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Disconnected Thoughts About Reading Books
October 25, 2023
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Disconnected Thoughts About Reading Books
Books are just one way to consume written information. They’re wonderful in that they’re often optimized for deeper looks at things, but there are other means of achieving the same (there’s gobs of great stuff to read online, these days) and there are plenty of books that are incredibly superficial, despite being packaged and promoted as something more substantial.
Much of what many of us feel about books as a concept is predicated on the historical, cultural significance of the book as an artifact, and what it supposedly says about people who consume/engage with/write them (in essence: book people are x, y, and z, and that supposition makes books more desirable to some, but less accessible to others who struggle to live up to those supposed, often inflated standards).
If you read a lot (of books, but also other things) you’ll tend to read faster, over time. If you don’t read as much (for whatever reason) you’ll tend to read a bit slower. That’s okay! It’s not a race. But this can also become a barrier to people who feel like they’re “not good at reading” simply because they don’t have as much practice at it as other people in their lives.
If you’re not a fast reader, that’s fine—keep it up, and enjoy whatever pace you can muster.
Also, it can sometimes be better to read more slowly, as doing so stretches out the experience of reading something enjoyable, and that may mean you retain more of what you read.
Really though, we should avoid comparing how we read to how other people read (or how we believe other people read), because it’s a truly individual thing. If you want to read faster or retain more compared to how you do both, currently, aim for that outcome, but compare yourself to yourself, not others.
There’s a fair bit of debate about whether ebooks or paperbacks are better, whether audiobooks count as reading, and other things like that. I tend to think that while listening is a different sort of activity from visual reading because of how we process what we hear versus what we see, one approach to soaking-up books (and other written content) is not inherently superior to the other. I also don’t think ebooks or paperbacks are better or worse, they’re all just different. And having different options is wonderful, as it means more of us can engage with the banquet of knowledge and wisdom and entertainment contained in these little (digital or tangible, looked-at or listened-to) artifacts.
Books can be expensive, and though I would argue they’re a solid investment compared to a lot of the other things we might spend our money on, you can also find cheap and free books all over the place. Libraries are often the best source for this (many libraries in the US provide e- and audiobooks via a wonderful app called Libby, in addition to their physical catalogs), but thrift stores and used bookstores are also treasure-troves.
A fun policy to adopt if you ever find yourself without book-inspiration—no idea what to read next—is to commit to reading, cover-to-cover, the next book that comes into your life. That might mean a book recommended by someone whose tastes significantly vary from yours, a tome you randomly pull from a Little Free Library, or a book you happen to click, eyes closed, on a site like ThriftBooks.
I find this helps randomize the selection process, increases the potential for serendipity, exposes me to things I wouldn’t otherwise think (or know) to seek out, and forces me to work through things that are difficult (usually in the sense that I don’t immediately enjoy what I’m reading), which is a muscle worth exercising (this process regularly helps me to see the value in things I wouldn’t have previously been capable of appreciating).
On a similar note, textbooks can be interesting to wade through, and though you’ll probably get the most value out of an intro-level textbook for a subject you’re not terribly familiar with, even lightly perusing one that’s way beyond your ken can be fruitful, as it gives you a peek at something you don’t understand, and that can serve as a reminder of just how much world is out there to discover and learn about.
Read fiction, read nonfiction, read poetry, read scripts—read anything you can get your hands on. There’s no inherently optimal package for the written word, and no ideal genre: just different approaches and technologies that serve it up in different ways and contexts.
You may have to learn a new set of norms and rules to appreciate and understand some formats, but it tends to be worth (for instance) taking the time to learn how scripts are structured and poems work, as every type of writing will introduce you to different way of looking at things and different people sharing information in that format, which can, in turn, make entirely new perspectives and ways of thinking accessible to you.
It doesn’t matter how many books you read, which books you read, or how you process them (taking notes, writing reviews, highlighting, etc)—what matters is that you find a rhythm and relationship with the written word that works for you and your priorities so that you’re able to tap into this collective, civilizational resource (and maybe even contribute to it, someday, if the fancy strikes you).
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