Each December, I religiously set a list of personal targets for the new year. Usually, the first item on this list is a reading target, and inevitably, the target is to read more than I did the previous year.
This year though, my target is to read less than I did the previous year… cue shock, horror, cries of blasphemy! What’s gotten into you Govind?
I’ll get to my justification in a bit, but first, a bit of a back story that I think many may identify with.
Like most people I knew growing up, I viewed reading as the noblest virtue, but one that I didn’t do enough of. At times, I’d get through a couple of books a week, but at others, I’d find myself staring at the same page for hours on end. I tried to be deliberate about making reading more of a habit, but I had many many stretches of downtime that I was quite self-critical of.
Over the years, the deliberate effort made it a tad easier. I began to consistently read books and publications … and then smartphones happened, so a diet of RSS feeds, mailing lists and article recommendations got added to the mix.
Which brings me to my reading diet today. I pick up a book when I have time to spare, and spend the rest of my week — commute, work breaks, and any pauses in between — chipping away at a stream of short and long form articles.
As I reflect on where this has left me, I find that my evaluation of reading as an absolute good has negatively affected my learning and my overall intellectual growth. Before I get to my reasoning though, let me be clear about a few things. First, reading is a fun activity in and of itself that shouldn’t be discounted — but my justification here is framed through the lens of overall learning. Second, I’d rate my volume of reading as average at best, so by no means am I saying that I’ve hit all my targets and feel comfortable about scaling back.
With these caveats out of the way, here’s my reasoning.
There are two ways to read more — read faster and spend more time reading. In my case, doing the latter has come at the cost of idle time. The resultant constant stimulation of the brain has empirically reduced my capacity to retain what I’ve read. And from what I’ve discovered, this isn’t just me. Studies show that “downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life” [Scientific American]. The case for sacrificing reading (or attempting to read) for more idle time seems strong.
I would prefer to trade off more reading for more time spent thinking through, discussing and writing about ideas and narratives that previous readings have furnished. I like to think of myself as a somewhat critical reader, capable of fusing writers’ viewpoints with my own. This ability to critique and incrementally build mental models is not on-demand though — I believe taking the time to pause, rewind and actively reflect on ideas stands to bear more fruit for me than ingesting more information does.
Approximately 80% of the books recommended to me, either personally or through articles, make their way to my Kindle as samples. Approximately 50% of the articles suggested to me, either directly or through mailing lists, make their way to my Google Chrome cache. In both cases, the decision of whether to read something is typically a function of my momentary locally optimized interest in that particular topic, informed by the title and a quick synopsis.
Going forward though, I want the body of what I read to be less informed by external forces, and more by deliberate discovery efforts of my own. Which topics do I lack a strong understanding of? Or which viewpoints do I need to be exposed to in order to broaden my perspective? Investing more in the research process, being more purposed about the things I read and switching from passive to active selection takes time away from the actual volume of reading done, but is ostensibly worth the effort.
Thus, my estimation is that lowering my reading volume to increase my idle time, spend more time reflecting and become more deliberate with my reading will prove to be a net positive for me.