Reading: exercise for the mind

If I am going to be a better thinker, I need to get better at reading.  This is not a literacy issue.  I can read and I do actually read quite a bit, but I know there is room for improvement.  Specifically, I need to be more selective in what I read (without creating a bubble), I need to figure out a way to make it more of a daily habit and I need to figure out a way to actually read some of the better long form online content.

My selection process today looks something like this: I add items to my wish list based on specific mentions or recommendations in podcasts or on blogs / social media, make a purchase every so often from that list from Amazon or see what the magical portal has for decided I should read, either from that list or completely out of the blue.  I add the new books to my tsundoku pile until I am done with at least one of the books I am currently reading (still on the fence whether reading more than one book at a time is a good thing or a bad thing) at which point I scan the pile and see what I am in the mood for; whatever I think I can really dig into or whatever I think I “need” to read at the time. I’m not sure exactly what I need to do to make this better, but it just feels a little too random to me.  I know I won’t be able to read everything I have on my wishlist, so I need to come up with a more deliberate way to decide what to move from there to the pile and what to read from the pile.

I read when I have time.  I was in a habit for a while of reading in the morning.  I think I need to get back to that.  It was a pretty solid, if boring, morning routine: get up, meditate, journal, read (and have coffee) then get on to whatever the day had in store for me.  For some reason, I feel out of that routine in the last few months, with only journaling persisting.  In this case I think I know what to do to make it better, so I just need to do it.  The holidays coming up seem to be a good window to re-establish that routine (not only reading but daily meditation, which has advantages I will surely explore in future posts in this series).

While there is a lot of crap online that isn’t worth the bits that transmit it to your screen, there is some amazing stuff as well.  Most of the amazing stuff is long form and I do struggle with reading long form stuff in my browser.  Its a combination of not engaging with a screen in the same way I do with a book or magazine and the easy distraction of another tab.  I started putting long form pieces I ran across into a “To Read” folder in Evernote, but that continues to grow and I’ve spent almost no time going back and reading it.  I need to start making time to go there and read what I’ve put in, or I need to find a different system.

You could read for hours (days) on the benefits of reading, but there are a few things I have noticed since I made a choice a few years ago to be more deliberate about reading which are directly related to this idea of being a better thinker.  The biggest benefit of reading to becoming a better thinker is that it gives me access to a whole lifetime’s worth of experience in a few days or weeks.  I won’t become the best thinker I can be by reinventing the wheel.  Reading lets me stand on the shoulders of giants.  Reading expands the inventory of patterns I can access when trying to understand the world.  Reading lengthens my attention span.  It’s the antidote to mindset you develop from endless social media scrolling and clicking.  Reading, specifically reading something I disagree with which I do deliberately from time to time, tests my critical thinking skills.  Reading makes me a better writer, which lets share my views so they can influence others and so they can get better by exposure to other ideas and feedback.

It seems to me that the biggest obstacle most people face in reading anything more than random blog articles like this or “news” from Facebook is not a struggle against why its important, but rather a system on how to get it done.  Since I’ve been at this for a little bit, I can share my experiences on what has worked for me.

Two things I’ve already mentioned as things I want to improve can help you become a better reader: have books around and make time to read.  The second point is rather obvious, but the first one may not be, or at least wasn’t for me.  The key is the ‘s’ – books, as in more than one.  Before I got serious about reading, I would buy a book and it would sit around as I read it.  If I got bored with it or got stuck, it sat.  When I got done with it, there was a gap of weeks or months before I would get around to ordering something else.  When I started having a pile around, I found myself going to the pile when I got stuck or bored (that’s how I started reading more than one book at a time) and when I was done there was something I could grab immediately so I didn’t loose any time or momentum.  Books are cheap – have a few (dozens…hundreds) of them around.

Another suggestion is to read a book that gave me a much more structured reading process: How to Read a Book (which is certainly an example of strange loop theory in action).  If I ever put together a top 10 list of books that every high school senior should read this will no doubt be on it.  I learned how to categorize a book so I could get the most out of it and not expect something it can’t deliver.   It also taught me to scan a book before I read it – look through it to get a sense of the structure before diving in.  I learned to “argue” with a book while I was reading it.  I learned about syntopical reading – an approach I am still perfecting.  If there is one thing you want to do today to be a better reader, pick up a copy of this and set a goal to finish it before Christmas.

One thing that has not worked for me is digital readers.  I bought a Kindle a few years ago and have used it to complete a few books, but in general I find it very hard to make it through lengthy or deep content on a screen.  It has worked for me for light works of fiction or shorter (200 pages or so seems to be the sweet spot) more serious works, but outside of that everything I’ve failed to complete everything else I’ve tried on Kindle.  I’ve had a little more success with audio books, although I don’t think I get all of the benefits of actually reading the same material.  I get the ideas, but I don’t find myself arguing with them as much, and since there is no place to take notes or highlight, I find I retain less of the information.  But audio books do have their place for me – there is no better (safer!) way to “read” on long road trips.  YMMV.

I’ll end with what will likely be common advice in this series.  If anything in this post has struck a cord, then decide now to get more serious about reading.  Whatever works for you to commit yourself to try for some time.  Put it on a sticky note you’ll see every day.  Buy a few books and leave them on your breakfast table so you see them first thing in the morning.  Add a “reading time” block on your calendar.  I can’t guarantee that you will start reading more if you do any of those things, but I can guarantee that if you can break pattern and start to read more, you will start to think better.

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