Willem Drost: “The Student”

I Don’t Read

I Search. And it Works.

Of the many bones of contention that my wife has with me, one of them is that I don’t read. We joke about the biggest con of my life being how I was able to get a Master’s Degree, and be accepted into 3 PhD programs without reading anything.

Of course, that’s an exaggeration. I do read. I read a bunch of articles (great ones) here on Medium. I read a ton of articles and papers online. I read some books (though mostly non-fiction). But I don’t do it like my grammar school teachers taught me to do it.

Reader vs. Writer

I don’t pick up a book and start at the very first page, reading every word until the very end — unless it’s fiction. Honestly, I think that only fiction books and biographies are meant to be read in a certain order (and I’m not entirely sure about the latter, either). That has everything to do with the differences between the writer and the reader.

Think about it: just because the subject matter of the book makes sense to the author in a certain order doesn’t mean it will make sense to the reader in that order. As a reader, you have different anchors in your knowledge base that the author does not. Those anchors may help you understand something in the middle of a book much better, and from there, you can wander to the front portion of the book — placing markers for yourself at various points along the way.

Books are Also Tools

There’s another reason that reading sequentially isn’t really all that effective. Sometimes you are using the book in question as tool, for gaining knowledge about only a certain portion of a topic. Like any tool, there are at least a handful of ways to use it and purposes for which to use it. You don’t have to use it for every single one of the intended purposes.

You may get a book on quantum mechanics, but you aren’t looking to understand everything about the subject, just a certain portion of it. So for your present purposes, read the portion that gives you what you need then and there. Does that mean you should disregard the rest? For now, yes, but I’d hope that if you were interested in quantum mechanics in the first place — even for a knowledge of part of it — your interest would be retained and magnified by learning about a portion of it. That’s just good practice — keeping a healthy level of curiosity.

A Different Kind of Reading

Mortimer Adler — champion of the Great Books movement and liberal education — wrote a book called (interestingly) How to Read a Book. In it, he proposed that there are 4 ways to read:

  1. Elementary reading: the front-to-back method I described above.
  2. Inspectional Reading: sometimes (mis)classified as “skimming”. It’s a way to parse out information about the book and topics in it — both to decide on what is worth reading, and to gain an initial understanding of the topic for contextual purposes.
  3. Analytical Reading: Deep, abiding reading. The kind of reading that you’d image those in rabbinical training do.
  4. Syntopical Reading: Beyond just reading a book, this is about reading for understanding of the greater point the author is making. Other books are brought in — differing opinions, related subject matter, etc. Reading in this way is about connections and holism. Many times, it can mean reading several books at once — some of which are read only partially, to provide support for another book.

Like I said, I don’t do the first kind of reading. I tend to favor types 2 and 4, where I will do type 3 on a select few texts.

The Anti-Library and The Search

Author and philosopher Umberto Eco is famous (infamous?) for having what Nassim Nicholas Taleb referred to as an “anti-library”. Essentially, it’s a large library containing mostly unread books — far more unread than read. Taleb calls it an “anti-library” because it goes against the traditional purpose of the personal private library, which was to show off. He explains:

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

I have an anti-library.I have many, many books that I acquired (mostly during graduate study), but never read. However, I have used each one of them — from time to time — as a lily pad. I jump from one book to another, following not the sequence of the chapters of any book, but the path of and connections between ideas. I’m chasing truth here, so I have far less concern with a given narrative, and far more concern with the connections that I find between the ideas in my books.

So, yes, I do read. But the word “read” tends to have a connotation of sequential movement through a text in the way that the author has laid it out. I simply do not play that game much anymore. I search. I search and connect. It literally thrills me to do it. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

Would you like more stuff like this (in smaller bites)? Click here to sign up for my email newsletter. Never spammy, never more than 1x per week, always worth a few minutes of your time.