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On Reading

07 July, 2020 - 10 min read


I disliked reading growing up, but I loved books. How can loving books, but disliking reading be possible in the same sentence? My parents bought me illustration books which I loved as a kid, and still do. I read those books from cover to cover. But anything that had to do with reading for schoolwork, I started running away from it.

This pattern remained true in college. But this changed once formal education ended. I started showing up at local book stores and picked up hard copies. I would devour those books in weeks and days. And, do it all over again!

My love for reading began once I stopped reading for school. Schools and exams made learning into competition. True learning started for me when I stopped competing with others. Self-education will always be more satisfying than formal education because it lets us free from the mindset of a follower.

Reading has now become meditative. In my downtime, I started reading because it didn't feel like work to me. Reading became an obsession. Reading has helped me reconcile all my emotions because getting lost in words, stories and wisdom of others is a thrill. Obsessive curious mind makes reading frictionless because curiosity is constantly pulling me. I don't know how to put the brakes on.

Reading is a process which has no goals

Learning is more effective when we are emotionally connected. Consuming information is not the same as learning information. To understand what we are reading requires Galileo like patience. Read. Pause. Ponder on what we just read. Revisit. Write book summaries. Share those summaries with others. And if that doesn't work, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or post about it on Reddit.

When I first started reading, I wanted to read x amount of books per year. An underlying desire was to impress others. I learned how flawed that thinking was because I wasn't learning anything. Now, I read without any objective goals and ensure I am processing what I am reading.

If I don't enjoy reading something or if I am reading aimlessly to consume information, I will put that book aside and move on to something else.

Be an active reader

Eliminate passive reading. Some of the misconception which I still run into today is highlighting every passage in the book. Or pretending to read, but not understanding what I am reading. Or stuck on a book for a long period of time.

An active reader does not read passively, but uses the arguments made by an author for critical thinking and deeper understanding. An active reader asks questions by considering motivation of writer's arguments and assumptions. An active reader avoids passive reading like a plague. The goal is not to read as much as possible and soak up all the information to satisfy instant gratification. The goal is to gain as much as wisdom as possible because knowledge compounds.

Some might argue reading long-form books is virtuous. Why not podcasts or audio? The effort put into a book is infinitely more significant than a long-form conversation. The depth of processing and synthesis is more in reading than listening. Both listening and reading are tools in an arsenal of learning, but it is critical to know why one is superior over the other.

Your ability to speak clearly is enhanced by reading (not listening) to books and by writing and journaling in complete sentences. Texting, voice dictation and audio books are wonderful but degrade articulation. Conversely, structured writing aids structured speech. — Andrew D. Huberman

Reading enhances writing

Becoming a better reader is going to help you become a better writer and vice-versa. That is the real payoff. Reading decrease our sense of isolation. The need to read by Paul Graham:

Reading about x doesn't just teach you about x; it also teaches you how to write. Would that matter? If we replaced reading, would anyone need to be good at writing? The reason it would matter is that writing is not just a way to convey ideas, but also a way to have them. A good writer doesn't just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing. And there is, as far as I know, no substitute for this kind of discovery. Talking about your ideas with other people is a good way to develop them. But even after doing this, you'll find you still discover new things when you sit down to write. There is a kind of thinking that can only be done by writing. There are of course kinds of thinking that can be done without writing. If you don't need to go too deeply into a problem, you can solve it without writing. If you're thinking about how two pieces of machinery should fit together, writing about it probably won't help much. And when a problem can be described formally, you can sometimes solve it in your head. But if you need to solve a complicated, ill-defined problem, it will almost always help to write about it. Which in turn means that someone who's not good at writing will almost always be at a disadvantage in solving such problems. You can't think well without writing well, and you can't write well without reading well. And I mean that last "well" in both senses. You have to be good at reading, and read good things. People who just want information may find other ways to get it. But people who want to have ideas can't afford to.

Stephen King on the importance of reading:

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written.

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the tools to write.

Reading is the creative center of a writer's life.

I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don't read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.

Anne Lamott on the importance of books:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.

Reading is an equalizer

Systematic education is not an equalizer. This is because it made me run away. But reading is. Reading equalizes every mind by fixing every hole in every person's broken sky.

Reading is a journey to find great books. We start with not so great books and then slowly start climbing the intellectual ladder. I started out with self-help or academically acclaimed books. Over time I started noticing all the advice shared in those books are the same...told differently. Then, I moved on to physics, biology, business, engineering, etc.

I didn't care for these disciplines in school, but now I do. In school we are supposed to finish something we are disengaged in. While reading freely, we can move on to something else if we are no longer interested. We are taught to finish a book. Schools ingrain this type of ideology.

Society values higher education from prestige universities. But it costs $1 in late fees at a local library than accumulating thousands in tuition debt. Reading is inexpensive so go to your local library and check out some books.

Abraham Lincoln didn't have any formal education from Harvard or Yale. He walked several miles to borrow books. He grew up reading Shakespeare and Milton soaking up the simple majesty of their words, stories and wisdom.

To my mind there are no advantages and many disadvantages in lectures compared with reading. – Charles Darwin

Libraries are bastions of democracy and oxygen for the mind. — Maria Popova

System for reading effectively

If you don't take anything away, just take this — let go of the unwritten rules and just read.

First, just read. Reading Aristotle on a tablet or a hard cover book doesn't matter. No matter how much technology will evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger. I prefer physical books, but I read on kindle. It doesn't matter. Just read.

Second, feel the content before you go deeper. For every book I read, I put down five books. Read the title, table of contents, preface, editor notes and introduction. Read through couple chapters and if you are still engaged, continue moving forward. If you are resisting and can't go any further, move on to something else. Some good books have value spread evenly throughout the book. Many not so good books have value front-loaded and the rest is mostly repetition and anecdotes.

Third, always ask questions. What is the author saying? Why is the author saying that? Is it a fact or an opinion? Pay attention to how sentences and paragraphs are constructed. How are some arguments and conclusions being made? Are conclusions being made opinionated or fact-based?

Fourth, use commonplace book. Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing meaningful passages and phrases. Sit on those notes to think deeply. Use commonplace book to expand your vocabulary by listing those new words down. Without these summaries and note-taking system, you will forget a lot of the lessons learned. I don't have a great memory so the system I built helps me revisit those lessons.

Fifth, the more you read, the more you will start to appreciate books you have read in the past. An old book that you rated 5/10 will now become 8 or 9 out of 10. This is a clear way of seeing how knowledge compounds. You will also start to see common patterns that are universal all around you. Lessons from philosophy, physiology, physics, psychology, biology, business, etc. are everywhere. Everything is related and connected.

Sixth, read books that have aged well. Most books are bad. Classics such as The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith or On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. These books have been around for a century and will most likely be around for another 100 years. Focus on re-reading great books. It is more likely than not, you will stumble upon something you originally missed.

Seventh, beware of sunk cost fallacy and opportunity cost. You may feel guilty of spending time and money on books that you are unable to finish. It's not something you should get worked up on. A $10 or $20 book can change your life in a meaningful way. This book then is an investment, not a cost.