10 Lessons on reading. Journey to read 1,776 books in a lifetime

Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.
— Edgar Allen Poe

I didn't think I read much... but apparently I do... So I decided to write about the lessons I learned on reading. This is not about the contents but the act of reading to learn.

If you look at my public book list there are about 60 odd books over a 4 year period. I think if you add the Audiobooks, it would be about 70-80. 

Mortimer Adler famously wrote the book "How to read a book". The title may seem presumptuous but I 100% do believe you actually have to learn how to read a book. I'm not talking about reading words off a page. A child can do that. But I'm actually referring to learning. Actually coming out of a period of time invested into a book with some results, some new learning to expand your mind. Sometimes the book is a poor one and you may have learned nothing. I don't know if that's shame on you or the author. Probably shame on you for making a poor decision to select that book and a poor decision to continue on with something you aren't learning anything from. If you didn't know if was a poor decision whilst reading it, that lack of awareness also is shameful. 

I have much shame for myself for having done all that. Alas, I didn't learn about Adler's work until much later and I only wish I had actually thought about teaching myself how to read first before reading all the books I did earlier on. I guess it's better I learned it after having read 30-40 books instead of after 100. If you want an overview of Adler's work and prescription I'd recommend this article here by Shane Parrish of Farnam Street. He has read way more than I have. I'm just hoping that you find me interesting enough and I've somehow earned a sliver of your trust to let my learnings be of some use in your quest to accumulate knowledge. 

Origin story.

I wasn't always a heavy reader and consumer of information. I had a spurt of a few years in elementary school when I read a lot. See, I was a straight C student and my parents instilled in me that I should read more to get my grades up. I don't know what it was. May have been the creativity juices firing from the reading or just the mindset of wanting to be intelligent but I hit straight As after that. Then I stopped for a while. It seemed to have done what I intended.

I didn't pick up reading again until I discovered Warren Buffet in my 4th year at university. It is weird... realizing I didn't know about the 2nd richest man (during that period) despite being a business major. But alas my reading habit kicked into high gear then. Only, I replaced my fictional books on historic and futuristic dystopias for non-fiction in all things business, psychology, management etc.. That whole genre. I've learned a lot about reading since then. I mean, I personally saw a large change in my reading habit and see my current reading methodology to be completely different from when I started. Read on and let me share with you the lessons I learned. 

Lesson #1: Loving what you read. 

Naturally, all my earlier books were about investing. I sought to digest and read everything I could on value investing. I just loved reading about it. That continues to be an anchor tenant of the books I read. This might seem stupid but I realized there were lot's of times when I was not enjoying what I was reading. It's utter stupidity right? Why the hell would you dedicate time (the most finite resource in the world!) to read something you don't even want to read? It's no different from reading an accounting textbook. Trust me. I've been reading accounting textbooks for 4 years and there was never a moment when I didn't question my life choices. Now I continuously reflect on whether I truly enjoy what I'm reading. I ask myself if I actually look forward to it or if its a chore. 

Lesson #2: Quit it. 

The author should "earn" your time with each chapter. There are so many quotes and references to not quitting. I used to be super hard on myself to not quit because I thought it was the "weak" thing to do. But now I know it's the smart thing to do. To be great at something you have to quit a bunch of things. No one says shit to me for quitting hockey, wrestling or any other sport when they see my powerlifting numbers. It's just about how to allocate your time. This is an attitude that I still struggle with at times but I've learned to be more strict on. I used to just pound through a book. Like running a 10K, it would be a long and horrible journey (I'm a powerlifter. My sport lasts 5 seconds, so context there). I'd reach a point in the book where I don't even know why I'm reading it. I'd stopped loving the content and my eyes would just read the words without actually digesting the underlying message. Now, if I stop loving the book.... or haven't even reached the point of excitement for it.. I just close the book and start a new one. One that I'm interested in and excited by. It's my time anyways. I don't owe the author nothing. I paid for the author's time and I ain't going to give any more of my time if the book isn't worth it right this second. Ain't nobody got time for a bad book. 

Lesson #3: It's not you, it's me.

When I quit a book there rarely is distaste for it. If it's a really famous, classic read I usually interpret it as my mind not being ready for the content. To that end I'll let my mind age, like a good wine, until it hits a point where the book peaks my interest again in the future and maybe then I will be ready for it. It's stupid to think the book will change for me. Rather, I will change and I may be ready for it then. Currently, I am convinced that I was only able to digest 15% (at best) of Marcus Aurelius' meditations properly. 

Lesson #4: The same content means different things.

There are some books I've read for 3x over a 4 year span and each time I learn more. It just proves to show how some great books have so much wisdom in it that it takes continuous study to reach the author's brilliance. It also is a display of how much our minds can grow and the value of truly great books. Some books are so timeless I will revisit them periodically to read excerpts out of. Sure, I won't be able to tell someone that I "read another book" but I will hopefully have learned more. I mean, the purpose of reading is to learn, right? Not to tell people you've read X number of books?

Lesson #5: 12 books in 12 weeks, it's not quantity stupid. 

Like any competitive soul, I reached a point in my book reading journey where I started caring about the number of books I'd read and the efficiency to which I read it. I practically made it into a dick measuring contest. I wanted to really focus on being efficient with my time so what I did was I got both the paper and audio version of the same book and I also learned various speed reading techniques and implemented it over a 12 week period. The idea was to listen to the audio in 2x speed and have my eyes and brain trained to digest information in 2x the speed and have both visual and audio queues to aid in knowledge consumption. My conclusion? It sucked. Did I learn anything? Probably a little. But I definitely could've had materially more learning if I took the time to actually read and think about the material instead of just blasting through it for surface level content. 

I'm by no means saying audiobooks are not effective. Some people are amazing at listening and retaining everything. I too am an audio/oral based learner but I've personally found audio only to be much less effective in learning because I rarely get a time to think when listening. More on this thinking piece in Lesson #7. I think audiobooks are great for fiction or autobiographies but for what I've been reading I definitely prefer the paper copy to actually write it up. I'm probably going to have to go back to the books I had speed read and go through some of them carefully again. 

Lesson #6: I'll die before I read them all. 

My book wish list continues to grow. Every time I go into a physical bookstore and get lost in the shelves I find more books I want to add to my list and every time I listen to a podcast someone recommends more books I've never heard of to add to my list. If I could read 2 books a month (as I am on track to accomplish this year, yay me!) and I live until 100 (medical technology is assumed to have advanced to the point I will still have great vision and mental health) I'll get to read 1,776 more books. Context, there are about 600,000 to 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone. 

This means that I should be really selective with my book selection. Reading each book is like investing in stocks. Most out there are garbage and you should select them after some careful due diligence but you won't know until you actually commit and read through it. Sometimes it turns out you are wrong so you dump that thing and move onto another. Sometimes you are right and so you "water the winners" by having it on your bookshelf and keep on reading them again and again because it continues to give back. That is a gem of a book you've found. 

When I look to select a book I'll go through various reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, I'll watch/listen to a few interviews the author does on Youtube/Podcasts, I'll look at when it was published (if it's still recommended 10 years after it was published it's been able to stand the test of time and less likely to be a fashionable fad... like all the "f*uck xyz" books), and I'll carefully consider the recommendations of avid readers whom I trust to recommend good books (I trust a person who has read 50 vs. 5 any day). 

Lesson #7: Think. 

A great book should engage you. I mean, you haven't quit because you are enjoying the content. If it engages you it will also make you think. For me, it feels akin to daydreaming. I ignored this 'state' at first but over time I found myself just writing in my books to capture them. It was mine so why not? As the quote at the top of the essay says, there is no better praise I can provide the author with then to instill my own ideas with hers. It's crazy how I thought to never write a single margin note in my book before (wanting to keep the pages nice and clean... stupid). How would I know what information is important and which is not? How would I know what ideas and creative thoughts a passage sparked? The more notes and thoughts I write the more value I am attributing to the book. It's the result of thinking. 

Thinking is super underrated. Most jobs actually don't want people to think. That's why they have frameworks and processes that have been adhered to for decades. Thinking requires practice, like training a muscle, and thinking whilst reading books is probably the safest and easiest way to train that muscle. And thinking without writing it down is just not effective. Write in the book. Make a margin note. Make the book yours by actually writing your thoughts down in it. Now, my books resemble a university textbook that was used to study for a final exam. Most of the time, the book adds more learning value than any textbook I've read so it makes more sense to highlight the crap out of it and fill it with as many notes as possible. 

Lesson #8: Summarize the thought.

This has been my latest development in my reading technique. In addition to the constant margin-noting I've now started summarizing each chapter as well. I've found this helps pull out the key learnings from the book while it's still relatively fresh. It also helps me out when I review the book again a few weeks after when I write my summaries

I've also found that when I summarize the books a few weeks after I can also see the notes again from a different perspective and that helps me retain the core message for a longer duration and it often helps form a part of my mental model for the future. 

Lesson #9: You bought the author's life for $20. 

Assuming the book is good. Nay, even decent. You bought 20, 30 or 50 years of a person's life for $20. In a world where people are giving up years of their life to make money to buy more time this is a bloody bargain. This isn't really a lesson but a statement of obvious fact that I think most people don't get. I mean.... I think a great book is worth more than reading 1000 tweets.... but it probably takes a similar amount of time to digest the content.  

Lesson #10: It's probably the most personable gift.

I've started gifting books now. They are probably my most common form of gift. I've found gifting a book to be an extremely personal act. When I think about gifting a book I have to think about the individual's reading level, their interest, whether the person will read, and the value I hope the person gets from the book. To say the least, each time I've gifted a book to someone they've expressed sincere gratitude. It's actually more rewarding than most other gifts I'd given in the past because I hope the book I gift plays a role in adding long-term value to the development of the person. Some don't read leisurely but choose to read books I gift because they trust the vetting process it has gone through by me. It just results in an elevated form of connection with another person and I find that quite magical. Find me a fucking scarf or iPod that can do that. 

That's it.

I'm sure there are some other learnings I'm forgetting but that's 10 for you. I have a long journey ahead if I want to read 1,776 in a lifetime so I'm sure I'll continue to learn more about how to properly read a book. Until the release of my next set of new learnings I hope the list above serves you well on your own journey of learning. If you don't currently have a habit of reading yet I envy you because you may be able to avoid all the mistakes I made early on. So pickup a book and get reading. 

 

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