How to read more books

I use goodreads to review books as I read them (and to keep track of all the wonderful new books I discover that I absolutely MUST read in the future). As a result, several of my friends have recently started commenting on my reading activity and wondering how I manage to read so much. I don’t think it is “so much,” especially since reading is an incredible form of entertainment and escapism, really more of a guilty pleasure than any kind of virtue. :) But it is true that I have been reading more lately than I had in the past, and (like anything else) it is a combination of making it a priority and making it a habit.

I just came across a fabulous article by Ali Binazir that sums up a lot of my views far better than I ever could, and also includes some great tips if you would like to increase your own reading. Unlike some other advice about increasing reading activity, Ali emphasizes that it isn’t a race and that it is a “joy and a privilege” to live in a time when we have an astonishing level of access to books and the leisure time to enjoy them (yes, we do).

According to this article, the average (median) American reads 4 books each year. Four!! I read 80 books last year and am gunning for more in 2019. In that context, I guess it does seem like I read “so much.” But the more I read, the more I find that my appetite for reading increases (bookbeast!). Where do you draw the line between an enjoyable hobby and an addiction?

For me personally, I read during meals. This has the slight downside of making me less aware of my food (and there are several good reasons to be more mindful when you’re eating), but it guarantees me timeslices every day in which I get to read. I also read in the evening to unwind, and often I read right before bed. The anticipation of getting to read a good book helps me drag myself away from my phone or computer and do something without screens before falling asleep, which is supposed to help you sleep better.

I also alternate between several different books rather than pursuing one to the end before starting the next. I seem to have a strong desire for diversity; it is like nibbling at all sorts of different treats at a buffet. I agree with Ali, too, that some books are better choices than others for pre-bedtime reading, so it’s good to have several currently-reading books to choose from, depending on the time of day and your mood.

I do occasionally consume audiobooks, as Ali suggests, but they take longer than visual reading and they are less available than the cornucopia of things I want to read in physical form at the library (or in stacks at my house). During my commutes, I mostly listen to podcasts, which can feel like a book (e.g., This American Life), but more often are thought-provoking bits that make up the bulk of my non-fiction consumption. Most of my pleasure reading has been fiction of late (although I feel some desire to change that up and get more non-fiction into my diet).

Also as Ali mentions, having a goal is motivating. I use the Goodreads “reading challenge” to declare a target number of books to read in a given year, and I do find that it motivates me. I make myself write up a short review of each book I read, which takes discipline (often I am just eager to pick up the next book), but it is very valuable for going back later to refresh my memory, or just to solidify what I got out of the book (especially non-fiction). It’s amazing how very much we forget!

I enjoyed reading Ali’s article, and I hope you will too. (As a side effect, I finally understand what a “cloud atlas” is. Thanks, Ali!)

What are your tips and strategies and habits for reading? Do share!

“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

Understanding introversion and its strengths and weaknesses

I just finished reading “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which makes me want to talk!

Cain’s book is a fascinating account of the latest research on introverts and extroverts. It pulls together ideas from antiquity up through today about what distinguishes these basic personality types, how they form (nature vs. nurture?), and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Cain’s tone throughout is a bit defensive or apologetic (hence the title’s emphasis on the “power” of introverts) due to our cultural bias in favor of extroversion – but both sides are discussed. Introverts will find advice herein about how to connect, communicate, and thrive (and know yourself better).

The main message I got (which fits my own life experience) was that introversion is likely an inborn trait (not an environmentally imposed one), but we can (and do) adapt to situations as needed, including performing as extroverts if it’s in pursuit of a goal that we highly value.

One aspect of introversion that was new to me is that introverts tend to be more sensitive to the thoughts and actions of others. I am reminded of how I would anthropomorphize everything as a kid, including feeling sorry when I stepped on rocks in case it “hurt” them. Here I’d thought that everyone did that :) And it’s true that I find it nearly impossible to rest if I think I’ve inconvenienced, hurt, or annoyed someone. I feel compelled to address and resolve it.

I was also surprised to read that “at the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability” and that “introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees.” Cain does not argue that introverts are smarter than extroverts (in fact, she points out that IQ tests show no difference), but that they are more focused, invested, and studious – traits that are rewarded in academia. In contrast, extroverts are better at “handling information overload,” perhaps because introverts are devoting “cognitive capacity” to reflecting on experiences as they are happening. I can identify with that!

But the part that really hit me hard was the discussion of being “reward-oriented” versus “threat-oriented” (one way of thinking about extroverts and introverts). Reading through this characterization, I realized that this theory captures my own behaviors remarkably well. And I went through a short existential crisis, because this is not how I have ever viewed myself consciously, and it felt like a disappointment. While there are up sides to being cautious and conscientious and thorough, it seems … less impressive, somehow, than being a risk-taker and go-getter and achiever. I’m not sure that I want to think of myself as motivated by fears.

An industrious individual converted Cain’s short 10-question quiz into an online quiz, so if you don’t have access to the book, you can still determine where you fall on the reward-threat spectrum.

Cain shares the results of studies on how well people think and work in solo situations versus group settings, with important implications for your own productivity and for the workplace. She makes some powerful points about the need for both introverts and extroverts for balanced decision making (e.g., in financial markets, but everywhere else, too).

There are also chapters devoted to the teaching or parenting of introverts. I found these less compelling or insightful. The main message is about awareness of diversity in personalities and strengths. As an introvert myself, I find the recommended strategies to be overly meddlesome, but it’s always possible that others would find them beneficial.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking read that yielded some new insights about myself and my behavior. I wrote extensively in the margins and will likely come back to browse and review over time.

The OK Plateau

In Joshua Foer’s excellent book on the art of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, he mentions the “OK Plateau” as something that all humans learning anything will encounter. This is the stage you reach once you’ve moved past “beginner” and are able to execute a task with some degree of automation. For example, when you first learn to type, you look for and consciously press the right keys. But at some point you learn where they are and can type without looking (or really thinking about individual keys). Foer pointed out something I’ve always wondered — if we tend to get better at something over time, why doesn’t everyone end up being a 100+ wpm touch-typist?

The “OK Plateau” is reached when you are doing a task “well enough” for your needs, and your brain moves on to focus its conscious effort on something else. So even though you might be typing every day (email, reports, documents, forms), you probably will settle into some particular typing speed that never really improves.



Excellent depiction by imagethink.

This is fine for tasks in which “good enough” is, well, good enough. But there are some things in which you want to become an expert, or at least push your performance to a much higher level. To do that, it seems, you must push yourself back into a conscious awareness of what you are doing and examine and explore where you are making errors or performing suboptimally.

“[Those who excel] develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance.” (Foer)

This means constantly pushing yourself to do more, work faster, tackle harder examples, and so on, and then to learn from your failings or mistakes.

I have been thinking about this in terms of my pilot training. There are significant parts of flying that I can now do with some degree of automation, and it is tempting to declare them “learned” and move my tired brain on to the other big poles. But it is also clear to me that complacency is not something you want to develop in flying – nor in driving – nor anything else that requires a good depth of experience and tuned reflexes. I’ve come across advice in different pilot venues that urge you to continue polishing and refining. How precise can you make your short landing? How precise can you be on airspeed and altitude? If you picked out an emergency landing spot, fly low and actually check it out. Is it as obstacle-free as you thought from higher up?

I expect there is probably a transition you hit once you get your pilot’s license. You go from regular lessons with an instructor (with performance expectations and critiques) to absolute freedom to fly when you want, where you want, with no one watching over your shoulder. At that point, it is up to you to maintain that same level of scrutiny and to critique your own performance. My instructor told me to always have a specific goal when I go out to do solo practice. I’ve encountered the recommendation that, after landing, you give yourself a grade for every flight. What did you do well? What was borderline? What new questions came up that you should research?

Foer describes chess players who learn more from studying old masters’ games (and reasoning through each step) than from playing new games with other players. Studying past games can be more mindful. Pilots can benefit similarly from reading through accident reports to gain knowledge about how things go wrong. AOPA offers a rich array of Accident Case Studies that provide a wealth of scenarios to think through and learn from.

For any hobby or skill, there are similar opportunities to make your practice time more effective at increasing your ability. Instead of playing through your latest violin piece, try doing it 10% faster and see what happens. Try transposing it to a different key on the fly. On your next commute, grade yourself on whether you maintained a specific following distance, how many cars in surrounding lanes you were consciously tracking, how well you optimized your gas mileage, or some other desirable metric.

Employing this approach to everything you do would be exhausting and impossible to maintain. But for those few things that really matter to you, for which the OK Plateau is not good enough, it could be what catapults you to the expert domain. If you’re interested, check out Foer’s short talk summarizing the OK Plateau and his advice for escaping it.

A famine of ideas?

Have we trained ourselves out of thinking about big ideas?

That’s the thesis behind a recent NYT editorial titled “The Elusive Big Idea” by Neal Gabler. While much has been written about the decline of attention spans and the distractions created by social media and the general motion towards shorter sound bytes at the expense of longer, thoughtful analysis, this article takes such criticism a step further.

“[W]e are living in an increasingly post-idea world,” writes Gabler. By “post-idea” he means a deliberate choice not to think! He argues that we’ve come to focus on collecting knowledge and given up on actually thinking about it.

“We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.”

Information overload is not a new concept, but Gabler’s sketch of a society in which we are not only overwhelmed with information but we deliberately choose to continue glutting ourselves on it instead of taking the time to carefully chew over what we already have disturbs me in the way that only an idea with a kernel of truth can. Every time I glance at my RSS feed, I get that exact feeling: there is too much information, too much that is new and interesting and that I want to read, and nowhere near enough time to really think about it. This observation is exactly one of the reasons that I have this blog: a chance to stop and think about something, not just skim and nod and move onto the next nugget. This goes beyond a missed opportunity for reflection and increased insight. If Gabler is right, it could be habit-forming. Is there no room today for a Thoreau, an Emerson, a Twain? If they did appear, would they be systematically ignored, their essays too long, their ideas too musing, their observations demanding too much of the limited time any reader can bear to spend on any single source?

Gabler hints at the impact such a shift in priorities can have for society. How can we find space and time to incubate the next Big Ideas? How can we recognize and pay attention to these insights when they don’t fit into 140 characters? We have more people alive today than ever before, more thinking capacity at the ready — if we choose to engage it. This isn’t just about being an intellectual, engaging in some elite snobbery; it’s the chance to choose between cultivating what is new and exciting and valuable, the unique outcome of human cognitive capabilities, versus drowning in a vast, passive sea of trivia and unending distraction.

I thank Mr. Gabler for his timely essay and for giving me the inspiration to indulge in a moment of reflection myself. I’ve repeatedly come across advice about journaling in a work context, just taking 5-10 minutes every day to write down the thoughts bubbling in the back of your head. Every time I’ve made time to do this, I’ve had new ideas pop up or crystallize or point the way to some new direction. I won’t claim that these qualify as Big Ideas, but maybe they can guide the way. This is an activity I already hoped to indulge in more regularly during my sabbatical. After reading this essay, I’m all the more motivated to create a new habit, one dedicated against the post-idea slump.

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