Issue 44: Is Being Well Read Actually a Thing? Part I - Zero to One
The superpower we neglect to use
Food For Thought
A few weeks ago, Andrew Van Dam of the Washington Post released a piece on how much Americans read in 2023. There are a few intriguing, disturbing, and hopeful ramifications & conclusions we can draw from this dataset.
First and foremost, from this survey we can see that simply reading two books in a single calendar year puts you in the top half of the population. This is...pretty sad, honestly.
Of these two books, we can safely assume that of the majority are the "popular/coffee table" books of the year, the bestseller/airport/Oprah-recommended books, since these books are brought up the most in conversation (or are at risk of being brought up at least). This means that a significant portion of the American population only barely reads of their own volition, and when they do read, it is to not be left out of the peer pressure conversation where everyone is talking about "Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow" or "Little Fires Everywhere" or "Sapiens" or "Greenlights", etc.
When a reading habit becomes subservient to a "need to fit in" habit, we are not setting up America's population for the type of deep, consistent thinking the country needs as the world continues to grow in complexity; we are creating a country where being seen as a part of the conversation is the goal. To be visible to our peers is more important than the value books alone provide.
But perhaps this isn't a big deal, right? People are busy after all, and why should reading books take up our precious time?
Let's compare these findings with just one popular social media app of the many out there today: TikTok.
TikTok says it has 150 million U.S. users; Sensor Tower, a market intelligence company, says users spend an average of 93 minutes a day on the app.
Comparing apples to apples here, 150 million US users ~= 1/2 of the total U.S. population. That means that half of the population are consuming almost two hours awake on just one app, not to mention crossover to the other escapism/time-waster platforms like Instagram/Reddit/YouTube/etc. The same exact ninety minutes spent reading could accomplish 1/4 of a standard book PER DAY (
avg book length = 85k words,
avg adult wpm = 250 words,
250 wpm * 90 minutes = 22.5k,
22.5k/85k = ~26%). Just from replacing existing TikTok habits!!!
I get it. TikTok is fun, it's really fun, and all you have to do is swipe and consume high-pace, exciting content from interesting people from across the planet. But let's not confuse what short form internet based consumption is, and assume that it is merely a new form of information capture comparable to books. TikTok and ilk are not, not, not active engagement for the mind. They are passive. Only active reading (and deep one-on-one conversation) can create the breadth and depth of a fully fleshed out topic from both another human being to ourselves – at the speed the human mind needs to do its most critical task – reasoning; to process information slowly.
Some people are deeply attracted to this highly accelerated pace of life—going far out of their way to bring it about and feeling anxious, tense or uncomfortable when the pace slows. They want desperately to be "where the action is." (Indeed, some hardly care what the action is, so long as it occurs at a suitably rapid clip.)
Now, social media, especially in the modern world is a pretty low hanging fruit in terms of critique. Social media may in fact be a symptom of what the lowly book simply cannot provide. I am of the opinion that social media usage is actually downstream of freneticism, loneliness, lack of a community, and most importantly, a deep fear of boredom. Studies have shown we moderns would prefer actual physical pain than even risk being bored. The pain of being well read, of picking up a book and just sitting there for an hour-plus is where we must start if we want to repair our commitment to erudition, which is a skill that is more valuable today than ever before due to the rise of information markets.
Our first goal should be to level up the median American to at least 12 books a year – a single book per calendar month – to keep the mind sharp, engaged, and in deep study of any particular topic of curiosity at a time. This will move the readership literally from zero to one (book read per month).
Here's a strategy that worked for me when I first started a reading habit that you, or someone who is new or averse to reading might try – taking inspiration the Secretary Problem from my Computer Science days at university. All the books referenced in this issue were consumed with a similar strategy.
- The first of the month, choose 3-4 books that appeal to you.
- Read ~20-30 pages into each book.
- Cut the worst book from the pack.
- Repeat steps 2 & 3 the second week (read another 20-30 pages), for the remaining 2-3 books.
- Finish the book(s) that are better than the best book you cut the filters for weeks three and four (1-2 books).
The advantages of this strategy include:
- Your reading practice at the start of each month is more exciting as you get to sample multiple books, and we minimize the risk of getting "married" to a bad book.
- You try a breadth of topics, quickly finding your preferred genre over time, and what genres you might prefer to avoid.
- You get in the habit of being mentally "ok" with not finishing books.
- You work on your daily reading habit.
- You start finishing books, which is the ultimate goal!
Reading is a real life super power, let's take advantage of it.
Next issue, we will return to this Washington Post dataset and take a look at the emergent "class dynamics" of readers on the "lower", "middle", and "upper classes", and what this separation means for those who take their lifelong education seriously.
On My Nightstand - What I'm Reading
Here are four quotes from different books about the importance of reading, and the unique aspects that only reading does to the human mind.
Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives.
Few inventions ever did more to prepare the brain and poise the species for its own advancement. As literacy became widespread in a culture, the act of reading silently invited each reader to go beyond the text; in so doing, it further propelled the intellectual development of the individual reader and the culture. This is the biologically given, intellectually learned generativity of reading that is the immeasurable yield of the brain’s gift of time.
Given the paucity of trustworthy sources, much of Napoleon’s early childhood must remain conjectural, but there is little doubt that he was a precocious and prodigious reader, drawn at an early age to history and biography. Letizia told a government minister that her son ‘had never partaken of the amusements of children his own age, that he carefully avoided them, that he found himself a little room on the third floor of the house in which he stayed by himself and didn’t come down very often, even to eat with his family. Up there, he read constantly, especially history books.’ Napoleon claimed that he first read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, an 800-page novel of love and redemption, at the age of nine, and said ‘It turned my head.’ ‘I do not doubt the very powerful action of his early readings on the inclination and character of his youth,’ his brother Joseph later recalled. He described how, at their primary school, when the students were instructed to sit under either the Roman or the Carthaginian flag, Napoleon insisted that they swap places and utterly refused to join the losing Carthaginians. (Though he was eighteen months younger than Joseph, Napoleon was always stronger-willed.)
Writing really is a transcoding of thought, a translation from the two-dimensional surface of images into a one-dimensional linear code: out of compact, blurred pictorial codes into clear, distinct written codes; out of the imaginary into the conceptual; out of scenes into processes; out of contexts into texts. Writing is a method of tearing imaginary things apart and making them clear.
Ye Olde Newsstand - Weekly Updates
Thanks for reading, and see you next Sunday!
ars longa, vita brevis,