Alan Kay on How Many Books You Can Read in a Lifetime
Charles Chu
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Just a few corrections here. First, note that Brian Dear’s rendition of my quotes can’t possibly be right (a) he says I said -proudly- even, that I read “a new book each and every day” (I didn’t say this), and (b) that I read between 4 and 10 books a week (contradicts (a)). Note that I also said “no more than 20,000” and the next line this got rendered as “20,000”. Yikes!

Also, there is nothing obsessive about this — it’s not an obsession. It’s just something I do quite naturally as part of my life. This is true of most “extensive readers”. (Later in the blog, this is termed “normal” for bibliophiles, and I’d agree.)

And one doesn’t have to spend 3–4 hours a day reading if one has gotten fluent in the skill.

The real key to any reading is to try to get what’s important in the book working between one’s ears rather than just staying in the book. If so, then books are the biggest boon to humankind, because reading can cover so much more ground so much faster. Literacy is primarily about ideas that are worth communicating and pondering, and we can judge how well it is working by looking at the retention of the ideas. This is also quite similar for music reading: one can see what it will sound like, and more easily see the harmonic and voice leading relationships. This sounds a bit weird but it is familiar to everyone who sight-reads: it is like reading out loud to a child, one sees the meanings ahead, has time to think about how they will be acted out, all the while acting out and talking what has already been looked at. The grasp of meaning can be done more quickly than our fingers or vocal chords can work.

I was in 3rd grade before realizing that I should learn to remember the ideas much better than the (half-way reasonable) fashion I had been doing. Otherwise I would have to re-read all the books again. In practice, there are some books I do re-read, for a variety of reasons.

Bertrand Russell’s abilities (in most directions including reading and remembering and understanding what he read) were legendary.

The Mortimer Adler quote is partly true. The other part is that there are a lot of ideas and even more useful perspectives on these ideas — getting some sense of the larger landscape of ideas is as important (or more) as being able to understand just a few great books.