How I Think About Books

The question I might receive from readers more than any other has to do with books. Variations: “What books should I read? How and why do you read so many? How do you pick which books? Do you finish each book? Is it really worth it to spend so much time reading?”

I spend a subtantial amount of time thinking about books (in addition to actually reading them) because they are both my primary intellectual input and the largest slice of my “leisure time” pie. I am, at the moment, in a reading frenzy — as I read about the founding fathers, Ben Franklin, John Adams, etc, all of whom were humongous readers themselves, I wish I could put life on time-out, head to a deserted island, and plow through the 30 odd books stacked up on my shelf.

Below are answers to the most commonly asked questions I get on this topic:

How do you find time to read? Easy — the same way you find time for anything. Prioritize it.

Why books? Why reading? First, we all learn and input information differently. For me, visually reading words is effective. Second, notwithstanding my admiration for Jeff Jarvis‘ crusade to digitize journalism efforts, I disagree with him that a book is outdated in today’s link-enabled world. True, a book is not interactive. However, for topics that require more serious thinking, or topics for which a comprehensive overview is more efficient than several shorter articles, a book wins. It’s a wonderful learning tool for some, and winning in the 21st century has much to do, I would argue, with life-long learning. On the fiction side, the case for a book is less compelling, especially if you read fiction books for entertainment value alone. Since I enjoy language and words, I still derive suitable entertainment (and intellectual) value from fiction. Also, it is reading fiction when you are more apt to explore interior dimensions….

How do you choose what to read? I receive many personal recommendations and I read book review sections and book-bloggers. I also never hesitate to read a book that no one has recommend but looks interesting (and most everything looks interesting to me :-). My methodology for buying books is as follows: First, the book gets added to my Amazon.com Wishlist (currently 224 books). If it was personally recommended I note the recommender in the “Notes” field next to the book so I can thank the person after reading it. Then, every so often I buy batches of 10 books from my Amazon wishlist and they’re shipped.

Do you buy or rent from the library? I prefer to buy. I like to mark up books and then reference them in the future. I buy most books used from Amazon.

Where do you read? I always read for 20-30 minutes in bed before going to sleep. I read anytime I ride a stationary bike. I also read on planes and trains and occassionally I’ll sit on my couch and just read.

What do you think about speed reading? I don’t speed read. The more you read the faster you’ll read. I haven’t found it necessary to try to over-optimize my reading speed.

Do you underline or annotate while reading? Yes! I always read with a pen in hand. For non-fiction, I highlight and underline. For fiction, I highlight cool phrases or ideas. It’s amazing how focused you become when holding a pen.

Do you finish each book you pick up, or are you willing to not finish books? This is probably the most fiercely debated question among booksluts. I’m in the middle. I’ve put books down in the middle – I’ve stopped after 20 pages. But usually, once I lose faith in the book, I’ll flip pages and skim quickly till the end, just to be sure nothing golden pops up unexpectedly.

Out of every 10 books you read, how many are winners? Most. Probably 6 or 7 out of every 10 I read are winners because I employ a reasonable screening process. But remember if you never read a book you hate, it means you’re not taking enough risks with your selection. Just like in life, you gotta take chances!

Do you keep the books you read or sell them? I keep. They’re my toys.

What do you do after you read a book? I’ll usually briefly review them on my blog. Sometimes I’ll write a formal review. Sometimes I’ll write up detailed notes on the Business Outlines wiki.

I’m a businessperson. Should I read business books? Sure. But I read fewer business books than I do “other” books. The value of reading business books — and the value of reading anything, really — is not necessarily that the content will be insightful on its own, but that as you read you can reflect on what you’re reading and how it relates to you own life and business. We have so little quiet time in our connected world that reading can be a nice excuse to stop, think, and reflect.

Can you recommend books for me to read? I can, and I will, and I do, but I find the question a bit bizarre. It’s like asking, “What should I eat for dinner tonight?” It all depends on your taste.

What specific benefits do you gain from reading non-fiction books? I’ve said this repeatedly: if you spend $15 on a book and come away with one, solid, original idea that sticks, you got a helluva deal. Reading widely also makes you a better conversationalist. You become the guy who says, “Now, I read a book on this, and the author argued X.”

Do you read books just so you can say you’ve read them? I do think there’s some truth in the idea that people buy books just so they can see them on their bookshelf and feel smart.

Audiobooks? I listen to fiction on audiobook when I have long drives. The downside to audiobooks is you can’t take notes or underline.

I ran out of books to read on vacation! I learned the hard way, too. Now I will never travel anywhere without more books than I could possibly need. If you feel like you have to slow down while reading because you don’t have another, it ruins the experience. I have probably gone a little insane: I recently brought four, 400+ page unread books on a weekend trip during which I could only read for a few hours.

9 Responses to How I Think About Books

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    The bottom line is that books generally represent the highest possible quality of writing.

    Imagine this thought experiment: Suppose you read the 100 greatest novels of all time (link to randomhouse.com), or the 100 greatest works of non-fiction (link to randomhouse.com).

    Would you learn more or less than reading the equivalent volume of any other kind of writing?

    I would argue that the wisdom density of books is far greater than any other written medium, including blogs.

    The comparison becomes even more unfair if you consider listening to books on tape versus listening to podcasts.

  2. Tim Taylor says:

    Super post Ben. I love to talk about books and even the passion of reading them. Sounds like On Writing by Stephen King rubbed off on you quite a bit.

  3. Matt says:

    Great approach Ben. I do the same, though lately have been favoring the library and scanning quotations. After spending too many hours too many times trying to put my hand on the right page of the right book, I’m looking for a better system to retain notes and quotes.

    Chris writes:

    I would argue that the wisdom density of books is far greater than any other written medium, including blogs.

    Of course the best books have a higher wisdom density than the average blog. It’s probably also the case with the average book and blog. But the samples have a very high variance.

    The problem with many books is that they’re born with a few real insights and then fed filler until they can grow to book length. The filler may be dense, but it’s seldom wise. And it sometimes makes insight extraction really inefficient.

    Real essays (as opposed to journalism or memoir that looks like an essay) might surpass books’ wisdom density. Essays are often only as long as they need to be. One need only think of the work of an Isiah Berlin, Ronald Coase, Michael Oakeshott, or even Paul Graham to see how concisely wise an essay can be.

  4. I feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of information–my time is finite, so I do prioritize my reading.

    I never got so much book reading done as when I lived in a cabin in the woods for years.

    I’ve always preferred non-fiction: history, natural history, and the travel journals of 18th and 19th century explorers and naturalists like William Bartram, Alexander von Humboldt, and Alfred Russel Wallace.

    I’d rather read an essay by Francis Bacon or Molière than any essayist living, except Gore Vidal.

    Blogs are low on my list–I read mostly tech blogs.

    I’ve noticed that most people who describe themselves as non-medicating ADHD persons seem to have no problem sitting still and focusing on a book.

    I’m so hyper I can hardly sit at the computer for more than thirty minutes without getting up and dancing around–that keeps me sane and focused.

  5. Great post. Your relationship with books almost exactly mirrors mine.

    I love my books!

  6. Jude says:

    I hate the word humongous. I was a teenager when someone made it up, and I’ve never been able to accept it as a substitute for the word “huge.”

    I read non-fiction and science fiction because I like to learn things. I’ve always been grateful that I learned a little speed reeding, using a bulky tachistoscope which I borrowed from a school district one summer(the software I’ve found which is most tachistoscope-like is Ace Reader).

    A few years ago when I was a high school librarian, I read any book a student asked me to read so that I could write tests for students who were forced to use Accelerated Reader (a pernicious reading program used in many schools). Because of that, I found myself reading more broadly than I had before. I discovered that I actually like some fantasy, which to me is almost like admitting I like romance novels (which I don’t). It didn’t hurt me (too much) to broaden what I usually read. I was forced to read six horrible James Patterson novels to help a girl in desperate straits, but I also discovered R.A. Salvatore, Jonathan Stroud, and Scott Westerfeld, which was a fair tradeoff.

  7. Drew Tarvin says:

    I’m like you and generally highlight key ideas when I read them. As for listening to audio books, I picked up a tip from stand-up and carry a digital voice recorder with me at all times (many phones have recording features as well). When I’m listening on long road trips and hear something that intrigues me, I just record the main idea/timestamp to return to later an capture it on paper.

  8. Rob says:

    Ben,

    You forgot the question : ‘How do you read so MANY books, and would you rather spend more time on fewer books and work harder on application?’

    Nonetheless, I really think you area dead on about the importance of reading so much. And not reading business gurus is actually a very good idea. I am discovering that this is the best kept secret of billionaire businessmen. I wrote a post about it here:

    link to ideatrending.com

    I think that by reading literature we can gain more wisdom than we could buy from any guru.

  9. Annie White says:

    Exactly the type of info I was looking for Ben. This is a terrific post. Currently reading “The Last American Man,” which has no relation to my work or personal life but I’m learning an incredible amount, nonetheless (and have thus found myself surprised). Highly recommend that you add it to the Wishlist!

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