On the third day of 2018, I made the following post on Twitter:
I had been inspired by Sean Rose, who had posted a similar thread of books he read in 2017. At the time, I liked the idea of documenting what I read on Twitter, where I had already been in the habit of posting screenshots or photos of snippets of books I was reading and frequently responded to folks asking for book recommendations or broader summaries of what I was reading.
While I’ve been using Goodreads a bit for about 6 years now, I don’t feel particularly attached to the network of relationships associated with that profile or get much value from the updates posted there. But on Twitter, where I’ve been active for only a bit longer, I’ve cultivated relationships I highly value based on interests and ways of thinking (whether alike or different enough that they force me to challenge my own perspective), and have for the most part managed to avoid using the platform in the combative mode it sometimes encourages in favor of using it to discover interesting people and learn things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
With that context in mind, let’s skip ahead to today. I’ve now made 41 posts in that thread, meaning I’ve finished 41 books in just over 10 months. Shortly after the latest post, I got the following mention on Twitter:
Anyone who has stuck with an endeavor over time knows how vindicating it is to see others in the world acknowledge the fruit of the labor, especially if that acknowledgement isn’t someone yelling at you that you’ve wasted your time. But as I basked in the positive comments like the above, I began to reflect on the thread, its effect on me, and the reproducible lesson I can take away from it (kind of like what I do with the books themselves!).
It’s been said that people are not so much rational as great rationalizers, so my brain is definitely putting a positive spin on my behavior. Knowing that, here are some observations and thoughts on my project:
- I’ve managed to use Twitter, the bastion of hot takes and shortener of attention spans, to make my brain read challenging works deeply. I’ve got less than 280 characters to summarize a key takeaway from a book that might be 1000 pages long and contain dozens of valuable concepts or explanations; no ability to edit a post after it goes up (JACK!!!); and I can’t break delete a post without breaking the thread and making some large chunk of the work less discoverable. The stakes (within the context) are quite high, so I put a lot of time into coming up with that distilled lesson in each tweet — for instance, for my “Democracy in America” post, I spent about half an hour switching between ~20 bookmarks I had placed in the Kindle app before landing on the point I felt was a unique takeaway that you wouldn’t find as a key bullet in a study guide for lazy college students. Creative, novel thoughts come from working within constraints.
- You can channel the powerful incentives of social media to work for you. Let’s be real — I’m addicted to Twitter. Those Likes and RTs fire off dopamine in my brain like no other vice. But by framing my interaction on the platform around something I consider good for me, I’ve been able to have that rush compel me not toward starting fights but to deepen my understanding of the world and the history leading up to its current state. I can both see and feel the compounding of this effect: as the thread gets longer and the included books more diverse, I get more eyes on the entire thread with each new book, and more likes on all previous posts, and so I am rewarded for the new, latest book and all the work I’ve done so far. This effect is scary when it leads to the radicalization of someone giving into the effects of having outrageous, combative, misinformed behavior receive systemic incentivization, but it’s deeply appreciated when it’s simply keeping me from slowing down something I’m proud of and want to do more of despite my personal tendency toward procrastination and letting projects fall to the wayside as I focus on professional matters.
- If you don’t like what you see out there in the world, put out something better. There’s a lot going on right now that is scary, sad, disheartening, stupid, and embarrassing. Without wading into the political realm too directly, “both sides” feel that there’s great risk to intellectual discourse in academia and the public sphere more broadly. There are a few periods throughout history where rationality and intellectualism genuinely fall out of favor, and it looks like we might be entering one of those periods. But the thing about trends like this is that shifts in culture inherently allow for powerful counter-cultures to emerge. So if you’re worried the world is getting dumb, get smart and tell folks that you think that’s cooler. I’d rather tolerate some noise from people claiming I’m virtue signalling or whatever than stand idly by while people lose faith in the institutions that stand for truth and learning with nothing to fill the void.