Four Years of Quantified Reading

2011–2014


1. Introduction

I’ve been tracking and sharing my reading over the past 4 years, and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding experience, both in terms of serving as a personal impetus to read, and in terms of prompting good conversation. This is a discussion of what I’ve learned over the past few years, as well as a list of my favorite books from 2014.

I track a few different parameters for each book, the date started, and finished, the year published, the genre, page counts, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and the source. More detailed quantification follows, but here are a few numbers for the data I’ve collected so far:

Books read (2014): 137

Books read (2011–2014): 490

Pages read (2014): 60003

Pages read (2011–2014): 233,079

Four years of reading, roughly tracking PhD Years 0.33–4.33. After a slump in my 2nd and 3rd years, I’ve now slowly made it back up to the reading heights of 2011, which were (perhaps unfairly) amplified by me re-reading The Wheel of Time in December. My years always tend to end on a high note, as I get lots of great book recommendations from year-end lists, and as the holiday season gives me more time to read.

A pretty good year, but as always, I find the qualitative aspects of this journey far more interesting than the quantification. There will be more graphs later on in this post, but for now, my favorite books from 2014.


2. My Favorite Books from 2014

2.1 Non-Fiction

  1. The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough.
  2. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About It, by Studs Terkel.
  3. What It Takes: The Way to the White House, by Richard Ben Cramer.
  4. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein.
  5. The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics, by Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann.
  6. Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace, by Nikil Saval.
  7. Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, by Rana Dasgupta.
  8. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.
  9. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by Lawrence Wright.
  10. Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Michael Hiltzik.

2.2 A Cover Art Interlude

Covers from the 30 books (10 non-fiction, 20 fiction) that I most enjoyed in 2014. I still have a soft spot for covers, even though I’m now almost entirely a Kindle-centric reader.

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Of these, I’d say my favorite covers were ‘The Martian’, ‘The Revolutions’, and ‘The Golem and the Djinni’

2.3 Fiction

  • The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.
  • The Golem and the Djinni, by Helene Wecker.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir.
  • My Real Children, by Jo Walton.
  • Echopraxia, by Peter Watts.
  • Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie.
  • The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.
  • The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin.
  • Assail, by Ian Cameron Esselmont.
  • The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman.
  • Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh.
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
  • Existence, by David Brin.
  • The Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan.
  • Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn.
  • The Widow’s House, by Daniel Abraham.
  • City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett.
  • The Revolutions, by Felix Gilman.
  • Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey.
  • The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters.

3. The Quantified 2014

One of the most interesting things for me to track each year has been how my reading progresses over the calendar year. It’s never a linear progression — 2012 was probably the closest I’ve come to that, but I’m happy that I’m finally returning to the pace that I had in 2011, the first year I started to track my reading.

3.1 A Return to Form

Patterns: 1) The end of the year is always a rush to the finish, the holiday season coupled with end of the year lists means lots of added pages. 2) Fallow periods are followed by periods of intense reading. 3) Reading appears to be inversely correlated with the amount of experimental lab work I do. Times when I’m writing papers or grants are typically incredibly full of books — my most fallow periods have come when I’m pushing strongly to gather data for a paper.

3.2 A Year of Recency

Something I started doing this year was keeping track of the publication date of the books I read. A few patterns jump out — I read a lot of new releases this year, particularly towards the end of the year during awards season. The other fascinating thing about this approach is that it allows for very direct visualization of when I read series — the two rising arcs in March and May were the two major series I read in the year (The Dresden Files, and as much of the Honor Harrington books as I could stomach).

3.3 The 400 Page Book

Interestingly, over the past few years, it seems that I’ve moved from reading books that bimodally distributed in length, to reading books that are very neatly clustered around 400 pages long (with this trend being particularly marked this year). Part of this is probably due to the glut of long fantasy books I read in 2011, but I think there’s also something here about what the ‘correct’ length is for a popularly viable novel, which may be getting more and more constrained with time.

3.4 The Kindle Dominates All

The real story of my personal reading over the past few years has been the rapid, inexorable rise of the Kindle. In my first two years as a PhD student at Stanford, a steady stream of Hardcovers from the library here complemented my Kindle books, but in the past two years, the Kindle monopoly has grown to be almost complete.