I often get asked questions along the variant of “how do I spend more time reading.” I quickly become trapped in a hypocritical stance similar to the apocryphal tale of Mozart.
One man came to Mozart and asked him how to write a symphony. Mozart replied, “You are too young to write a symphony.” The man said, “You were writing symphonies when you were 10 years of age, and I am 21.” Mozart said, “Yes, but I didn’t run around asking people how to do it.” 1
Indeed, I think some people are wired a certain way because of nature or nurture. I’ve always loved to read so I could not imagine not giving it the time it requires. Yet this question should still be discussed because I believe most people are reading erroneously or are unaware that it is also a skill that needs to be honed over time.
As I’ve explored this question, I’ve realized that those people are specifically asking on the gradations to process and compartmentalize information better. If we think of learning as downloading an update to our software, the brain, then they’re really asking how they increase the bandwidth or filter the quality of data they absorb from their environment. I realized this early enough as a curious kid that I was doing it wrong somehow. Your school probably didn’t teach anything about the metaphysicality of learning: how can we learn better and can we make this algorithm more efficient.
One of the books I thoroughly enjoyed while understanding how I should address the technicalities of reading was How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler. My close friends have heard me gush incessantly about this book for a reason – many of us spend our lives reading whether it’s Instagram captions (hopefully mine) or in-depth technical papers on ornithology (I hope not, they’re mostly dull). But how rigorously do we improve our reading abilities? Is there even a way to track improvement? Our mind is a muscle and thus we must repeatedly push ourselves to exhaustion and then a bit more after that to absorb ever-increasing amounts of information. Reading is analogous. To read more complex works, for instance, like the Path to Power series examining Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro – this series has my highest praise – takes the ordeal of exercising our minds beforehand.
Adler provides various ways of examining a written work and determining whether it addresses the questions we’re looking for. One shouldn’t read a graphic novel in the same fashion as they read a physics textbook, but that’s an incredibly common occurrence still. I recently watched the film Cloud Atlas and there’s a line of how: “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” It is easy to get lost in the romance of the books we read, but we only have so much time available in our lives for reading. I would prefer to schedule my hours for books that have invariant value – possibly those with a Lindy effect as Taleb would say.2
Further, I think people are self-conscious of the fact that they stopped reading sometime in early high school in order to carve out a chunk of their time for academic drudgery. For a schedule to read, I thought Shane Parrish from Farnam Street put it brilliantly: just 25 pages a day can result in nearly 10,000 pages a year.
In his words: “Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages. That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!”
He then finishes with: “this is how the great works gets read. Day by day. 25 pages at a time. No excuses.” 3
The main ideas are then to tailor our reading styles and start the habit of purposefully reading more. This is true whether you want to appear well-read to your friends or simply quench the curiosity you have. As Naval Ravikant said: “the tools for learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.” 4