How to Become Well-Read in 3 Years or Less (A 6-Step Plan)

Becoming well-read takes time and consistent effort, but it’s well within reach for the majority of people.

Let’s do some quick math to prove it. 

If the average length of a book is 300 pages, and read around 30 pages per day, you’ll finish one book every 10 days. 

If you keep up that steady pace for a year, you’ll read 36 books. If you do it for three years, you’ll have over 100 books under your belt, a truly impressive feat.

Whether that’s 100 books in one field, like English literature or psychology, or 100 books spread over 2-3 fields, you’d certainly be considered well-read by our definition — “a person who has read thoughtfully and extensively across one or multiple fields of inquiry.”

In this article I’ll give you a step-by-step guide for becoming well-read in three years: 

  1. Accept That You Can’t Read Everything
  2. Sample the Various Fields of Knowledge
  3. Choose 1-3 Fields to Read for the Next 1-3 Years
  4. Get Some Context in Your Core Field(s)
  5. Read the Classics of Your Chosen Field(s)
  6. Consider Branching Out or Narrowing Focus

I’ll also answer questions like how to choose your fields/genres, how to find the classic books to read, how to create your reading plan, and a bunch of other stuff I wish that I’d known when I started taking reading seriously. 

Before jumping into the steps, I first have to explain what I mean by “well-read”, and why I believe the term can still be useful to autodidacts and readers. 

1. Accept That You Can’t Be Well-Read in Every Field

Wandering around used bookstores is one of my favorite hobbies. It never fails to recharge my sense of wonder for the world. 

I love stumbling across titles like “The History of British Mammals” or “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies”, books that I’d never have found online.  

Surrounded by all that knowledge, I also inevitably feel something less pleasant than wonder. I feel inadequate. The hundreds of thousands of books around me humble me intellectually. Like Socrates at the Oracle, I know that I know nothing. 

And I’ll never know it all, even if I live like Raddaghast the wizard or some demented version of Nietzhce’s ubermensch, sequestered on a mountain-top screaming hard-won truths into the blistering wind: 

Before you start your journey towards becoming well-read, it’s helpful to acknowledge that you’ll never be able to master all the fields of knowledge. Breaking this illusion early will save you some trouble and heartache. 

When I first started reading seriously, at age 23, I drew up a list of books across at least ten fields that I was interested in — literature, history, Buddhism, ecology, political science, psychology, philosophy, and so on.

The reading project proved far too wide in scope and left me feeling overwhelmed. I soon realized the bewildering breadth of each individual field. 

I saw, for instance, how history is broken into hundreds of eras and countries, and how political science is divided into six major branches, which are then divided again into sub-branches. 

Reading so broadly, and without a system, I felt sort of like the scholar that Susan Wise Bauer writes about in her book The Well Educated Mind:  

“Stick to one list [field] at a time. During this self-study time, avoid the kind of reading that German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher indulged in his early years: a wide-ranging and impressive, but unsystematic, devouring of books that left his mind, as he put it in later years, “like Chaos, before the world was created.”

— Susan Wise Bauer, The Well Education Mind

Since then, I’ve made an effort to reign in my curious nature and focus on a few subjects at a time, taking brief vacations into other subjects — I can’t help it — but not trying to master them all simultaneously. 

Once you accept this truth about knowledge acquisition, you can then craft a deliberate and realistic plan to become well-read. And you’ll be able to follow it without feeling spread too thin.

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2. Sample the Various Fields of Knowledge 

Now it’s time to explore the world of knowledge to identify which specific fields you want to focus on studying. 

Thomas Jefferson knew the importance of exploring first, then selecting and sticking: 

“I shall propose to you that it [studies] be extensive, comprehending Astronomy, Natural Philosophy (or Physics), Natural History, Anatomy, Botany & Chemistry. No inquisitive mind will be content to be ignorant of any of these branches. But I would advise you to be contented with a course of lectures in most of them, without attempting to make yourself master of the whole. This is more than any genius joined to any length of life is equal to. You will find among them some one study to which your mind will more particularly attach itself. This then I would pursue & propose to attain eminence in.”

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter To Thomas Mann Randolph

You might already know which fields or subfields you want to read extensively. It might be philosophy, literature, sociology, chemistry, zoology, or US History. 

If you’re 100% sure about it, and have already read a fair amount of books within that field, then feel free to skip this step and move on. 

However, if you’re still on the fence even slightly, consider taking a sampling period, where you taste-test other genres you think you might like.  

Here are some great ways to test out subjects: 

  • Watch YouTube Series, Podcasts, or Lectures: Listen to some discussions about topics in the field. 
  • Take Survey or Intro Online Courses: There are numerous online intro courses for various fields.  
  • Read Popular Modern Books in the Field: Buy a few recent books written for non-specialists.  
  • Wrestle With a few Classics: Grab 1-2 of the classic texts and see if despite their density they still hold your attention. 

A sampling period does a few things to improve your chances of success in becoming well-read. First, it keeps you from choosing a genre that you can’t stick to, one that you chose just because it seems romantic or stylish. 

At one point I compiled a list of philosophy of mind books. I thought I’d love the subject, but I was mistaken. The field failed to grab my curiosity, and I abandoned the project after a few months of wondering what was wrong with me. 

Second, it allows you to explore other genres, some of which might open your eyes to authentic interests hidden within you. 

For example, I thought my days of studying US history were over. But the musical Hamilton inspired me to read a bit more about it. I picked up Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution, and have been hooked on reading about the Revolutionary period ever since. 

Although you can always adapt your plan to fit your curiosity, it’s nice to land on a field that you’re certain is worth investigating deeply for several years

You want to be excited to pick up the books. So really put these through the test and pay attention to the voice inside, ignoring thoughts about what fields you “should be reading”. 

Want to read more books per year?

Consider getting Audible so you can listen to books on-the-go. That’s a great way to sample different fields of study while driving or doing chores.

They offer a 30-day free trial for their Premium plan (you get 1 free audiobook, 2 if you’re an Amazon Prime member).

I love using it at night when I’m sleepy or when I take walks.

3. Pick 1-3 Fields to Read Consistently for 1-3 Years

Gates Law states that “most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

Tim Ferriss, a serious self-learner himself, said a variation of this on his podcast — that we overestimate what we can do in three months and underestimate what we can do in three years. 

In three years you can really go deep into 1-3 subjects if you read in them each day. You can, according to our definition, become well-read, or even an expert who knows more about the fields than 99% of people. 

While these core fields will be your focus, you can still read in other fields in order to develop range and go wide as well as deep.

Let’s now go over what we mean by the term “field”, the benefits of only focusing on reading 1-3 fields, and how to pick the right fields for you. 

What Do We Mean by Field?

The word field is a field of inquiry. It can be broad like Literature or specific like Russian Literature or even 19th-century English Novels. Typically the narrower ones are classified as subfields. 

I myself like to start out broader and narrow down as I learn more and become more aware of my interests. For example, when I started reading English Literature I was reading all over the canon, before confining my reading to novels from the last 200 years. 

For this project of becoming well-read in around 3 years, the narrower your genres are, the more of them you can have as your focus. This is because narrower fields have fewer classics than broader ones. 

Three huge fields like history, philosophy, and literature would be pretty expansive. It might suit you better to pick history and political philosophy (one field and one subfield), or US history, political philosophy, and 19th-century American literature (three subfields). 

Picking genres that are related and inform each other is also a fun thing to do, But so is developing range by picking two subjects across the spectrum, like a natural science and a humanity. 

You’ll draw connections between the fields either way — between a butterfly’s mating habits and a sociological concept, for example. 

Really go with your gut when choosing the genres. What matters most is that you’ll be excited to read them. 

Why Focus on Reading Only a Few Fields?

It took me a while to learn that focusing on learning a few things really well is better than trying 

to learn a bunch of different things at once. 

By going deep into one or two fields for 2-3 years, you gain intellectual skills that you wouldn’t if reading across ten fields at once. 

For example, you’ll learn how to compare several authors’ points of view on one issue or question, say the cause of WWI, and then form your own opinion.  

You’ll also learn the often unconscious art of finding connections between theories in the field and building your own theories on top of them.   

Lastly, you’ll learn how to truly read that genre. Reading philosophy is different from reading history, for example. You look for different things. Your pacing is different. Reading your genre is a skill you have to build like any other. 

What to Do if You Have Too Many Interests?

If you’re anything like me, one or two genres for years without any outside reading is unfeasible. My interests are too broad. 

So, though you have a structured plan, let yourself read outside of it when you want. Allow yourself to read about whatever topic is pulling at your interests any given week. Don’t treat yourself like a dog. 

For example, this year I’ve been focusing on novels in English Literature, cycling through the different eras. 

But I’m still reading a little history now and then, and just the other day I picked up a recent book on the American education system that I’m going to read. 

Yes, the bulk of my time is spent on reading literature, but I’m still dipping in and out of other fields, and I don’t feel guilty about doing it. You shouldn’t either. 

Which Subjects Should You Read to Become Well-Read?

The best subjects to read to attain well-read status are the subjects that interest you the most because those are the ones that will motivate you to read frequently and deeply. 

Another factor to take into consideration is your long-term career goals. Is there some field of study that people holding positions you want are knowledgeable about? Or, is there a subject that will help you be better at your craft or job? 

If cultural capital is your goal, then give consideration to one of the big three humanities — philosophy, literature, and history. It’s in these genres that the most recognizable names and book titles exist — Plato, James Baldwin, Thucydides, Jane Austen, etc., 

Vanity metrics aside, these books have the power to transform entire empires and political systems, as well as individuals. One of those fields and a more scientific one would be a pretty badass combo. 

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4. Gain Some Context in Your Core Field(s)

You’ve sampled various fields of knowledge and selected a few that you want to focus on reading for a couple of years. Well done! 

Now it’s time to learn the basics of the fields, some of which you might’ve picked up in the sampling period. I like to call this phase the introductory phase. 

To gain context, consider learning the following: 

  • The field’s branches and subdisciplines
  • The history of the field 
  • Basic terminology
  • The major writers/thinkers and works. 

This knowledge will help you chart a reading plan and inform your reading of the classics. You’ll also have a solid foundation to build on. 

There are four main tools I use in this introductory phase for a new field:

  • Online Intro Courses: Lecture-based courses that survey the entire discipline.  
  • Beginner Books: Intro books like the Oxford Very Short Introduction series.
  • Skill-Based Books: Teaches you how to read and/or study your field of inquiry. 
  • Histories of Ideas: A book that introduces you to the field’s major thinkers and ideas. 

For example, if you wanted to self-learn political philosophy, you could start by taking Yale’s free online course Introduction to Political Philosophy, studying a book on philosophical reading like The Philosopher’s Toolkit, and then reading On Politics: A History of Political Thought From Herodotus to the Present. 

5. Read the Classics & Other Key Books in the Field(s)

Most fields of inquiry have some more or less agreed-upon canon that contains the most influential works in the discipline’s history.

Aside from googling “best {genre} books”, another way to identify these classics is to figure out which books universities assign to their graduate students. These lists are reflections of what works the department thinks any expert in the genre should be familiar with. 

To find university-assigned reading lists, type this into Google: comprehensive exam reading list {genre} {university}.” 

For example, I typed in “American politics reading list comprehensive exam Yale” and found this massive reading list (page 1 of 9 shown below):

Note that this technique tends to work better for humanities and social science subjects. Some of the hard sciences are more textbook and lab focused in their education. 

Also, since graduates focus on one branch or subdiscipline, these lists are often narrower in focus. You’ll be able to find a list of classic books for American History pre-1865, but you won’t find one for general history. 

If you want to read just the most well-known works in the broad field, there are usually pretty authoritative lists online from people other than universities. 

For instance, The Guardian has a list of the top 100 English Literature novels. That’d be a great list to work through if English Lit was your focus. It’s often best to make your own list, drawing from various ones you find online. 

Regardless of which classics you choose to read (you’ll change the list along the way anyway), there are some best practices to follow to ensure that you read them often and read them well. 

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Create a Reading Plan

Consider creating a reading plan (basically a well-considered list of books) that contains books from various lists and focuses on your specific learning goals, reading capacity, and interests. 

Here’s my reading plan for the next 5 months. My focus fields are history and English Lit: 

Note that about 80% of the pages fall under my two core fields, and the other 20% are devoted to other special interests like education issues and poetry. 

While following a reading plan can be motivating, it shouldn’t be super restrictive. If you’re tackling sociology, for example, but you want to read some Carl Jung, why ignore that urge?

Schedule Time Every Day For Reading 

Jack London’s reading goal throughout most of his life was to consume “two good-sized books a week”. That’s over 100 books a year. 

He, of course, was a special kind of insane when it came to self-directed study. During a particular period of his life he supposedly devoted 19 hours a day to it. 

We can still accomplish a lot without that intensity. Say you were to put aside 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening for your reading. That’s an hour every day.

If you read at a speed of 30 pages per hour, that’s 30 pages per day. If the average book in your genre was 300 pages in length, you’d finish one book every ten days. 

Spread that over an entire year and by the end of it you’d have completed around 36 books, a fantastic achievement, especially if you were reading them closely and reflecting upon them. 

Spread that over three years and wallah, over 100 books read. That’s the power of consistent and sustainable effort in reading. 

Read at First Chronologically, Then Topically  

Many educators, such as Thomas Jefferson, instruct students to read the classic books in the order in which they were written. 

For example, if you were studying political philosophy, you’d read Plato, then Aristotle, then the Romans, the Medievals, Hobbes, Rousseau, and so on until you reached the present day. 

Susan Wise Bauer, Author of The Well Educated Mind (my favorite book on classical self-education), tells her readers to read her fields of inquiry readings lists chronologically: 

“The book lists I include are arranged in chronological order for this very reason; it is easier to understand a subject if you begin with its foundational works, and then read systematically through those books that build, one layer at a time, on this foundation.”

— Susan Wise Bauer, The Well Educated Mind

From experience, I know this chronological method can be hard to stick to. Sometimes we just want to skip over the boring books or get to one we’re really excited about. I think it’s okay to do that, and just to use chronology as a guiding principle. Otherwise, you may get stuck. 

Alternatively, you could use chronology for the most well-known classics. You could read the 10 most influential books in your field in order and then start reading topically or thematically. 

To illustrate, take someone self-learning psychology. Perhaps after reading the major works of the biggies in the field — William James, Freud, Jung, Carl Rogers — they decide to read 10 books about childhood development, then 10 books about clinical psychology, and so on. 

A benefit of this approach is that you’ll quickly gain expertise. If you read 30 books on African politics in one year you’d be smarter than 99.9% of people on that topic. 

You could then turn that relative expertise into a YouTube channel where you teach people about the topic. Maybe you could even write a book. 

Work to Understand & Retain the Books

When I first started reading, I rushed through books, retaining very little of what I’d read. I found this to be frustrating and demotivating, so I made a promise to myself to try to read more deliberately.  

Now, I read at a slower pace and take notes in a commonplace book (a basic spiral notebook). I also stop more frequently, every few pages or so, to summarize what I’ve just read. These techniques help the information stick and also promote reflection on the material. 

If you really want to remember the material, consider creating study questions for yourself that I’ll then answer at a defined interval. 

For example, if you just read ten pages about the causes of industrialization in America, you could write the question “What were the four causes of industrialization?” and add it to a document where you store questions. 

This allows you to do retrieval practice, a study technique that helps the information stay in your memory. You’ll be like your own teacher. You could also probably find lists of pre-written questions online. 

Write & Talk About What You Read

We rarely know what we think about a book until we sit down and write about it. Through organized and intense thinking on the page, we come to form our opinions about what we love, what we disagree with, what the book means to us, and how it relates to our life. 

If you’ve taken time to think about the book, you’ll be better at answering the question: “What’d you think of the book?” You’ll also be able to make spur-of-the-moment references in conversation. 

I can’t count the number of times I’ve bumbled through the answer to this question like an absolute buffoon. I still do sometimes. 

It’s that incompetence that urges me to write about the books I read. Sometimes I’ll even revisit them a week after I’ve turned the final page. I got this technique from Ryan Holiday (tip #7)

For this, consider getting a solid reading journal. I use the My Reading Life journal:

It’s nice to be able to go back and review the books I’ve read and see what I thought about them and how they impacted my life. 

Also, try to find opportunities to talk about the books. This is one aspect of education that’s harder to replicate as an autodidact. 

If you can, get a reading buddy to read the same book as you. If that’s not possible, you could also just find a friend or peer who’s intellectually curious and willing to have discussions about books and ideas. That’s what I do. 

Further Reading: Check out my article on 10 reasons to review the books you read (perhaps the best way to become familiar with their content and able to talk about them).

6. Consider Branching Out or Narrowing Focus

After focusing on reading 1-3 subjects for a couple of years you should be able to call yourself well-read. Go get a beer or some ice cream and celebrate, but know that your reading life has only begun.  

At this point, you should have a better sense of your interests. With that self-knowledge, you can now chart another path for yourself, either by narrowing down to a more niche topic or by branching out and trying a different field. Alternatively, you could keep gaining expertise in your chosen genre. 

If you want some ideas about how to self-learn different academic subjects, I’m always adding to the self-education roadmaps category of my website. Check it out. You might find something cool. 

Bottom Line

Becoming well-read is a long-term endeavor, one that requires commitment, patience, and a love for learning. It can’t happen overnight. 

And, even after you accomplish the goal of reading around 100 classics, you’ll still have plenty more to read and plenty more curiosity to satisfy

The paragons of erudition — the scholars, the public intellectuals, the political commentators, the writers — they’ve all put in the work for years. This is a long game. Keep playing it and reap the rewards. 

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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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