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Six Thoughts On Reading Books

I used to hold writers in a near messianic regard. I thought that since they had written books, they were granted with some sacred knowledge that wasn’t available to the rest of us. (Kind of the way kids think adults have all the answers until they become one and realize adults are just people figuring it out, too.)

Then I realized that marketing and PR hacks play a part in books making their way to best-seller lists. And that some books won’t make any sort of list if their message isn’t aligned with that of the list-maker. Book publishing itself is a complicated industry that can be as political as any other walk of life.

But there was a time when writers did have a more sacred air to them. This was before the growth in the number of books being published, online blogging, and other media. Writers like Orwell, Tolstoy, and Solzenitzyn are indeed closer to the messianic than a best-selling business guru. And I’ll admit that there are modern writers that I revere, but my days of thinking that books are sacred are long gone.

I no longer get upset if I damage my books, spill coffee on the margins, or accidentally rip out a page. My books are often worn, pages are bent (because that’s how I bookmark where I am), written on and underlined, and I usually take the cover off of a hardback book because those things are annoying.

I’ve realized that books are tools to learn and enhance perspectives. But they’re also just words on a page. As valuable as language is and as grave at the consequences can be for its improper use, books are just a combination of a whole bunch of words.

When I first started taking my reading seriously there were many books that drastically shaped my perspective. I’m not the most widely read person, but I think this is happening less. I think we simultaneously underrate and overrate the value of reading a book.

We overrate them as tools that propel us toward the ambiguous promise land of success, and we underrate them as media that are simply soothing for the soul. Despite my love for books, I’ve learned that not every waking moment of my free time should be spent reading. When I die, my tombstone won’t read, “There rests Diego, reader of many books.” There’s a close to 0% chance that anyone remembers me for the time I spent reading (even if these are some of the best hours of my life).

With these things in mind, I’ve developed a more well-rounded philosophy for reading books. One where you can spill coffee on them, or skip to the last chapter if you just really enjoy endings over beginnings.

1. If it sucks, just stop reading.

It used to be hard for me to put away a book I wasn’t enjoying without feeling guilty for leaving the task unfinished. And I worried that if I quit too many books, I’d end up being a quitter of books instead of a reader of books.

But they’re a way of spending time. Wasted time is wasted time. Books are no different.

2. Have half read books, bookmark yourself, and just pick up where you left off.

I think of books like flipping through television channels. Sometimes you watch one channel for a little bit and then go to the next. Some books enthrall you throughout, but others you’ll pick up and read for some quick entertainment (like a book of aphorisms).

I think it’s better to be reading than to not be reading, so I have no problem grabbing something, reading it, saving my place, and then returning to where I was a month later.

(We don’t remember as much of what we read as we think we do, anyways, so I see no harm. Our lack of retention is a good reason to take notes and mark all over our books.)

3. Buy em’ all.

Buy em’ all. The aphorism book. The philosophy book. The parenting book for kids you don’t have yet.

Nassim Taleb writes about Umberto’s Library. The idea is that the books you haven’t read are more valuable than the ones you have read. You’ve seen the information in the one’s you’ve read, but the ones you haven’t? There could be some life changing advice in there.

4. Always carry a book with you.

Any boring life situation can be improved with a book in hand. Or any place waiting is involved — doctor’s offices, airplanes, lunch lines.

It’s an absolute life-hack to have a book at the ready everywhere you are. And the times you don’t have one, you really realize why you made a mistake not bringing one.

5. Learn the lessons from books you don’t want to read with videos or notes.

Some books are more difficult and dense to read than others. As romantic the idea of trudging through The Iliad or Anna Karenina is, most of us won’t do it. We either don’t want to use our free time on these books, have the energy, or we don’t care at all.

And that’s where the magic of YouTube comes in!

These books have valuable lessons, and fortunate for us, we can learn these lessons through YouTube videos (some even include university professors). Or we can go the other route of SparkNotes and online communities.

6. Books aren’t sacred.

Like I said when I started, they aren’t Holy Texts. (Unless they are actually a Holy Text, but that’s for another day.)

They might look like forms of media to be revered and worshiped, but they’re just words on many, many pages. If we put together all of the blog posts I’ve written, we could make a book. The fact that a book can be made doesn’t imply it’s worth reading.

We don’t have to feel bad for mistreating our books or not engaging with them at all. Spill chocolate milk and cover them with Hot Cheetos dust as much as you’d like, because if their contents don’t change your life, at least they worked as a napkin.