Organizing My Messy Reading LIfe

I talk a lot about writing on this blog, but my dirty secret is that I am drowning in reading. Really. I have a backlog of reading so massive that I will never get to all of it. At times, this idea distresses me profoundly.

I realized a few years ago that I needed to be a more efficient reader, which really meant that I had to organize my reading life. I played around with lots of different web services (Diigo, Delicious, Instapaper, Evernote, etc.) to see if I could use them to help with my reading. I also hatched more than a few harebrained schemes that involved tracking my reading on a complicated system of spreadsheets. I finally settled on three pieces of software to organize my reading: Pocket, Zotero, and LibraryThing.

I used to stash my reading backlog in many places. I often forgot where I had put what and where my current TBR list was housed. Unsurprisingly, I accomplished little reading. Now that I have a system (more or less), I only save things read in my three designated places. For example, I am occasionally tempted to use Evernote to stash things that I would like to read later. I also want to import articles and web pages into the Research folder of my Scrivener projects just because it's there. However, I know I will forget to look in these places later.

Back to the system I’ve cobbled together. What Pocket, Zotero, and LibraryThing have in common is this: they’re all searchable. Each uses collections and tags to organize books, articles, and webpages. In other words, (and this is by far the most important part of figuring our some sort of reading scheme), you’ll be able to find your stuff again. [Hallelujah!]


Pocket solves that problem of saving interesting articles around the web. I use it to save any web article that I’d like to read later, but can’t get to at the moment. Several friends of mine post articles to Facebook as a way to save articles they want to read later. Although this is an okay short term solution, Facebook doesn't let you search and find again in any kind of effiient way. Pocket is a much better way to do this. Pocket lets you search your saved articles using tag, title, or URL, making finding saved articles a snap. You can also combine Pocket with IFTTT for an entirely new level of awesome. For example, I use Inoreader to subscribe to RSS feeds of news and article sources that I find interesting. I’ve set up an IFTTT recipe so that when I star an article in Inoreader, it gets sent directly to Pocket, where I can deal with it later. Pocket also allows you to download articles on your device (Kindle and Android for me) for offline reading. I catch up on a surprising amount of article reading riding the bus or when waiting in line at the grocery store.


I’ve used Zotero for years to organize my research, both primary and secondary sources. I recently discovered that several people I know do not use citation managers; I confess I was shocked. I know people who organize their research on spreadsheets, in Word documents, or, most frighteningly, in their footnotes. However, there really is a better way:  use citation management software. There’s lots of it out there and much of it is free. (Zotero is free, though you do have to pay for storage space above 300 mb. At $20/year for 2 GB of storage, I think its a screaming deal.) I use Zotero because it is cross-platform (meaning that it runs natively on my Linux boxes) and is open source. [It is way off the topic of this post to talk about the difference between free and open source software. One is free as in beer and the other is free as in speech. You have to make the choice about which is important to you.] I used to organize all of my Zotero items by collection, but I’ve discovered that I like tags better. Right now, all the sources for the article I’m working on are tagged as “Ancient Maya Mysteries.” I know I need to read anything with this tag.


LibraryThing provides library-grade software for people and small libraries. I use LibraryThing to catalog physical books I already own (or would like to own) and keep track of what I’m actually reading. (My library is here.) I mostly use it for personal reading and fiction. LT lets you slice and dice your reading data in several ways and includes option to sort books by reading dates, so I can track my reading and see what I’ve been reading most recently. [Yes, I could do this with a fancy combination of tags and collections in Zotero, but I just find LT easier for this.] There is some overlap here with my Zotero stuff. I maintain a wishlist collection on LT; however when I’m using a book for an article for research, it moves to Zotero.  

If you’re reading for research purposes, you can make your reading much more efficient. Scholarship, of course, isn’t meant to be read like a novel. Learning to read for the big picture, major arguments, and evidence was one of the best skills I ever learned. I have a short template that I use in the Zotero notes field that helps me remember to stay on track.  I talked about it a little bit in this blog post about reading THE LITERATURE for my last twelve week article.

None of all of this organizing would be any good without scheduling time to review reading and doing actual reading. Scheduling time to review stuff to read makes just as much sense as scheduling time to write. It’s easy to put off reading because it often has no deadline. Making designated reading time is tough. I would love to schedule an entire weekend day once a month just for reading. Alas, life doesn’t often allow for this. For me, reading efficiently also means prioritizing my reading: figuring out what’s important and getting it read first.  I review my reading lists: articles on Pocket, the items I’m working with in Zotero, and my LT wishlist weekly or at least monthly. 

And then the trick is carving out time to do the actual reading.

I would love to hear how other people are organizing their reading lives these days.

[Photo: Pine Street Church, Boulder, Colorado, 2015]