there are no rules for reading

5 minute read

TLDR : Drop books. Skim read. Jump around. Follow your curiosity. Read blogs. Read Garbage. Just make sure you learn

I want to articulate my thoughts on reading.

I’m an addict. Every time I enter a bookstore, I tend to leave with at least 3 different books. I tend to get through 1/3rd of them, and the other two sit on my bookshelf.

Now people might think this is irrational and a waste. But it’s what Taleb describes as an anti library. All of the books that you haven’t read - reminding you of how little you know. It’s a tactic for intellectual humility. It keeps you curious, and also acts as a repository of wisdom and advice you can access in the future.

It also makes you read a lot more.

I’ve noticed, mostly over the last few weeks, that I was reading less and less. The default tendency seemed to be turn on the TV.

I have nothing against television. But they are just not the same. Reading a book requires active effort, a test of your imagination. It’s much faster than watching. It feels more intimate and personal. Let’s explore why it’s important

Why Reading is Important and Why we are reading less

1. Cultivates focus

We are losing our ability to focus in the modern day attention economy. Moving from 240 character messages, to 10 second Tik Tok videos, the pace of media consumption is accelerating. Our attention span is being fractured. Most people can barely now even go through a movie without spending some time glancing down at their phone. I think its deeply implicitly damaging, and will have pernicious consequences in the years to come. I can already think of one example : our politics

We’ve moved from a politics of attention and focus, to a politics of popularity. In the past, debates used to go on for hours, with people watching in rapt attention. But the current political climate is more of a popularity and chest beating contest : who can garner the most eyeballs. This leads to ‘media’ personality types being in the limelight. Less attention to prominent figures in science and art.

Reading is a pushback. A sub-sect of humanity is fighting this ‘race to the bottom of the brainstem’. Moving towards slower activities, and curated use of technology. Reading is one of these.

2. Active Effort Reading tests the imagination.

hallucinating whilst staring at a piece of dead tree

It involves converting symbols on a page, into visual and auditory thought - weaving a coherent narrative in your mind. This is a skill. The more you read, the more you practice this.

The fact is, all of the smartest people I know : read. They have trained the ability to focus singlehandedly on a topic. This allows them to focus on other aspects of their life when they wish : often reaching the upper echelons of their chosen field. To become a top physicist, it requires years and years of focused attention. Reading is a way to hone this ability

3. Empathy

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one – George R.R. Martin

Reading allows you to step in the shoes of another. It secretly allows you to cheat death. To live through multiple lives in the short span on one life. You develop relationships, you identify with disparate characters who you seemingly have nothing in common with : you see yourself in humanity. I’ve become an old man, to a teenage girl to a non human entity, yet found aspects of myself in each. A transcendent overarching unity. You realise that humans are largely the same and we often have the same needs and desires : to love and be loved, to form friendships, to struggle through hardship and to change for the better. We’re all on our own heroes journey, and reading allows you to walk multiple paths.

How can we read more

1. Read every day

Imagine you chart out your life in weekly blocks. The blog [Wait but Why] has done this:

If you’re only reading 1 book a year. And you’re 25. Suppose you live another 50 years. That’s another 50 books…

50 books left in your entire life you can read.

Now suppose you read : just 50 pages a day. 50*365 = 18,250. *That’s roughly 40 books assuming 400-500 pages.

40 x 50 = 2000 books left in your life

So by reading just 50 pages a day : you can read 2000 vs 50 books in your life…

2. Drop books you don’t connect with

Stop reading if you’re not enjoying it. Simple. Famous rule of 100-Age : is the number of pages you should read before deciding to drop it.

3. Buy more books Create your anti-library.

4. Reflect, Discussion and Take Notes

After you finish reading a book, write down what you’ve learnt. Write down any beautiful use of prose. Discuss with a friend. You will inevitably forget the book, but some aspect tends to be carried over to lived experience. .

5. Write

I’m very irregular at writing. It’s probably what differentiates an amateur from a pro. Pro’s write every day regardless of mood, weather, situation, time or place. They just sitand do the work.

Writing does make you appreciate how difficult it is to craft a story. It’s a real skill.


There aren’t any rules

I just made them up. What is important is to find out what helps you read more.

Read more, but not for the altar of ‘pseudointellectualism’. Read to apply to your life. Knowledge is insufficient. Why be a student of books, when you can be a student of life?

Constantly seek to understand yourself : books being one medium to absorb science, philosophy and art. But the real test is in the lived experience.

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