This past year, I decided to instill a new habit to my life: reading. I realized it was probably the most important improvement I could make that would pay the greatest dividends. I started the year off at a frenetic pace, reading upwards of ten books a month to start, but gradually found a happier medium settling at 5-6 books a month (I was also still in school for the first half of the year, giving me more time to read). In total, I read 80 books in 2014 and more non-fiction books than I’d read in my entire life previously.
You can see my reading list here along with my thoughts on some of them.
Here are 10 things I learned about reading this past year:
1. It’s OK to give up on a book
I finished 80 books this year, but I also dropped 20-30 other books because I wasn’t getting any value from them. I used to feel guilty about doing this, following the mantra I had to finish what I started, but I quickly realized this was a waste of time. I accepted that it’s fine to quit books you don’t like or aren’t doing anything for you.
The timing of when you read a book is sometimes everything – there’s no shame in shelving it to read later, when it may be more applicable to your life. I felt this way while reading many business books. Such books were often targeted towards senior managers or people who were already at the helm of thriving businesses – not so relevant for my present situation. Some books I picked up were simply bad. For these books, I generally gave it 50 pages, then skipped ahead to see if there was anything useful I could pick up from skimming it. No one says you have to read a book from start to finish, either.
2. Speed reading doesn’t work
There are a lot of so-called speed reading techniques, and a slew of new apps that promise you’ll read up to 1200 words per minute. I’ve tried a couple of these techniques, and the only one I liked was eliminating subvocalization (i.e., not saying the words you’re reading in your head) – but I’ve always felt this was the only way to read. Fancier techniques like metaguiding, expanding your peripheral vision, and skimming will allow you to parse through more information faster, true, but you’re also not processing what you read or comprehending it as well. Further, these techniques require a lot of focus and mental effort, and they’ll quickly exhaust you. One of the best parts about reading is taking a few moments to pause and think about an idea, and with speed reading, these moments are gone. As I mention below, it’s not about the quantity of books you read, but…
3. The books you engage with are the ones that matter
I read a lot of books this year, but I didn’t engage with many, or act on what I had learned. It’s easy to passively consume information, but actually implementing physical and mental change in your life is hard. I was guilty of merely absorbing information at times. While more knowledge and information is good, we can all agree the true value of reading comes from taking action and applying what you’ve learned into your life.
There were several books, for instance, that had specific action plans you were supposed to do while reading them. Think and Grow Rich and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are examples of such books. I finished these books intending to go back and perform the exercises, but I never did. I wonder how much value I missed as a result of not engaging with these books.
This year, I’m going to focus less on the quantity of books I read and more on the engagement I have with the books. If I like a particular book, I’m going to email the author, tell him I appreciated his work, and ask him any questions I may have. If I read something I think might improve my life in some way, I’m going to write it down and actively work to implement it somehow in my daily routine.
4. Don’t forget the old books
I was surprised by how much wisdom there was in older books that have been forgotten in favor of more “new-age” theories and beliefs. It was almost eerie when I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to find that the struggles and emotions he faced two thousands years ago are the same ones we deal with today in our lives. It’s interesting to note that most of us spend years of our lives relearning the exact same lessons previous generations have already learned.
In the same vein, just because a book is a New York Times Bestseller does not mean it’s a good book. There are a lot of mediocre books out there that have made it to the top simply because of expert marketing efforts.
5. Books have the best ROI for your money
I’m convinced that books are the best investment for your money you can make. It’s like sitting down with the author for a prolonged coffee and him pouring out everything he knows on a subject to you. When you read, you’re diving into the mind of the author, someone who has spent years of his/her life studying a topic, and distilling everything to you. I now wonder why it took me so long to realize this!
6. Read first thing in the morning and right before bed
I found this schedule worked best for me. You’re at your most productive 2-5 hours after you wake up, so I like to spend at least the first half hour of my day reading, a relatively passive activity. I’ve also found that I’ve been able to use tidbits of what I’d read that morning in my work later on in the day, which can be rewarding. I then read last thing before bed to wind down the night. I’ve found these time periods allow for reading in long bursts, which is most enjoyable for me. This also helps you avoid digital screentime before bed, which negatively impacts sleep. The combination of these means you’ll likely read for at least an hour a day – nothing to scoff at if done every day.
7. It’s OK to not remember everything you read
I used to worry about this a lot. I’d finish a book and the next day try to recall the seven social influences Robert Cialdini mentioned in Influence but come up short one or two.
This bothered me, until I read a quote by Emerson: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” Just as what you eat will project itself through your body composition and even how you feel and think, the same is true of books.
Paul Graham also talked about this recently. In his words, he says: “Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.
8. For every book you read, read a book with the opposing view
The beauty of reading is that it allows you to think in ways you normally never would. If all you read are books that support your own opinions, you’re not really learning anything. You’re confining yourself to a very limited model of the world. The best way to really know a topic inside-out is to be aware of the criticisms and arguments the opposing side throws out. You don’t necessarily have to agree with everything you read, and in the end it’s up to you to form your own opinion.
9. You’ll learn a lot about yourself while reading
As mentioned above, I’m the type of reader who likes to pause and reflect every so often while I’m reading, particularly if I’ve come across a sentence or phrase that resonates with me. I’ll notice phrases that I agree or disagree with, ask myself why, and later realize that I’ve actually learned a bit about my own values and opinions. I’m sure you can relate to coming across a passage where the author has put into words an exact feeling you’ve had, but was able to articulate it clearly for you to better understand your own feelings. This is a small way you can learn about yourself while reading.
10. The more you read, the more you realize how little you know
This paradox became extremely apparent to me this past year. In my quest for knowledge, I grew increasingly humbled at how little I knew. Every book I read led me to a new topic, and another book I wanted to read, and so on. I found that the more I uncovered, the more remained hidden. Of course, it’s ultimately impossible to know everything, but this journey of discovery is exciting and promotes a path of lifelong learning.
What are your favorite books you read in 2014 that you can recommend? Let me know – I’m always on the lookout. 🙂