A few days ago I ordered 61 books, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. I didn’t even flinch when Amazon stopped incrementing my shopping cart at 50 items. And the final tally of $1,201.40 represents only a small percentage of the money I routinely spend on books in any given year.
You might ask why I spend so much money on books when I could just borrow them from a library. First, my local library is unlikely to have all the books I want to read (more on that later). Second, when I’m reading a good book, I want to read it actively. I want to write in the margins. I want to make notes. I want to make it my own. If you get a library book you can’t do that.
I buy every book I want with almost zero exceptions. As someone who reads over a hundred books a year and has an anti-library with thousands of titles that I haven’t read, I can assure you my habit gets expensive. Yet this doesn’t bother me at all.
Books contain a vast amount of knowledge and knowing what most other people don’t know is how I make a living. While books can be expensive, ignorance is costlier.
This is why books are necessary. Charlie Munger loved to quote a line from an old machine tool ad: “The man who needs a new machine tool and hasn’t purchased it yet is already paying for it.” You’re already paying for the knowledge you need but don’t have yet.
Reading books is one of the ways to super-charge your knowledge acquisition. Reading articles and blogs is like seeing only the tip of the iceberg, you don’t see the mass below the surface. You’re the chauffeur. That’s fine for topics where we need only a summary knowledge and not unique insights. Books are deeper. They go below the surface.
When most of us pick up a book we often make two mistakes. First, we race to the end. We mistake reading fast for reading for insights. Second, we read the same things as everyone else. As Haruki Murakami put it, if you read what everyone else is reading, you’re going to think what everyone else thinks. That’s a big problem in a today’s world. You need to have different thoughts than other people. Remember the old adage: If you do what everyone else is doing, you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else is getting.
In our competitive world, being average isn’t an option. Average is what you need to play the game but not enough to win. And the bar for average is getting higher and higher as AI nips at our feet. You need something other people don’t have. You need something scarce.
In his book Average is Over, Tyler Cowen talks about what is scarce and what is not in today’s global economy. “Intellectual property,” he writes, “or good ideas about what should be produced” is scarce and valuable. As is “quality labour with unique skills.” Unskilled labour, on the other hand, is not scarce at all.
If you want to become valuable — someone that has good ideas or unique skills you need a different strategy that everyone else. One that increases the odds you make better decisions, have unique insights, and avoid problems.
If you’re trying to get ahead, skip the bestseller displays at the front of the bookstore and head to the stacks at the back. Bestselling books, almost by definition, rarely help give you an edge. Sure, they might help you sound smart at a cocktail party, but that’s only because everyone else is reading them and they want to seem smart, or worse, “current”.
Reading is not only the key to improving your lot in life, but it’s necessary if you want to develop insights, ideas, and understanding that sets you apart from others. You can’t however, read what everyone else is reading.
Personally, I spend a lot of time with the eminent dead; the long gone men and women whose knowledge is not the new-new thing. That’s why my cart was full of books that are out of print. Books like Unended Quest, Inside the Record Business, and Roman Honor: Fire in the Bones. Interestingly, this avoidance of most things new, typically makes the books either ridiculously cheap — $0.01 plus shipping — or ridiculously expensive.
The most expensive book I ever bought was Henry Miller on Turning Eighty, which was over $800 but resulted in learning a lot about why life is the best teacher and the complicated relationship between friendship and getting older.
Reading opens the world of possibilities. The website I run, Farnam Street, has a clear goal: We want to help you understand how the world really works, in all of its complexity. With that understanding, you become scarce. Not only can you make better decisions and live a better life but you can be more helpful to those around you.
Whenever I tell people how much I read they always say the same thing: I don’t have the time to read. That’s a bullshit excuse. Yes you do. You make time for what you think is a priority. People who “don’t have time to read” are people who want to be the sort of person who reads. They like the idea of being someone who reads, not the reality of reading itself.
Reading is hard work (Although I enjoy it tremendously, I might add.) It’s expensive. There are few shortcuts. You have to do the thing for real.
I might not read every book I buy. I might never even crack the spine on a few of them. They might turn out to be a waste of money or they may change my life, give me an insight that no one else has, or form the basis of a compelling article I can share with readers or members of our learning community.
If you’re thinking ahead to next week or even next month, reading books might not seem like the best use of your time. However when next month comes, which it invariably does for those of us who are lucky, don’t complain that you spent all your time on emails, Facebook, or Twitter. The pot-belly of ignorance is only a click away.
Reading is a long-term investment I make in myself. I don’t have the time not to.
Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. If you want to work smarter and not harder, I recommend subscribing to The Brain Food Newsletter. You can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook.