Did you know that there is a Japanese word for buying books that you don’t read? This habit – one that I exhibit, sadly – is actually so universal that they created a term for it: 積ん読 or tsundoku. It combines the words “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”), “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”) and “doku” (meaning “to read”).
We’ve always had a complicated relationship with the written word. Socrates feared the arrival of books and favored oral communication, yet his disciple Plato secretly wrote down his famous dialogues (and thanks to him we know what Socrates thought).
Socrates feared what writing would do to our ability to think. I believe that he turned out to be wrong (maybe the only time I’ll ever disagree with the great man!), but like him, I am nervous about a similar transition we’re making today – from books to screens, emails to text messages, and words to emoticons. Reading is an activity we have to preserve and even increase, however. It allows us to commune with some of the greatest minds across time and space, imparting wisdom and building knowledge. Finally, I submit that reading books, in particular, is the antidote to this attention-deficit age because, as Joseph Epstein points out, “we are what we read.”
My Reading Manifesto
However, most people I talk to don’t have a reading strategy. They just pick up something and start reading. The average American read 4 books last year (across all formats: ebook, print, audio). Studies suggest that most Americans will struggle to get through about 200 books over the course of their lifetime. That may seem like a lot, but given how many good books there are out there that’s not enough. So here are my considered suggestions for how to read strategically.
Noted polymath Tyler Cowen recommends that we read in bunches. Don’t just skim one book on evolution – devour several so that the lessons really sink in. I started doing this recently and have noticed that my overall understanding of the issue improved, as well as my ability to suss out important linkages between theories (what I call horizontal thinking).
Read eclectically: there are diminishing marginal returns to reading only one genre of book. While I recommend reading a few books on one topic, don’t just read in that section of the bookstore, so to speak. Throw in some fiction (I need to take this advice more) and dip into a field that may have no immediately obvious application to your work. In the same vein, read magazines that you have never bought before to think more creatively. These two practices will stretch your mind and allow you to have what one person memorably called “idea sex.”
If you must read something other than books, read long-form articles (or listen to audiobooks). We all know that most online reading is not really reading – we’re actually skimming and scanning. That’s why they’re often in the form of ‘listicles’. Online reading is frequently superficial – the intellectual equivalent of eating junk food and empty brain calories. Books and the best magazine pieces, on the other hand, give you a complete argument as well as a sense of accomplishment. What’s better than that?
Bonus points for eschewing the Kindle and reading physical books, which help you retain more of the information if you mark them up and highlight them maniacally (as I do). They even aid recall by being helping you picture the words on the page (we evolved to have a much better visual memory than an abstract one).
Conclusion: Read every day. Mostly books. Ideally printed ones.