This year I pursued a goal of reading 100 books, which I achieved by mid-December. Last year I successfully read 50 books and wanted to set my sights higher. I’ve never challenged myself to read in volume but I did so with the deliberate goal to integrate reading as a daily habit and push myself outside my comfort zone. Many have argued that aiming for a volume of books is a fruitless or even counterproductive activity; I understand this argument and largely agree with its tenets — but I did it anyway. Once I set my mind to something I have a way of doggedly following though.
I’ve written some thoughts on the experience below. First, here’s the list:
- Nudge: Thaler
- 10% Happier: Harris’s
- Everybody Lies: Stephens-Davidowitz
- Astrophysics for People in a Hurry: Tyson
- Thanks, Obama: Litt
- The Undoing Project: Lewis
- Catching the big fish: Lynch
- 12 strong: Stanton
- Zero to One: Thiel (reread)
- Mindset: Dweck
- Life 3.0: Tegmark
- Why Buddhism is true: Wright
- Designing your life: Burnett
- The Four: Galloway
- Endurance: Kelly
- Start with Why: Simon Sinek
- Hacking of the American Mind: Lusting
- Troublemakers: Berlin
- Way of the Wolf: Belfort
- Man’s Search for Meaning: Frankl
- Never eat alone: Ferrazzi (reread)
- Skin in the Game: Taleb
- Superbosses: Finkelstein
- Creativity, Inc: Catmull
- The Purple Cow: Godin
- The Right Stuff: Wolfe
- A Higher Loyalty: Comey
- Hit refresh: Nadella
- Blitzed: Ohler
- Originals: Grant
- Benjamin Franklin: Isaacson
- Trumpocracy: Frum
- Failure is Not an Option: Kranz
- Different: Escaping the Competitive Crowd: Moon
- A Full Life: Carter
- Turtles all the Way Down: Green
- Russian Roulette: Isikoff, Corn
- The Rational Optimist: Ridley (Reread)
- How to turn down a Billion Dollars: Gallager
- To Sell is Human: Pink
- How to change your Mind: Pollan
- When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing: Pink
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Ferriss (reread)
- War on Peace: Farrow
- South: the Endurance Expedition: Shackleton
- American Kingpin: Bilton
- Valley of the Gods: Wolfe
- Brotopia: Chang
- Bad Blood: Carreyrou
- The Science of Success: Koch
- Sapiens: Harari (reread)
- Operation Paperclip: Jacobsen
- The Assault on Intelligence: Hayden
- The Pentagon’s Brain: Jacobsen
- Facts and Fears: Clapper
- The New Strategic Selling: Miller & Heiman
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Postman
- The President is Missing: Patterson/Clinton
- With the Old Breed: Sledge
- Kitchen Confidential: Bourdain
- Radical Candor: Scott
- Measure What Matters: Doerr
- Robin: Itzkoff
- Yes We (Still) Can: Pfeiffer
- The Like Switch: Schafer
- Medium Raw: Bourdain
- The Red Queen: Ridley
- 12 Rules for life: Peterson
- Survival to Thrival: Building the enterprise startup: Tinker, Nahm
- Behave: Sapolsky
- Principles: Dalio
- The World As It Is: Rhodes
- Dealers of Lightning: Hiltzik
- Average is Over: Cowen
- Fear: Woodward
- Getting things done: Allen
- Crossing the Chasm: Moore
- Stiff; The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers: Roach
- The General vs. the President: Brands
- Blue Ocean Shift; Beyond Competing: Kim
- Fear City: Phillips-Fein
- The View From Flyover Country: Kendzior
- Blitzscaling: Hoffman, Yeh
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: Harari
- Fooled by Randomness: Taleb (reread)
- Black Edge: Kolhatkar
- Yeager: Yeager, Janos
- The Messy Middle: Belsky
- Great at Work: Hansen
- American Lion: Meacham
- A Crack in Creation: Doudna, Sternberg
- The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Heidler
- Fascism: Albright
- Red Notice: Browder
- American Gods: Gaiman
- The 50th Law: Green, 50 Cent
- Why We Sleep: Walker
- All the Gallant Men: Stratton
- Who is Michael Ovitz: Ovitz
- Educated, A Memoir: Westover
You may notice there’s nearly no fiction here–only two books if I’m counting correctly. This isn’t by accident; I intentionally read to learn. My interests, as evidenced by this list, cluster around history, politics, behavioral economics, and technology, particularly the future of technology.
It is probably too much. One key goal was to reintegrate reading as a daily habit, which through the course of this year I’ve done successfully. As has been said by others, I do not believe that reading alone is enough. Understanding, synthesizing, and thinking critically about the ideas covered in a book is as important as the actual consumption of content. When one increases the volume consumed this task becomes more difficult. I’m deeply curious and do want to consistently increase my mental dexterity, but in this case, I may have pushed the limits. I’ll discuss more downsides later.
Participating in a reading group or book club to aid in the deep understanding and discussion of material and the best books to consume may prove to be quite beneficial. I’ve got some ideas on how one might manage this (either in person or virtually). If anyone has overlapping interests and is willing to assist in forming a group, please do reach out to me.
Reading makes your mind work better. This is scientifically documented as well as quite apparent over time. Like a vitamin (vs. a drug) the difference will not be immediate but noticed instead subtly and over a longer period. I’ve found an easier recall of memories, the ability to draw correlations between abstract information or events, even an internal monologue as I move through the day. There’s evidence that reading creates more neurological connections which fit logically with the effect I’ve seen. There’s more anecdotal evidence that reading prevents cognitive decline into old age and may stave off the onset of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Regardless, I’m pleased with the effect on my mind; not just for neurological impact but the variety of new information. I’ve always enjoyed the cognitive diversity and intellectual dexterity that reading provides. I don’t want to be monodimensional. Instead of focusing on any particular discipline, I’m able to bring a breadth of frameworks to any particular decision or problem in day to day life. I’m able to seamlessly jump from an informed conversation about an ever-widening bevy of topics.
Good habits beget good habits. This one was more of a happy surprise. As I commonly read before bed I all but quit drinking alcohol (my retention drops perceptibly after even one glass of wine). As a result, I got better sleep: unsurprisingly the unhappy relationship between REM sleep and alcohol is detailed in #97, ‘Why We Sleep’. While this wasn’t an express goal, I also found it was far easier to lose weight when you stop drinking.
On Audiobooks vs Paper/Kindle: Saying I read 100 books is a bit disingenuous as probably ~30% of these books were consumed via audio. I still prefer to read a paper book — I have a very visual memory and tend to remember passages based on where they are on the page and through the book. Kindle has the obvious advantage of being extremely portable and storing a nearly infinite number of books. I’ve taken kindles to the beach, on planes, spilled water on them — they’ve made it through everything. While I prefer a paper book, I tend to take a Kindle while traveling as I can carry as many books as I please and easily slip the thing in my pocket.
Audio fills an important niche. The confluence of high-quality audio content and listening devices (iPhones, etc), have in themselves massively expanded the access to high-quality information. It’s the one medium that you can consume while you do other activities: while at the gym, driving, walking. Audio does have downsides: we tend to retain less & for a shorter amount of time from audiobooks, and it’s more appropriate for some books over others. It’s great for most fiction, for biographies and memoirs, for historical non-fiction. It’s a bad medium for most intellectually complex books including most business books. There’s another category where I use audio strategically: these are books which (if I’m being honest with myself) I probably will not read. In this case, I’m comfortable with absorbing or retaining less as that is more than zero.
The San Francisco Public Library provides an amazing public service. As does, presumably, the public library in your hometown. Though an app (OverDrive), library card holders can download free kindle books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Within some limitations, this is a free Amazon and everyone should take advantage.
Audible provides an excellent service as well. The library does not have every title and Audible typically has new releases available before other sellers and has higher quality content (audiobooks lack interruptions that you’ll find from other providers).
When you are consuming you are not creating. This is a clear downside as when I set a goal based on consuming information I find myself not creating. For me, reading is a great primer for writing — however, the year I’ve done not nearly enough writing, building or creative expression. In the coming year, I plan on creating much, much more.
Not all books are created equally. Some should be PR releases; this is common of politicians who are about to run for something. Some should be long blog posts. Some are written to boost the social credibility of the author. Some are simply not worth reading — I need to get better at just putting these ones down. This conversation dove-tails with one about picking the right books to read, which I am no expert at. For me, much of this decision is guided by both my interests the advice of trusted sources; Farnam Street’s various book lists, tech luminaries, or thoughtful podcasts.
Some questions I tend to get when I’ve told friends about this goal and my progress: Which are your favorites? Taleb’s books, the most recent is Skin in the Game, are superb and have informed my view of the nature of risk substantially. His first of the Incerto series though, Fooled by Randomness, provided me with the greatest change in my knowledge and understanding. I recommend starting there. Life 3.0 is an excellent and realistic view of the future potential of AI, understanding exactly what is likely and what is not, and separating out the hyperbole you’re likely to see in movies (or the nightly news for that matter). Bad Blood is entertaining, informative, and eerily similar to a place I once found employment. I endorse reading it but it’s been so well reviewed elsewhere that I won’t focus on it too much. I highly recommend Yeager; the autobiography by General Yeager. A legend of the 20th century, Yeager found fame as a WWII fighter pilot, a US Air Force test pilot, then, most famously the first man to break the sound barrier. This is the true story of a full-throttle American hero which probably could not be recreated at any other time in history. Finally, while I don’t read much fiction, The President is Missing is authentically a can’t-put-it-down exciting story, if you can excuse the lax rendition of presidential security measures.
There’s a select list of books which I plan on re-reading on an annual basis because they so inform other aspects of life. Previously I’ve included Sapiens and Zero to One on that list — I may add Principles because the mental models that Dalio maps out are excellent.
How do you find time to read? We all have exactly the same amount of time in the day: it’s not about time, it’s about priorities. Make reading one and you will find the time. More tactically, I carry a kindle nearly everywhere I go. I read on my commute every day (30 min each direction, for an extra hour every day), I read before bed. I don’t listen to music; walking down the street, at the gym, or while driving, I’m listening to an audiobook or podcast. I guess I’m addicted to learning.
We live in an amazing time for learning and availability of high-quality information. Never before in history has this much information been this accessible by so many people. This is true of online learning but here, of course, we’re focused on books: physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks (particularly through the library) are free, ubiquitous, and high quality. Literally, all that one needs is a curious mind.