I am a library addict.
At the time of this writing, I have 15 books checked out, 24 books on hold, and am still wondering where my copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow and Infinite Jest are.
Besides being a hopeless biblio-hoarder, my one redemption is a surprisingly high read-to-borrow ratio. In the last three months, I’ve finished 12 books, roughly 20% of the ~60 books I’ve borrowed this quarter. With a quarter equaling 13 weeks, this comes out to 4.65 books that I have simultaneously checked out at any given time, finishing on average 1 book a week.
This is not meant to be a brag, as I can think of few gloats more inane. Statistically speaking, however, this is quite uncommon.
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are reading an average of 12 books per year, with the median American having read 4 books in the past 12 months. What is worth highlighting here is those who enjoy reading really enjoy reading, and are reading at such high volume that they skew the distribution to the right and create fatter tails at the extreme — dragging the average books read per American to three times the median.
To put that into perspective, making the gross oversimplification that 25% of Americans have not read a book in the last year, 50% read the median of 4, and the remaining 25% are reading enough to drag the average up to 12, that means the remaining 25% is reading 40 books a year. This is ten times the amount of the median, and matches closely to my experience extrapolated over a year.
Why does this matter?
We want to read books more for various reasons. We feel it is “good for us.” Smart and successful people all seem to espouse it. And intuitively, we know that dedicating multiple hours to a single piece of work nets us a deeper understanding than most uses of our time.
So, why don’t we read books more? What’s the secret this 25% — America’s power readers — have figured out that the remaining 75% haven’t? A secret so powerful that it literally lets them read 10x the amount of books of 3 out of 4 Americans?
The answer varies on a case-by-case basis, but as someone whose behavior qualifies as a power reader, here is how I’ve come to think about it.
What gets measured, gets managed.
The title for this section comes from Peter Drucker: author of The Effective Executive, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and de-facto founding philosopher-king of modern management. The wisdom of this expression is that it invites the individual to consider the connection between cause-and-effect.
For example, if you “read” a book in the traditional sense, painfully forcing yourself to plod through the tome of your choice over six months (Being and Time? War and Peace? Infinite Jest?), how would that manifest itself? Maybe you would have a few fun ideas, stats, and analogies that can steep into a cocktail party conversation. But if the amount of absorption that reading the book is equivalent to reading, say, a Sparknotes/Cliffnotes version of the book, how would we even know?
To further extend Drucker’s comments on effectiveness,
Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done, let alone with its techniques and tools.
On the topic of reading, then, the question isn’t how much we read, also known as the input, but the amount of change that occurs after reading, or the output.
What should we measure when we talk about reading?
If someone reads for 10,000 hours but remembers nothing, how can we distinguish between that individual and someone who never read at all? Conversely, if someone talks about their love for Harry Potter and the allegories the series hints at, can you immediately distinguish between a lover of the books and a lover of the movies?
This is the fulcrum that I’ve exploited for leverage in all that I read. Namely, that as long as I have clearly defined outputs and objectives — key performance indicators (KPIs) in business speak — for what I read, then I can adopt any way, method, and manner to “read” a book. Frontwards, backwards, table of contents right to certain chapters, in English or Chinese: as long as my life can reflect the absorption of the book in a way, then the book is for all intents and purposes, read.
Here are the most common objectives I myself have when reading:
- Retention: what can I remember from this book?
- Completion: given the table of contents, what percentage of meaningful content can I remember from this book?
- Implementation: what changes can I enact in my life from this book?
- Enjoyment: how am I enjoying this book? *Is there someone I can share my enjoyment of this book with?*
With the objectives and fulcrums defined, we can finally proceed to the tactics. In my experience, this is the 2019 tripod of leveraged reading:
- Physical books
Hacks, Cheating, and Cheating Hacks
“Wait a second,” you may proclaim. “When you said you ‘read’ 12 books in the last quarter, did you mean you listened to 12 books? That’s not really reading.”
While it’s true that 75% of the books I read, I actually “read” through an audiobook, this type of objection is exactly the constraint that merits investigating. If I hadn’t told you that I listened to the audiobooks versus reading the physical books, how could you tell the difference? Does it change the calculus if I then add that successful completion of an audiobook then motivated me to borrow the physical book for more intense review and study? Nothing works in vacuums in the real world. Here are frequent objections to e-books and audiobooks:
It’s not real reading: for most reading outside of a school or academic environment, people use reading as a proxy for deep knowledge about a certain topic. Just as sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, sufficiently deep subject matter about the contents of a book is indistinguishable from having “read” the book.
No time for lengthy audiobooks: while this may be true, the growth of podcasts demonstrates that a massive amount of Americans are hungry for long-form audio content on demand. This is actually how I first realized the underutilized capacity of audiobooks: I was listening to Spotify music and podcasts plenty in daily life, but when I replaced my commute listening with audiobooks for the deep dives into specific topics, I easily began cranking through books at 2x listening speed.
I don’t like stuff on a screen: this one is mostly a criticism of e-books, and one of the advantages of audiobooks. I can enjoy a book outdoors, whether it be on the run or on a run, without being behind a screen. Audiobooks have another advantage over e-books and physical books in that you don’t have to be behind a screen or stationary.
I don’t learn as much: what’s the amount that you learn of a book you never read? While it’s true that audiobooks don’t command the same attention and gravitas a physical book might have in your lap, audiobooks also reduce the investment cost. It’s way easier to borrow an audiobook online from the library, listen to the preface while running an errand, then naturally let your interest guide you, than to order a physical book and wait for a time when you’re sitting without distractions.
I like the physical book in my hand: Fair enough! And that’s why the false dichotomy delineated by concepts of “real” reading versus “fake” reading are unproductive. When done correctly, audiobooks, ebooks, and physical books all support each other and act as complementary goods. Each medium has its advantages and disadvantages, but by defining clear outputs and outcomes, we can see where each medium naturally plays to its strengths. This dispels with the zero-sum fight of “reading” into the net-positive outcome of a virtuous cycle. Just like reading Drucker’s quote about measurement and management eventually lead to me borrowing his book, a fascinating idea naturally begets more interest and exploration. Ultimately, there truly is no “cure” to curiosity.
Required Investment Versus Return
Here are my observations on the pros and cons of each medium, from lowest investment to highest investment, with a special preference for going outdoors, out from behind a computer screen, whenever possible.
Pros: The easiest way to get into a book with the lowest time to content. Has all the advantages of podcasts and books in that audiobooks go deep on subject material in your earbuds for hours. Can be enjoyed with a nice walk in the park, possibly a workout.
Cons: Harder to write down quotes, but I’d argue that this is a feature not a bug. The more you find yourself wanting to stop and write down stuff, that becomes the whet for your intellectual appetite to borrow the physical book or e-book. Can miss stuff due to not paying attention, but generally I’ve found, if it’s important/interesting, it’ll occur again the book somewhere.
Pro-tip: Listen to the preface/first chapter is a great way to reduce intimidation for finishing.
Pros: Searchable, completely portable. Syncs across mobile, desktop, and multiple devices. Best suited when I know what I’m looking for quotes or interactive highlights, especially writing blog posts or taking notes. Can have all the advantages of a physical book, but with the advantage of having infinite books in your pocket.
Cons: Not ideal for those trying to stare less at screens while I’m on the run. In addition, doesn’t have quite the tactile enjoyment of a physical book.
Pro-tip: you can access Overdrive books online as well, letting you read on all devices.
Pros: A burden by design. The physical books commands presence and squarely asks for time to wrestle and review the material. Often more beautiful and a more expansive experience than just the text. Photobooks are an obvious example. Virtue signaling.
Cons: Can be intimidating to start and carries a high literal and figurative degree of carrying cost. Requires a certain degree of stability by having the book on you wherever you anticipate having time to fill with reading.
Pro-tip: Having to return books on an actual timeline can increase the urgency and ultimate prioritization of this book.
Reading as an Effective Executive
Books are a form of communication. When I’m listening to an audiobook, it’s like Alice Schroeder is walking me to work telling me about Warren Buffett’s love for GEICO in his early twenties, or Marlon James putting on different accents for different characters in A Brief History of Seven Killings. Even though all three mediums represent a one-way communication from the author to you, the value is in how you react and respond (either by yourself, with friends, or in your actions).
Whether we define it explicitly or not, we all read books with various goals in mind. A friend of mine regards Hesse’s Steppenwolf as his favorite book; though I will never remember this book as well or as in depth as he (despite having read it fully in print!). However, being able to discuss the key themes, make relevant jokes (e.g. did you realize Hermine is the female version of Hermann?), and share in the significance with others who’ve read the book satisfies my goals.
More reasons to think about reading as an effective executive: how you react to a book is also a function of where your headspace is at. Multiple people reading the same book, in the same medium, can walk away with drastically different interpretations. Never mind other people, merely reading the same book at different stages of your life can give you dramatically different takeaways. That’s why teenagers can read JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and walk away ecstatic, while most people walk away dismissive, including that very same teenager a few years later. Give yourself the permission to pick up partial value from a book because there is no fixed value, knowing that the book unread has no value, so what you connect with is ultimately the only measure of “reading correctly.”
If you want to see this concept at its most extreme, look no further than Tucker Max, a multiple time New York Times bestseller and entrepreneur. Tucker’s company helps authors write books, without actually writing it. They do this by structuring a series of discussions with the author to talk about their topic in an interview format, transcribe it down, then work together with the author to edit and turn it into a first draft. In other words, the foundation of his incredibly lucrative business is based off the exploitation of these facts.
By starting with the relatively low-investment medium of casual conversation, Max’s company reduces the barrier to getting ideas down on paper for authors. Consider then that Amazon and audiobook providers then ask authors to reread their books for audio recordings, and the entire endeavor starts a bit like calculus: taking the derivative of an equation to draw insight about its rate of change, then integrating it to not lose sight of absolute position.
The Future of Reading and Learning
It’s been nearly a decade since Amazon’s e-book sales finally passed print books, and yet data from the Pew Research still implies that physical books are still far and away the preferred medium for Americans. This is good and, in some ways, expected. As the audiobook and ebook markets continue to develop, the data will eventually break us of the zero-sum mentality, in which audiobooks, ebooks, and physical books are all competing substitutes to each other.
More mediums of the same content represent the expansion of choice for readers to read with whom, where, when, and how they want. Personally, I am excited for a future where I can have any book professionally read to me at bedtime as I fall asleep each night.
*For those curious, here’s the books I finished this quarter:
- Michael Lewis The Undoing Project
- Gary Taubes Why We Get Fat
- Scott Adams Win Bigly
- Malcolm Harris Kids These Days
- Duncan Clark Alibaba
- Alex Banayan The Third Door
- Alice Shroeder’s The Snowball
- Spencer Rascoff’s Zillow Talk
- Raj Raghunathan’s If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?
- Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers
- Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal
- Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk
Bonus: The Prodigal Non-Fiction Son Returns
My father has always been a francophile. I remember sharing my intention to study Spanish in middle school, to which he immediately asked: why I wasn’t studying French? Upon making the case that Spanish seemed more practical in the United States, he lamented like a Frenchman stuck in a Chinese body:
“How crass, my utilitarian American son. It is as Tocqueville said, with Americans and your refusal of class, you have lost all refinement.”
Never mind that it would take me years to understand who Tocqueville was, or even more years to parse out the remarkable phenomenon, in retrospect, that was a father quoting Tocqueville’s social commentary on America, in Chinese, after having read him in French, while studying in Belgium, to his American-born son. For a long time I would hear of classic European authors first in Chinese, then for years not at all, until my own English language intellectual breadth pieced together who Stendhal, Balzac, or Solzhenitsyn were.
Several weeks ago, while laying awake from insomnia due to a poorly timed nap, I realized I was burned out. As enthusiastic as I generally am about non-fiction, I was paralyzed: stuck in that the land in between too awake to be idle, and too tired to do anything productive.
After entertaining my options for recreation and relaxation, I realized that my new audiobook habit, combined with my burnout, might be able to finally address an important-but-never-urgent problem I had always faced: prioritizing and reading fiction.
Having previously tried to make my way through The Red and the Black and The Sorrows of Young Werther, I can attest that borrowing the physical books and brute force were ineffective. Hopping on the Overdrive/Libby powered library app, I quickly found audiobooks of both novels, among others, and happily tuned in. Listening with voice actors made the experience completely different, and while I’m still not convinced that Werther is any more remarkable than being the primogeniture emo kid, the medium has absolutely brought me back to a book that I otherwise would never pick up again.
Which is to say, new media forms have concretely helped me rediscover the joy of listening to fiction as a time-tested leisure activity. Although it’s new technology, the concept of humans telling stories to each other has been a popular pastime for millenia — go figure. Ultimately, I believe that many will find the literature technologies of the 21st century collaborative rather than competitive, with individuals being able to most seamlessly, efficiently, connecting with those they most want to encounter. Maybe there will even be a new social feature that Overdrive/Libby/libraries will push out in the future. Until then, I shall continue my search for another soul who knows who Julian Sorel is.