The art of reading

The Farnam Street blog has gradually taken an important place in my journey of self-discovery and understanding of self and the world around me. While I haven’t reached the level of paying member – conversion of dollar to rand currently puts it just outside my reach – I am an avid follower of the weekly newsletter and the podcast The Knowledge Project.

FS Blog explores mental models, learning, leadership, decision making, and reading. The reading section has changed my life. While I have always been a reader – the bookworm who was also decent at sports -, I came to the realisation that I needed to be more conscious about my reading. For example, when reading for knowledge, what are the best tools and methods to use to ensure that one actually learns from what you are reading?

The one book I came across on FS Blog that has influenced the way I read was Alan Jacob’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He writes:

“One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay “Of Studies”—concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

Learning how to decide on which of these applies to each book I read is where the work is, and once I have figured that out, how to actually do it. Jacobs later quotes Nicholas Carr:

“The problem today is not that we multitask. We’ve always multitasked. The problem is that we’re always in multitasking mode. The natural busyness of our lives is being amplified by the networked gadgets that constantly send us messages and alerts, bombard us with other bits of important and trivial information, and generally interrupt the train of our thought. The data barrage never lets up. As a result, we devote ever less time to the calmer, more attentive modes of thinking that have always given richness to our intellectual lives and our culture—the modes of thinking that involve concentration, contemplation, reflection, introspection. The less we practice these habits of mind, the more we risk losing them altogether.”

I have been on Goodreads, the social cataloging website, for at least 5 years now. There was a time when I discovered that, because I wasn’t reading much anymore, my writing was actually suffering. Not surprising considering my advice to young writers is usually 1. Read, 2. Write, and 3. Live. This year, my reading target was 35 books on Goodreads and, beginning of October, I actually hit that target. I have gone from reading for a minimum of 10 minutes a day to reading throughout the day, often skipping telly and Netflix for a good book. I see reading as a way of training the mind for greater ‘concentration, contemplation, reflection, introspection.”

Another good book that explores reading is the 2006 edition of The Gutenberg Elegies – The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkerts. It was initially published in 1994. In the Introduction, Birkerts writes:

“As the world hurtles on toward its mysterious rendezvous, the old act of slowly reading a serious book becomes an elegiac exercise.”

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts explores the impact of technology on the depth of our thinking, the nowness of our lives and the sacrifice of depth and context in everything we do.

“Interactive media technologies are, at least in one sense, anticontextual. They open the field to new widths, constantly expanding relevance and reference, and they equip their user with a powerful grazing tool.”

I am a relatively prodigious consumer of online articles and, in reading Birkerts book, I realised how these expanded the breadth of my knowledge and, rarely, the depth of my knowledge. With this realisation, I have sought out books that reinforce the idea that:

“For while it can be many things, serious reading is above all an agency of self-making.”

With good reading, we are transformed, for the better. Or we are entertained. Or both. There is nothing wrong with either, and my concern is not with the medium that one uses to read but rather the content. While I bought myself a Kindle some years back for the convenience, I have found that, in recent times, I lean towards physical books, primarily because I finally got to the place where I underline and make notes in each book that I read without feeling guilty about defiling the book.

How do you read?

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