The Best Thing About Reading a Lot of Books
Last year was the most productive reading year of my life. Although I’ve only deliberately kept track of the books I read for the last couple years, I have no doubts that the 103 books I read are a record.
I’m not really bragging here. In fact, recently becoming a voracious reader is more the accidental result of suddenly having no more time of my own (hello fatherhood!), and trying to make the most out of time spent commuting, pushing a stroller, and countless nights spent vigilant over a sick/angry/sleepless baby. I was able to do this thanks to the back light on my Kindle Paperwhite and a membership to Audible.com.
In the process of reading all those books, as much as I enjoyed the escapism and assimilation of new trivia and factoids, I kept wondering if there was any real benefit to it. Was it pure escapism from the drudgery of taking care of an infant? Was burying myself in books a way of burying my head in the sand? I have to admit that sometimes I found myself getting lost in the intrigues surrounding the life of, for example, Franz Haber, so when it was time to change a diaper in the middle of the night, my mind was turning over the puzzle of how the Jewish man became widely (somewhat) misunderstood as a German war criminal, rather than soaking in the fleeting moment with my daughter.
Every once in a while an article will make the rounds on social media proclaiming things like, “Why you should marry a man that reads novels,” or “New Research Shows Cognitive Benefits of Reading Fiction.” The one thing these articles all had in common for me is that I basically shrugged them off.
First of all, what’s with all the anti-non-fiction rhetoric? As an avid non-fiction reader, the drama, suspense, and literary virtuosity of Robert Caro matches, if not surpasses, that of George R.R. Martin with the added benefit of being a true story. As entertaining as watching Stephen Colbert school James Franco in the obscure lore of The Simarillion was, I personally find it more gratifying, useful, and better for my career, to be able to discuss the finer points of Lyndon Johnson’s ascendency to the presidency than to spend the mental energy arguing about elves and dwarves.
But this is all nitpicking, because last night I realized the biggest benefit of all. While in the short term being a bookworm may seem anti-social, there is a big upside: People become more interesting.
I was out walking the dog when one of my neighbors approached and struck up a conversation. Amongst the ritual pleasantries, I cast out the old small talk standby: “What do you do?”
He responded somewhat sheepishly, “Fire safety engineer.” He was probably used to seeing eyes glaze over and hearing people struggle to offer polite responses like, “Oh, that’s… interesting,” or, “Hmm, sounds like an important job, see you later!”
My neurons were firing up a storm. Something in his statement sounded vaguely familiar and my brain was searching to find the connection. Then I had it: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley. Specifically, I remembered reading about a computer program that had piqued my interest because it simulated human behavior during fire evacuations. It is used by, you guessed it, fire safety engineers as they advise architects in the best places for fire exits and other safety measures. What kind of assumptions about human behaviors did the programmers make when crafting the A.I.? What real events were studied in the planning of such a computer program? What political beliefs do the makers and users of this kind of program have? All questions that I had turned over in my mind that were difficult to answer via google. Now I had a real life ‘Fire Safety Engineer’ standing in font of me.
The only reason I read The Unthinkable, or even knew about it in fact, was from reading The Disaster Diaries by Sam Sheridan. I might not have ever read that book either, had I not previously read Sheridan’s books A Fighter’s Heart and A Fighter’s Mind, which I read trying to figure out why I, and millions of others, have always been fascinated by martial arts and combat sports.
Unfortunately, by the time I had my question for my neighbor loaded and ready to fire, the conversation was already winding down, but as we parted ways, I found myself excited to meet him again.
Another one of these viral articles I read some time ago made the claim that if you read some shockingly low threshold like fifty books in a certain field, it would put you in the top 1% of people in the world knowledgeable about that area. My memory on this specific article is fuzzy, but I believe the larger point wasn’t necessarily about how easy it is to be an expert in a field, but rather how poorly read the people of today are, in spite of the fact that more data is produced and uploaded in a single day than all of human history up until this century. I totally just made that statistic up, but it is probably almost true.
Considering that, you would think that my resolution for the year 2015 would be to focus my reading on a particular field of knowledge. In fact, much of my reading falls somewhere in the overlaps between biology, computer science, security, and politics. However, achieving some sort of superficial expertise has never been the point. It has always been about allowing my mind to wonder; to follow the tangents of my own shifting interests. That meaningless number of 103 books read would be even larger if it included books halfway or even mostly read (mostly books that I tried to force myself to read when I didn’t have a sincere interest). And some of the books that do count as one of the 103 I can scarcely remember the titles of (mostly those I ‘powered-through’ in spite of losing interest).
The point is that the world around me, including fellow human beings I interact with on a daily basis, is infinitely more interesting, and my connections to it stronger and more meaningful, than ever was before.
I’m going to keep up my habit as much as I can moving forward. I’m going to get more fiction in the mix as well. But I’m going to continue to unapologetically follow the whims of my changing tastes.
In conclusion: Yes, dummy, you should read books. A lot, and with purpose and direction. But not too much.