girl, no gun, no cards, no flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness decoy you from your books.’” 

This is why I keep myself (most nights) to 1 hour of television.  

The other hours are for reading history and classic novels. Without such a rule, my addictive personality would choose television almost every time. 

Perhaps that’s why David Foster Wallace did not have one. 

7) Reading => awareness of ignorance => more reading

Whenever I step into a bookstore I feel a mix of the excitement of a boy in a candy shop and the anxiety of a man running out of time. 

There is so much to learn, and so little I know! 

A hundred books on European History. A hundred on nature and wildlife. A hundred on psychology. 

Adams must’ve felt the same,

“The more one reads, the more one sees we have to read.”

To get this motivational effect, try filling your bookshelves with books you haven’t read. At least half of mine is this way.  

8) Reading is essential for a well-functioning democracy

A statesman at his core, Adams’ opinions on reading expanded beyond himself and into society at large. 

“The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country.” 

He knew an educated populace is a vital and moral one. We would do well to remember that.

For more like this, check out my article on how the founding fathers used self-directed learning.


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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