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How I Read More Than 400 Books a Year Using the Zibby Method

Thursday, June 15, 2023

By Zibby Owens

“You Can’t Possibly Read All Those Books!”

As many of you have pointed out or, perhaps, whispered to each other, it would be physically impossible for me to read every page of every book I feature on my podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. After all, I did 449 episodes in 2021 alone!

And yet, I get everything I need out of every book I cover. Perhaps how I read will help you because it has helped me enormously and exposed me to more stories, authors, characters, and information than I ever thought possible.

The Backstory

When I started Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books back in March 2018, I made sure to read every single page of every book I covered. Slowly. Carefully. After all, I’d be talking directly to the author about it. How could I show up unprepared?!

I underlined. I dog-eared. I typed up questions before every interview, including at least one quote or passage, and then sent my questions to the authors ahead of time so they would be prepared. Did Andre Agassi really sit down and read my questions before we spoke for my second episode ever? Who cares?! At least he knew I was ready for him.

It wasn’t until I interviewed Michael Frank about his novel What Is Missing in January 2020 — and he suggested that perhaps I stop sending the questions to authors — that I ceased that practice. He was right: the conversations did proceed more effortlessly without sending them. I’d learned enough to carry the conversations myself without any external props. Soon, I stopped typing up questions at all.

At the beginning, I was doing one interview a week. That’s it. No other work aside from booking my own upcoming interviews and starting to build up my non-existent presence on social media. Plus my regular crazy life of being a mom of four kids (then ages three, four, and ten-year-old twins) and writing articles, usually personal essays about parenting.

And I was very recently divorced. Every other week, from Thursday night to Tuesday morning, the kids went to their dad’s — so I definitely had time to read. (That’s still my secret weapon for getting so much done.)

I would carefully prepare, going back to books I’d read years before and underlining new passages. When I interviewed Dani Shapiro, I reread Slow Motion which had always been one of my all-time favorite books. I appreciated it in a whole new way at age 41 than I had at age 25.

But then things started picking up. I went to two books a week, which was still manageable but sometimes I finished while standing in the kitchen making breakfast for the kids, like I did with Lauren Smith Brody’s book The Fifth Trimester.

When lockdown started in March 2020, I escalated to doing the podcast daily. I had to, I thought! We were all stuck at home. People needed content, entertainment, connection. Authors needed a way to peddle their wares. And I could help! So not only did I release podcasts daily, 7 days a week, but I started a live show on Instagram, Mondays to Fridays at 11 a.m., in which I featured four authors each for ten minutes.

That’s when I started my new way of prepping, one I’ve continued to employ to this day, even when reading for pleasure and not on deadline. I call it The Zibby Method.

Think of this way. If you read the new issue of Real Simple or In Style or Vogue, would you read every single article? No. When you spread out the Sunday New York Times on your breakfast table, can you finish every story? Of course not. But you scan the headlines. You look at the pictures. Maybe you think of someone who would like a certain feature and rip it out to send to them. Maybe you skim a few stories just so you know what’s going on in the world. And then you get to the end and finish it, satisfied, knowing everything you need to know.

Did you read that magazine or newspaper? Of course you did.

That’s my approach to reading books.

How I Do It

Before I start, I spend a lot of time deciding which books I want to read. I make sure I like the plot, the first few pages, and the author. There has to be something I’m excited to learn, experience or discuss, so when I dig in, I don’t have to evaluate whether or not I want to read it. I pick from my pre-approved pile and start.

Then I scope it out. I examine the cover. I read the inside flap and the “about the author” back flap. Usually I go on the author’s Instagram page and website before I start.

Next, I examine structure and form. I linger over the table of contents. What’s coming up? Where will this book take me? Is the structure clever like Claire Bidwell Smith’s in The Rules of Inheritance? Can I learn a lot just from the chapter headings? At The Zibby Awards which I host each year from fan-nominated entries, I have categories for Best Structure and Best Table of Contents. They’re important!

After flipping through the whole book, like examining the floor plan of a real estate listing before going to the open house, I’m ready to dive in.

I read the first page incredibly slowly. I want in. It’s like stepping into someone’s house and raising my head to check out the light fixture, noticing the wallpaper, spinning around to get the whole vibe. Okay, got it.

Typically I keep going this way for at least the first chapter. I notice everything from sentence composition to tone to voice to content. I soak it all in like I’m in a spa massage room, mindful of every part of my surroundings from the feel of the headrest smushing my face to the smell of lavender, the soft blanket over me, the light melody gently sprinkling the room with atmosphere. That’s the first chapter. I’m alert.

And then, like a spa massage, I relax and sink into it. I start flipping through the pages more rapidly, skimming top to bottom, pausing at words that catch my attention. I dog-ear relevant sections and then, if I can figure out why I did so the next time I go back to that page, I ask the author about it. My brain knows what words to find without my telling it. Somehow relevant parts illuminate and magnify, catching my gaze.

But like a good massage, when you’re into it, you stop paying such close attention to every little detail and just know if you’re loving or hating it. And if it’s terrible, oh boy, get out of there. Fast. (And yes, I have actually gotten up in the middle of a massage and said, “Thanks, actually that’s enough!” Anyone else?!)

Usually I read at least the first 60 pages of every book, which takes me about 30 minutes. I read quickly. That’s another thing: the more I read, the faster I get. News flash: Reading speed is not a fixed skill. Like running, everyone has a baseline speed, but the more you train, the faster you get, nudging that treadmill up a smidge each time you hop on.

Sometimes, I start a book and I’m like, “Whoa, I better sit down for this one,” and I read the whole thing in one dose cover to cover. It could be the book itself. It could be a weekend without the kids and I have time to indulge my pleasure. It could be so good that I simply must stop everything else or stay up late and finish it.

That’s what happened recently with Brendan Slocumb’s The Violin Conspiracy, Tessa Hadley’s Free Love, and Jen Mann’s Midlife Bites. It happened with Nicola Harrison’s Montauk and Stephanie Thornton Plymale’s American Daughter. Amanda Fairbanks’s The Lost Boys of Montauk. And so, so many others.

When I started Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, I could tell right away. I apologized to my husband, Kyle, and told him I was going to have to spend the rest of the day on the couch, reading. I didn’t move for hours, the sun setting as I devoured it, barely noticing when Kyle gently clicked on the lamp next to me as the dark settled in.

Does this make me a less authentic reader? No! I love reading more than anything. But just because I read the first chunk slowly and speed through the rest, slowing down at scenes I know I need to pay more attention to, and then speeding up again, pages flipping, flip, flip, flip, as I plow through, doesn’t mean I’m not reading. I may not get every single word of every single page, but I’m in it. I’m devouring. And then, sated.

If someone told me they read my upcoming memoir Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature, this way, I’d be delighted. Really? You bought my book (thank you!). You spent time with it, time out of your incredibly busy life (thank you!). You recommended it to a friend? You’ll buy whatever I write next? Now you want to follow me on social media? Fabulous!

In my book, that’s reading.

There is no shame in this method. We all have eight million things to do every single day. We may want to read every book on our shelf cover to cover, but that would mean missing that child’s hockey game, or not responding to work emails, or whatever else comes up. You can still get all the many benefits of reading — increased empathy, a mental reset, a sharper mind — by doing The Zibby Method.

So try it.

The Zibby Method: A 20-Step Guide

  1. Go over to your towering TBR (to be read) pile which is likely teetering next to your bed. Don’t feel bad that you haven’t gotten through it. Don’t despair that you never will.

  2. Dig in. Pick one.

  3. Analyze the cover.

  4. Read the front flap and the back flap.

  5. Stop and check out the author’s social media and website.

  6. Linger over the table of contents.

  7. Assess the floor plan: figure out the structure if you can.

  8. <