What I Talk About When I Talk About Reading

What I Talk About When I Talk About Reading

I would not consider myself to be a voracious reader, nor would I consider being well-read to be a personality marker of any sort. However, I am somewhat opinionated about how one should read. I am continuously reworking these opinions, so henceforth is the closest encapsulation of my personal stance on the matter as of the date of publication.

I read widely and flit around excessively. 95% of the books that I own are ones that I have never read cover to cover. I typically have at least 10 books on rotation, and while I spend an average of 30 minutes a day reading books (I am actively working on increasing this number), I can count on one hand the number of books that I start and finish in a given year. I buy books, I borrow books, and I am endlessly holding books on Libby to read on my Kindle.

I adopted this haphazard reading style thanks to two sources. One was from Patrick Collison, and the other was from a random utterance by a college classmate.

Patrick essentially stated that because there are so many books worth reading, books that are physically impossible to read within a lifetime, you should not waste time on books that are not worth a read. If I don't like a book after a modest amount of effort to read it, I am somewhat ruthless about quitting the book. I acutely feel the lack of time that I have at my disposal to read, and any minute spent slogging through a book is a book that I could spend reading another book to my enjoyment.

I have adopted this view because if I were to diagnose why many of my friends do not read, it is because they are attached to one book that they must finish before beginning a new one. They hesitate to read another book out of commitment, or attachment, or guilt. But the act of starting and finishing a book is an endeavor that should not be taken lightly.

I truly believe that just like with relationships, the right book must reach you at the right time. There are several books that were painstaking to read that upon revisiting struck a deeper chord given the experiences I had had at that point in time. If a book is not being read, I might gently suggest that it is an issue of timing, and that other books should demand your time instead.

Some people may disagree with this philosophy, because some of the best books are ones that demand that you wrestle with them. To a certain extent, I agree. But I believe that while reading should be challenge you, it should also delight you. I know several people that were voracious readers in their childhood, for whom because they consider reading to be an obligatory task (perhaps they are confined to reading only classic literature, or non-fiction, or business/self-help) that sense of delight is fulfilled by their smartphones. I myself stayed up all night reading a book last week (partially due to jet lag) and could not recall the last time I had done so. We should bring delight back to our reading choices, if only to rebuild that habit.

But the topic of books that should challenge you brings me to my second and perhaps even more controversial philosophy of reading - that reading should be measured in terms of time elapsed, not books read.

At least once a week, I see ads for apps that will let me "read" a book within 15 minutes. They promise to do this with bullet point summaries, speed reading aids, or text-to-speech. While I see the appeal of this approach for business books (many of which I believe could have sufficed as TED talks), I think this results from a very misguided notion of what reading should be.

A college classmate once said that speed reading is one of the "dumbest flexes ever." The real flex, according to her, was to spend 2 hours re-reading a single page because you knew that after reading that page you would no longer be the same.

How many times does someone say something that you cannot stop thinking about for years to come? This was one such utterance for me. This fundamentally altered my relationship with reading. I grew up with summer reading lists (where I would list the books that I completed), and required assigned readings at school, and Goodreads end of year lists of books read and rated. To think of reading in terms of time was a novel concept. I suppose that her words could have filled a 2 hour page for me.

This enables me to read slowly and thoughtfully, and this enables me to practice my personal philosophy of ruthlessly quitting books as necessary. I also feel comfortable skipping sections of books that do not appeal to me. I realize that this does not sit well with my general philosophy that we are bad at making decisions for our long-term benefit, but it is one that has enabled me to read far more than I have since childhood.

Might I suggest that instead of setting a New Year's Resolution to read x books this year, you instead commit to reading y minutes a day (and using weekends to make up for lost reading time)?