There’s a new obsession with reading on the internet. I’m not sure I like it.
Everywhere I look, there seems to be a new speed reading hack, or someone preaching that the secret to success is how many books you can absorb.
Now, before I get into this, I’ll admit: most years, I probably do read north of a 100 books. That’s who I am. It’s something I prioritize, and it makes me feel connected. I like the idea of interacting with somebody else’s mind.
That said, I have no illusions as to why I do it. Reading is a trade-off activity, like everything else in life, and if I’m reading 100 books a year, I know that there are a whole bunch of other things that I could be doing that I’m not.
And even if speed reading was effective (beyond a certain point, it’s not) the practical return on investment of me reading that many books is not greater than the things I compromise on when I choose to spend my time doing so.
Reading for practical reasons has diminishing returns. Action compounds.
Let’s break it down a little further.
Why Do We Read?
Fundamentally, there are two reasons to read.
The first is to gain knowledge. It’s to increase the total information that we have available to understand the world. Reading for practicality falls into this area, and generally, seeing the world from new angles isn’t a bad thing.
The second is to expand our circle of empathy. It’s to feel what others have felt, it’s go to places we’ve never been, and sometimes, it’s to reinforce the things we, ourselves, are feeling. Reading for leisure is often the motivation.
There is, of course, overlap and there may be a few less obvious reasons to read, but these two general categories do well to cover off most things.
As an extension, if we’re reading non-fiction — outside of memoirs and intimate biographies — it’s often for knowledge and practicality. If we’re reading fiction, it’s mostly for empathy and enjoyment.
Now, the fans of the current internet-obsession seem to be caught up with trying to absorb as many non-fiction and knowledge-based books as possible so that they can be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
There’s a problem there.
More Books = Greater Success?
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?”
The world is complex. There is no doubt about that. But at the same time, there are a few simple ideas and mental models — maybe a total of 50 or so — that show up again and again to tell us a lot. These are the fundamentals.
Rather than reading 100+ books a year that re-frame the same concepts, it makes more sense to research and pick 10 absolutely great books that start with the fundamentals and that most of the other 90 books build off of.
Once you know the fundamentals, it’s the application of these concepts that is going to teach you about how the world works, not re-reading the same thing disguised under a different heading or academic discipline.
Naturally, if what you’re doing is extremely domain-dependent, then these re-framed details do matter. But for most of us who are mainly just trying to see the world a little more clearly so we can get to where we want to go, it makes a lot more sense to find and read only a few paradigm-shifting books.
The vast majority of new releases don’t contain any new ideas. In fact, more than 95% of all non-fiction books ever written don’t contain anything new.
Simply put, reading 10 self-help or business books a month is a waste, but 10 diverse classics a year, with time for application, may change your life.
What’s My Point?
Please read. It’s important that you do, but stop equating the number of books you read with the degree of success you think you’re likely to have.
Read to understand, read to connect, and read to imagine. Books really are magical, and I do wish more of us would spend time with them. But let’s not pretend that treating them as a ticket to success will make you successful.
The correlation evens out as the number goes up. If you want to accomplish things, there’s no substitute for action. As a rule of thumb, it’s the only thing that you can consistently do more of that provides compounding returns.
Go make things happen.
Want more? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter at Design Luck. He uses engaging stories to share unique insights on how to live a better life by dissecting science, art, and business.