Reading is the best.
I grew up reading a ton — one of the benefits of being an only child, and of having been born in the days before YouTube and Buzzfeed existed to divert one’s attention — and loved the sensation of sinking into a good book. You’d open up page one, find yourself gripped by the story… and emerge hours later, unsure of where the time went. You’d have knowledge you didn’t have before, or empathy and understanding for minds other than your own. Books can change you.
My reading fell off in college; there are few things that can suck the magic out of a book like someone forcing you to read it. But the past several years, as I try to counterbalance the mental effects of working on the web, I’ve been reading a lot more and rediscovering the joys of a good book.
Here are some thoughts on how I read, why I read, and how I find books I’ll enjoy. Your mileage may vary.
How I Read
- I prefer paper books to ebooks, because I find my retention dramatically decreases if I’m reading on a screen. I suspect it has to do with the topography of the page — words on a physical page are tactile and have a location in physical space, whereas on a screen everything appears in the same ever-changing glowing rectangle.
- I make heavy use of the library, and generally only buy books that I think I’ll want to have in my personal collection. The exception is the two books a month that I get gratis from work (thanks, Dwell!)
- I use the online library catalog a lot, and hitting the “Request Book” button scratches the same itch as “Add to Checkout” on Amazon. Much cheaper, too.
I generally leave the library with three or four books at a time, with some diverse offerings to make sure that I can switch gears if I feel burnt out on any one book. I like to switch up the topics I’m reading about, too, so I don’t get caught in a rut. I know some people like to dive deep into a single subject at a time; I like to dabble, and see how connections form between the different subjects in my head. Maybe that makes me a dilettante; I prefer to think I’m just well-rounded.
Why I Read
There’s a difference between reading to read and reading to have read — in other words, reading for purpose vs. reading for pleasure.
Most fiction, I read to read. Much nonfiction, I read to have read. I’m trying to close the gap between the two — ideally, everything I read would be for pleasure, and not solely because I want to accumulate the knowledge therein.
I find that there are three reasons I typically read a book:
- For pleasure — the mere enjoyment of reading.
- To grow my breadth of knowledge — to expose myself to something new.
- To grow my depth of knowledge — to expand my knowledge on a subject I already know something about.
Most books check at least two of those boxes. Some books — Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example — checked all three. That book deepened my knowledge of some ideas that I’d already encountered through Michael Pollan’s writing, introduced me to broader knowledge of sociology and anthropology, and was also a magnificent romp of a read. If I read it again, it’ll be for the sheer pleasure of it.
How I Find Books to Read
I keep a running list of books I’m interested of reading. It’s currently tracked in Things, using category headings to keep things organized, but anything will work.
It’s a flexible list — I add books liberally, remove occasionally, and feel no pressure to read everything on the list (good thing, too, since it’s got more than 80 items now). I just want a way to keep track of recommendations and interesting-sounding titles so I always have something new to read.
I also go off-list very often; if I see something interesting, I’ll read it. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s systemized every aspect of his life… that seems like a surefire way to suck all the joy out of it.
There are four ways I typically find books I’m interested in reading:
- Personal recommendations. If someone I know recommends something to me, I always put it on the list.
- Podcasts. If a podcast I like mentions a book, or has an interview with an author, I’ll often add it to the list.
- Other books. If a book cites another book, and I’m interested in going deeper on that subject, I’ll consider adding it to the list.
- A random walk through the library. Sometimes I like to just wander the library and look at the shelves. If a title or cover pops out at me — boom, new book to read. I’ll occasionally do this with a shelf I rarely visit, just to see if there’s some new subject I may be interested in pursuing. It feels like browsing the course catalog at college again — full of possibilities.
I try not to pay much attention to Amazon’s recommendations because I know they’ll be books that I like… which means they’ll probably be books that reinforce my existing taste. I’d rather broaden my taste by reading a wide variety of books than get into a rut by reading the same sort of thing over and over. I do have genres and authors I keep going back to, but I want to supplement those with non-obvious choices that no algorithm would think to recommend for me.
Bonus: A Few of My Recent Favorites
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt/Theodore Rex/Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Biography)
- Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (Geography, Sociology, Anthropology)
- Cooked, Michael Pollan (History, Food)
- Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (Science Fiction, Weird Fiction)
- Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (Science Fiction)