October 17, 2020•793 words
A few weeks ago, I saw this on twitter:
Reading many books is the most socially accepted vanity metric for adults.— Julian Shapiro (@Julian) September 24, 2020
I give zero kudos for reading 100 books a year.
I give you massive kudos for learning efficiently and making interesting things.
I've seen this take (or something like it) more than once in the past few months, and it seems like a very odd mix of pragmatism and anti-intellecualism.
My initial response on Twitter was a bit scatter-shot, so I decided to take a few minutes to respond more carefully.
In short, I disagree with all three of the essential points of the post.
Reading lots of Books is NOT a Vanity Metric
A "vanity metric" is something you can measure that doesn't matter.
The implication here is that reading a lot of books doesn't matter on its own. It doesn't have any independent value.
This is simply not true. Assuming you are not failing in other responsibilities, reading more books is always more valuable. Of course, this does not mean that all books are equally valuable.
I'm thinking here of the famous quote from Francis Bacon:
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
But this is not an argument to read less books. It's an argument to read better books. And the more, the better.
So as a general rule, most people should read a lot more books. 100 books in a year would be an amazing goal.
And if at the end of year, you see that you reached that goal. You should be proud of that. That's a great accomplishment.
And if you mention it someone else, they really should give you some kudos.
If they don't, let me know. I'll give you the kudos. Plus, I need the encouragement to read more myself.
Efficiency is a NOT a Healthy Goal for Learning
The problem with this type of pragmatic reading is that it assumes you know what you need to know before you read and only benefit from it when you remember it. Neither is true.
Don’t read like you’re cramming for a test or gathering material for a research paper.
Instead, read like someone who will forget most of what you read. Because you will. No matter how many books you read or how carefully you take notes.
The most formative years of your life were the first 5. And you can’t remember most of it. You certainly couldn’t pass a test on it.
You‘ve been radically shaped by countless things that you‘ve forgotten.
So don’t stress about efficiency. Just read voraciously. Don't feel bad about reading what interests you, even if you're not sure it's the best book to read at that moment.
Read for pleasure. Read on a whim. Read fiction and non-fiction. Ready what you enjoy. Read what challenges your worldview.
Make a list of the 100 books you want to read. Don't let someone else make that list for you.
It's not going to be efficient. You're going to taste some books and devour others, and you're probably going to ditch a few of them altogether.
Just keep reading. Grab the next book off the list that captures your interest or imagination and read.
Output is NOT the Main Purpose for Reading
Some books should be processed slowly and used for output. I'm huge fan of taking notes, building a personal knowledge base, and using what you've learned to help others. I created a workflow specifically for this purpose.
But that’s not the only (or even most important) reason to read.
The modern obsession with output is really unhealthy for reading, because books become a means to an end, mined only for “useful” material.
It’s a breeding ground for confirmation bias, and it almost guarantees that your output will be shallow and half-baked.
Plus, if you read with the goal of wringing every good idea out of every chapter, you’ll have to slow down to an impossibly tedious pace.
And you're never going to read 100 books at that rate.
Bottom line. How you engage with a book is far more important than what you do with it.
Engaging with good content/characters is transformative. It makes you a better parent, friend, citizen, etc.
And it does this even when you don’t immediately have something “interesting” to show for it.