FYI, this post contains Amazon affiliate links.
Sundry reflections on the pleasures of books, inspired by Mason's thread from last year. ("The right pace to read at is conversational." 😍) Also inspired by Marc Andreessen's May comments about his reading habits:
[Sriram Krishan:] In a recent podcast, Naval Ravikant talks about how he doesn't finish books anymore. He let go of the guilt of needing to finish books. Tyler Cowen has said something similar. Do you finish every book?
[Marc Andreessen:] Yeah, I really struggle with that. I have a whole bunch of books that I haven't finished which I really should just toss. Patrick Collison talks about this too. The problem of having to finish every book is you're not only spending time on books you shouldn't be but it also causes you to stall out on reading in general. If I can't start the next book until I finish this one, but I don't want to read this one, I might as well go watch TV. Before you know it, you've stopped reading for a month and you're asking "what have I done?!" I think that's part of it. This moral hectoring of 'don't do that' which can only be so successful. The other technique is to read a dozen books at a time.
How does that work? Do you have a stack of books next to you at all times? Are you flipping through the Kindle app on your phone?
It's a pile of physical books and then the Kindle books. And you're reading them all at the same time. When you sit down to read, you just read the one that's the most interesting of that pile. It turns out those are the ones that you finish. A month later, there's a bunch that you're theoretically reading and you're on Chapter Three and you're never gone back to it. That's like having the shirt in your closet you haven't worn in a year. It's a signal to get rid of it.
Defined broadly, "reading" is my #1 activity by a large margin. No surprise there, since I'm a writer with text-based social media at the top of her funnel, whose entire career has been "knowledge work." My general insatiability predated my professional debut, however, and arguably served as a significant prerequisite to my current occupation.
All of that to say, I come from the same tradition of reflexive autodidacticism that Andreessen described to Krishan:
I've really read all the time since I was a little kid, it's been a lifelong thing. It's basically trying to try to fill in all the puzzle pieces for the big discrepancies. A great term is "sense-making". Essentially, what the hell is happening and why? The world's an incredibly complex and erratic place and trying to figure that out ...is kind of a lifetime occupation.
I read my Twitter feed. I read the comments. I read my inbox, including whichever recent newsletter editions catch my fancy. (Alas, the rest must be deleted without perusal.) I read copious blog posts, articles, essays, academic papers, Wikipedia pages, etc.
In the lowest volume, but with the most satisfaction, I read books. Those I primarily still read the same way that I used to in grade school: snuggled under the covers, lights off, later than I ought to be awake.
In addition, I like to pile books around me wherever I spend time — to admire, to thumb through, to consult. There are six stacked on my desk right now:
- A pocket copy of Aristophanes' Lysistrata that I picked up at the nearest Little Free Library,
- hardcovers of Human Social Evolution: The Foundational Works of Richard D. Alexander and
- Working in Public by Nadia Eghbal,
- a fat paperback of On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd,
- slim cult hit Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone,
- and my grandiloquently hefty journaling Bible (NKJV).
Usually I gravitate more toward fiction, but the books on my desk are "research"-oriented.
As a reader, I've gone through both paper-only and digital-only phases. These days I do both, like Andreessen, aiming to revel in literary abundance. My husband and I have crowded our shelves with cherished favorites, battered paperbacks alongside luxe hardcovers, all jumbled together with our serendipitous antilibrary.
I tend to read one book at a time, but I also have periods between books. I bounce around before finding the next thing. Consequently there are quite a few books that I've eagerly begun and then quickly abandoned. It will always be vexing, I'm sure, but I definitely recommend moving on as soon as a book no longer yields a fun or enriching experience — which may be immediately!
As Andreessen pointed out in the interview with Krishan, "You could spend your entire life only reading timeless works which is what smart people used to do." (See also: Gwern.) Don't waste time on mediocrity!
I've kept a reading log since 2017, so I can tell you that I read 23 books in 2019, including four audio books and two graphic novels. I wouldn't be surprised to wind up with a similar tally at the end of this year, since thus far I've read 10 books in 2020.
After much consideration I decided not to publish my 2018 or 2019 logs, and won't be publishing the 2020 one either, because I don't want my reading choices to be necessarily performative — only optionally 😜 Privacy has a disinhibiting effect, and I'm grateful that I can choose to avail myself of it. That said, I do plan to curate at least one themed reading list in the coming months.
From the blog post that I drafted, then ultimately axed, about my reading in 2018:
I read 47 books if you count audiobooks and graphic novels, 39 if you don't. That's either seven more than 2017, or one less. Including audiobooks and comics, 10 were nonfiction — roughly 21% of the total. I may try to read a bit more nonfiction in 2019, but no promises.
I ended up reading far less overall during the next year, 2019, but 11 books out of 23 were nonfiction, amounting to roughly 48%. Shrug. Currently I'm indifferent to this variable. (Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, my opinion of pop-sci bestsellers has continued to plummet.)
How I select which books to read: I own a ridiculous number of ebooks on Amazon's system, partially thanks to BookBub, and I dive into whatever I feel like at the moment. My goal is to read a mix of edifying books (which can include novels) and purely entertaining thrillers, romances, etc.
Still true (although I haven't used BookBub in ages). I read by whim / what grabs me at a given point in time.
I'd like to read more — who wouldn't? — but I am nonetheless glad for the reading that I do do. It it enjoyable, sometimes challenging, and nearly always rewarding.
Header illustration, cropped, by Claude Augustin Duflos le Jeune.