Reading, fast and slow
It’s been almost 3 years since I’ve been trying to develop the habit of reading, and only recently I started feeling confident enough to say that I’m a “regular” reader (for me, being regular means no longer being afraid of losing the reading habit).
Throughout the last 3 years, I struggled with my reading habit. I’d feel like an amateur full of self-pity when I used to come across articles or videos on topics like “How I/to read 50 books in a Year?” or “How to read fast(er)?”. These resources tried their best to convince me using examples of Bill Gates and quoting scientific studies, but when I applied those “tips”, something didn’t use to feel right.
After a lot of trial and error, now I do have my firsthand experience of what worked and what I found to be fluff for myself, and thought of sharing that in this post. Some of the observations I share now look very simple in hindsight, but trust me, they weren’t that obvious at first.
A tale of two cities
A little context of my relationship with books before I got interested in them; I was once awarded a popular novel, “A tale of two cities” (by Charles Dickens) for academic performance in my school.
This is me in the extreme left along with my friends posing for the customary photo. The picture says a lot about what was going on in mind.
At that moment, it didn’t felt like a good prize to me. After all, I didn’t slog through all the boring school books just to get another book. I’d have rather preferred a game or money. For some friends, however, it was an “exciting” book. I had a weird idea of selling it to them, but you know, it’s hard to sell a prize.
I did give the book two honest attempts to read it, but the frequency of me having to look up difficult words (I knew just-enough-English to answer my exam questions) coupled with the size of the book made me hopeless about finishing it. It just didn’t felt worth the effort.
In short, books for the early me were dumb, and I’d often think why to waste time reading a popular fiction when you can watch a movie about it and get done with it in 95% less time. The only times I’d read books were for exams. For entertainment and infotainment, I was more of a modern multimedia internet guy.
Avoid books as long as possible, had been my rule of thumb, until,
The first few books you finish…
In the summer of 2018, something interesting happened. Amazon was having their “The Great Indian Sales” during those days (times when they burn a lot of money to earn the loyalty of price-sensitive customers like me). I bought a few books that had 4+ ratings, and more importantly, were on a handsome discount.
I’m pretty sure most people know about the first two books above. I deliberately kept these books on my table, and then one day, when I surpassed my guilt threshold, I started giving them a read.
I found “The power of your subconscious mind” to be redundant and a bit fluffy, so I left it midway. “How to win friends and influence people” was more practical, but it felt manipulative and against the “be yourself” trend.
But there was something about the third book (The Monk who sold his Ferrari) that got me hooked. The context in which the book was written resonated so much with my situation at that time, that I just didn’t want to put down the book.
Eventually, I came to know that such books are called self-help books. And then one book lead to another, and I ended up with this,
I wish I could’ve started before
These physical books provided me an escape from my extensive digital life, and then, I did start to wonder, “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”
Looking back, I think I know the reasons. It was because of my preconceptions about reading, my inept vocabulary, and presumed lack of time. Also, it’s worth mentioning the first few books that I bought were,
- Very cheap (costed 100₹ or less)
- Were written in “plain” English
- Were short (no more than 300 pages) with page sizes no bigger than A5
All of this along with the ample time I had at that time reduced the friction. And I know it for sure, had any one of these factors be missing, I would not have given reading a shot.
The journey afterward
Reading non-fiction books was my newly discovered hobby. I would often browse the Amazon, set my filters right (Avg. customer reviews 4 and above, Sort descending by avg. customer reviews, category non-fiction, price low to high), and then shortlist the books so that I can stock them up in the next book sale. I also did a lot of surfing to find out best books to come up with the list (thanks, Goodreads).
It’s silly to say now but I felt like there are a certain number of books, which if I read, I’d be a fountain of wisdom and my life would never be the same.
Many different phases of non-fiction journey
Following is one of my favorite info-graphic from Wait But Why blog,
While not exactly true, let’s assume “Number of non-fiction books read” as a proxy for knowledge on the x-axis of the above graph. Here’s how things pan out for most of us,
- You start with the baseline knowledge from the experiences you already have. Then you discover this newly found timeless knowledge stored in highly consolidated fashion in books (a.k.a wisdom), your confidence rises.
- In just about a few books, you’ll usually become a “wisdom blabbering machine”. You want to preach about stuff, share quotes, encourage your friends to read the books you read, worshipping the content as is without drilling too much on the applicability in daily life. You might even feel like writing a book yourself (I’m myself guilty of attempting this).
- Books provide you with (new) perspectives. Then a few books later, due diligence will put in light the conflicts between different wisdom pieces you gain from the book. It happened to me when I read “Subtle Art of not giving a f*ck” and found it in contrast to other books that I’ve read before (Think and Grow rich, Monk who sold his Ferrari, The power of Subconscious mind).
- It is only then you realize that these bestsellers can be stupid too, that the authors are not always right, context matters a lot, and you can’t trust no single person’s words and perspective. Ultimately, it is you who has to develop your own perspectives, and that books are mere guiding lights along the way. I’m not trying to discount the importance of books, they’re one of the best guiding lights.
When you reach this stage, a funny side-effect is that you can relate to the gullibility of other readers in the earlier phases of their reading journey (found often on social media). I remember when I used to tell a friend (who had read hundreds of books) that how awesome and life-changing this book that I’m currently reading is, he’d simply smile and subtly change the topic.
There were a few questions that I chased in my euphoria phase, and I know a lot of other people do too,
Q: Which book changed your life?
This is a very cliched question, with so many people having so many different answers to it. However, there are a couple of caveats which should be kept in mind,
- A book will have different impacts on different readers.
- No single book can change the life of everyone. Period.
This question encourages readers to find that one book. Which is misleading!
From my experience, it is, My context + Previous books I read + Current books I’m reading + How I’m acting on the new knowledge + Luck / Randomness that has actually affected my life.
Q: Which books should I read?
The first few books I read were influenced by the “Top X books that you can’t miss” kind of recommendations. But reflecting back now, I think the honest answer to this is just to read the stuff that you like to read.
Like many others, I too am guilty of buying books and not finishing them. There were some books that felt downright stupid to me (Think and grow rich was one such book), there were some books that I couldn’t just read because of how “raw” they were (like the Intelligent investor, and Thinking fast and flow, which I’ve been trying to finish for 2 years), there are books that are just too big to even get going (like Gene: An intimate history and Steve Jobs).
And among the books I finished, some books felt incomplete after reading (like Rich and Poor Dad), some books made me lose money (like the Autobiography of Stock), some books that I found fluff in the first read seemed insightful in the second read (the ones by Ryan Holiday), some didn’t have the Bestseller / FOMO vibe but still surpassed all the expectations I had (like The Undercover Economist).
I now consider reading similar to games. The first few games you try are just an introduction to the experience. You develop your preferences during the exploration. And of course, there’s also a chance that you’d quit if the experience sucks too much.
The takeaway for me has been as long as you read books out of your own curiosity and not due to the influence of someone else or some expected result, you won’t regret any of the books you read or didn’t read.
Q: How to read more books in a year?
Another cliched question. In my early reading days (actually years), I was excited about improving my reading speed because I wanted to read so many books. The motivation behind that was I believed more books would mean more knowledge (or wisdom) and a better life.
Not to my surprise, I found plenty of quality content (videos, blogs, and even books) on how to read “fast” and “effectively”. They would often quote scientific studies, Bill Gates, and whatnot.
Counting the number of books read now seems like a dick measuring contest to me, it defeats the purpose of reading the books. Having this thought means that either you’re not really into reading or you’re taking it as a competitive sport. When I’m playing badminton with my friend I don’t want to play more games per hour, I just want to play. In fact, I’d rather be more engaged if a single game is taking longer than usual. Similarly, I’m more than happy if a book takes me longer to comprehend as long as it adds value to my life.
Learning to read faster doesn’t guarantee you understand faster (I often think this: How much does Bill Gates remembers from a book if he reads 50 in a year?). If I pick up a book to expand my knowledge and forget what I read in the books after a few weeks, does it really matter how many I read or how fast I read them?
There are more books than the time I’ve to read them. My speed and efficiency don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. The best bet is to savor every book I read.
Some of my rule-of-thumbs
The older the better
This was a hard to swallow lesson for me, but timeless and distilled knowledge is more likely to be found in old books than the recent bestsellers or the YouTube videos or Medium articles for that matter (Hint: Lindy effect)
No perfect time
I’ve tried to devote a regular time slot for reading books in mornings, evening sunsets, before bed, after dinner. I’ve realized that there’s no perfect time to read the books, and if I’m reading something interesting I figure out a time to read it, and if I don’t like the book, I procrastinate. Which brings me to next point,
Books don’t mind being dumped
If you don’t like the book, dump it. There are occasions when I’m going through the book, and I reach a point “enough is enough, all this seems to be kind of too much”, and I throw it away. I did that when I was reading The intelligent investor, I did that with Gene: An intimate history, they’re all good books, and I was genuinely curious about the topics at first, but upon further exploration, my curiosity died and I realized maybe they’re not the kind of books I’m into, or, I’m not just ready for them.
Read the way you like
I have a weird reading style of reading paperback books; I didn’t learn it from anyone, it kind of evolved on its own. I read a few pages (I don’t count them), underline a lot. If the book is good, I make sure that I go through the underlines at least once more to see how much did I sink in. Surprisingly, it’s not much. Sometimes, I forget even the concepts that gave me an epiphany moment. Sometimes I’m able to relate better to the idea.
I have had a few people say that underlining is in-effective (with scientific researches attached) or that my way of reading is slow. I don’t know what’s true, but I think everyone has their own “reading style”.
Read twice, not once, not thrice.
In the quest to find out the right balance between speed, persistence, and retention, following the practice of reading exactly twice seems to have been the most effective for me.
PS: How reading helped me?
I often struggled with putting my thoughts out clearly, but now I feel much more confident in expressing my thoughts (probably due to increased vocabulary and exposure to various writing styles). I’m also less intimidated on reading books that I wasn’t able to read previously.
Reading quality content, sparked interest in writing quality content. And understanding the amount of effort it takes to write some stuff, made me appreciate the books more (it’s kind of a reinforcement loop). I did also develop more respect for the writers, and some annoyance for those who take this skill for granted. Needless to say, I improved my average knowledge about a bunch of things from economics, to history to psychology to science.
I think I’ll conclude this with the following final remark,
When you find your reading taste, the reading-habit and style appears.
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