Issue 45: Is Being Well Read Actually A Thing? Pt II: The Upper Class of Readers
How we can achieve reader mobility through inertia, and become a master with density
Food For Thought
Last week, we talked about some disheartening statistics from a recent survey done by the Washington Post about how many books the average U.S. reader completed in 2023. The results were that 50% of the population surveyed completed only 1-2 books in the calendar year of 2023. We then touched on why this might be the case, and what boredom's love-affair with modern technology (social media) might have to do with it. Finally, we discussed a potential strategy in the Secretary Problem that non-readers could use to raise the consistency of a reading habit to twelve books a year (one per month – go check it out if you want to improve your reading practice!).
This week we will be returning to the Washington Post dataset once more to point out an interesting emergent quirk that wasn't talked about – there seems to be distinct classes of readership.
In the data above, we can see three broad categories of readers emerge from this survey: the 1-5 book readers class ("lower" class), the 5-10 book readers class ("middle" class), and the 15-50+ book readers class ("upper" class). Inside these classes, reading one or two books extra per year won't really move the needle of "moving up the food chain". In other words, the social mobility of book reading is less about book density than it is about book inertia. But what are density and inertia in these contexts?
Book density – the intensity of a reader's practice, is a low value metric – in the upper echelon/class of readers, the difference between reading 30 books a year and 60 books a year is a mere 7%. That is thirty times more books than the median American reads per year, and yet those 30 entire-ass books(!) only nets you a small edge over your peers within your reader class.
Book inertia – how consistently you read books (daily, weekly, once or twice a month) is much more important. Even the slowest reader will be middle class by the end of the year, by simply making a commitment to read every day. It is trivial to join the reader middle class if one keeps their reading habit in motion for 15-30mins a day, and does not allow it to drop.
But is there any real value to being an upper class reader anyway? Is it at all equatable to the upper class of fiat wealth? Why bother?
Well, for one, as an upper class reader you will be exposed to a variety of topics and ideas that will deepen and broaden your world view at the same time. You will be able to know that you have the ability to grapple with complex subjects from the minds of different humans, and not just any humans, but intelligent experts in a subject. Finally, you will be able to deepen your relationship to doing something "boring" and slowing down the mind to a comfortable, not-as-overwhelmed speed. These are the advantages of having both density and inertia, but density can only be gained after mastering inertia. If you attempt to put density before habit, the system will quickly overheat, causing burnout.
Some may consider the number of books read per year a poor metric. The difference of difficulty and lengths between books is highly variable. Fifty self help short reads are not directly comparable to five textbooks about quantum physics or original books on political theory. In addition, books read can be a falsified metric as people could "skim" books, "listen" to audiobooks while they sleep or of course, just straight up lie (just think about how often grown-ass men will lie about the size of thier manhood or how somehow everyone thinks they are a better driver than everyone else on the road – ego is a beast that preys on objectivity after all).
Even with these obvious status grabs and complexities weighing down the metric of the value of "books read" – I think it is still noble to pursue the aim of being in the "upper class" of reading, even if we all miss the mark and get more people lying (but trying) to complete books. By reclaiming our ability to struggle with books on a consistent basis, we will become a society that truly reads. We will reclaim inertia. Or:
A reader in motion, stays in motion.
Last issue, I lambasted technology for increasing the temperature of freneticism in daily life. This is very much the case, but technology is not all bad. I am a major proponent of e-books, because they make reading so much more accessible everywhere – syncing between phone, laptop, and Kindle while being able to read 5+ books in parallel all while fitting in your pocket is something that simply cannot be done with the physical-paper form of books (Kindle is the closest real world analogy we have to Capsule Corp from Dragon Ball). In addition, e-readers allow for font changes, and can adjust to readers speeds if your eyes tire from the practice. Most importantly, e-reading allows for connections to be made through highlighting and storing agains services like Readwise or Goodreads. These highlights can then be digitized and embedded in systems like Commonplace Bot, or can be turned into a visual graph to see connections between ideas.
Joining the upper class of readership means investing in the process of erudition, a devotion to taking on the challenge of propositional learning, and becoming...well read!
Next week, in the final part of this series we will discuss some of the more subtle parts of becoming a well-read person, including dispelling some misconceptions of what it means to be able to call ourselves "well-read". Stick around!
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Thanks for reading, and see you next Sunday!
ars longa, vita brevis,
P.S. If you are reading this the day this issue hits your inbox, today (January 28th) is my birthday 🎂! Here is a collection of pictures of myself over the decades if you're curious.