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Reading 100+ Books a Year to “Upgrade” Yourself is a Complete Waste of Time

16 May 2017

From Medium:

There’s a new obsession with reading on the internet. I’m not sure I like it.

Everywhere I look, there seems to be a new speed reading hack, or someone preaching that the secret to success is how many books you can absorb.

Now, before I get into this, I’ll admit: most years, I probably do read north of a 100 books. That’s who I am. It’s something I prioritize, and it makes me feel connected. I like the idea of interacting with somebody else’s mind.

That said, I have no illusions as to why I do it. Reading is a trade-off activity, like everything else in life, and if I’m reading 100 books a year, I know that there are a whole bunch of other things that I could be doing that I’m not.

And even if speed reading was effective (beyond a certain point, it’s not) the practical return on investment of me reading that many books is not greater than the things I compromise on when I choose to spend my time doing so.

. . . .

Fundamentally, there are two reasons to read.

The first is to gain knowledge. It’s to increase the total information that we have available to understand the world. Reading for practicality falls into this area, and generally, seeing the world from new angles isn’t a bad thing.

The second is to expand our circle of empathy. It’s to feel what others have felt, it’s go to places we’ve never been, and sometimes, it’s to reinforce the things we, ourselves, are feeling. Reading for leisure is often the motivation.

. . . .

The world is complex. There is no doubt about that. But at the same time, there are a few simple ideas and mental models — maybe a total of 50 or so — that show up again and again to tell us a lot. These are the fundamentals.

Rather than reading 100+ books a year that re-frame the same concepts, it makes more sense to research and pick 10 absolutely great books that start with the fundamentals and that most of the other 90 books build off of.

Link to the rest at Medium


Books in General

31 Comments to “Reading 100+ Books a Year to “Upgrade” Yourself is a Complete Waste of Time”

  1. No doubt Medium would then like to tell us which ten books are better reads than the other ninety.

    And ‘research’ won’t find you the books you’ll love, just the ones others have claimed to like. ‘You’ might like that writer that twists things just a little differently than all the others.

  2. Sounds like the same kind of “waste” as the time mothers spend on their children instead of on their careers.

  3. I dunno, I think you all are being a little hard on this guy. He’s saying ‘don’t read a billion books in hopes it will turn you into the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company, read because you really care about what you’re reading.’ I can get behind that.

  4. The second is to expand our circle of empathy.

    I just saw Guardians Of The Galaxy II to expand my circle of empathy.

  5. I read to learn or I read for fun, and that pretty much covers it. Fiction is for fun. Non-fiction is to learn. Both fiction and non-fiction can also serve to inspire (which I subset under “learn”) or to comfort (which I subset under “fun”).

    • Felix J. Torres

      You got it.
      Anybody who needs to read a book to improve their empathy is better off seeking professional help.

      Fiction or non-fiction; recreation or education.

      Sounds like the new meme from the guardians of literature. That litfic sooths of hearts of murderous beasts.

    • +1, Mirtaka.

      I read fiction for fun. I read non-fiction for fun, or to learn, or both, depending on the book.

      Creating Great Ebooks Using Jutoh was definitely for learning. (Love Jutoh, btw.)

      Freakonomics was pure fun.

      And The Elegant Universe about string theory was for both.

  6. So there are only two reasons to read and reading for pleasure isn’t one of them. Interesting.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Of course not!
      If reading for pleasure were real, genre would matter!
      And what kind of world would that be?

  7. There often is a reflexive opposition here to the suggestion that which books one reads matters. I think the writer, Zat Rana, has some good, even though not profound, points. (That doesn’t mean I agree with him entirely.)

    He says, “Simply put, reading 10 self-help or business books a month is a waste, but 10 diverse classics a year, with time for application, may change your life.” I agree.

    One point I disagree with is his idea that reading 100 books a year constitutes speed reading. I’m a slow reader, or at best an average-speed reader, yet some years I approach or reach 100 books, almost all non-fiction and many long and scholarly.

    I think it was Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921) who remarked that in his adult life he had read only 100 books, but they were the world’s greatest 100 books, and he read them over and over again. I lack the discipline to be so focused, but the cardinal was making a good point that is lost on many.

    • If he only read a hundred books, how would he know they were the greatest?

      He’d have to rely on someone else’s opinions, which isn’t knowing.

      • Yep. It’s kind of like saying, “I’ve only ever eaten top ramen, but ramen is the best food ever and I eat it all the time.”

        (I use ramen because I’m reminded of an article I read a while back about a teen girl who refused to eat anything but top ramen her whole life. Her parents let her, and she had the health of an 80-year-old.)

      • “If he only read a hundred books, how would he know they were the greatest? He’d have to rely on someone else’s opinions, which isn’t knowing.”

        Of course he “relied on someone else’s opinions.” That’s how one identifies the great books in the first place. At some point he heard that, say, “The Iliad” is one of the great books. He heard it from someone in a position of authority, perhaps a scholar of repute.

        Maybe he came across Robert Hutchins’ and Mortimer Adler’s Great Books Series (first published in 1952). He relied on their opinions in selecting the 54 volumes of that series. As he himself gained knowledge and wisdom, perhaps he would set a few of those books aside and include other books, though surely “The Iliad” would remain.

        There are good books, harmful books, useless books, and great books. The way we begin understanding which books belong in which category is to rely on others (on authorities of various sorts). It’s inefficient to rely purely on ourselves, taking books down from the shelf randomly, hoping to work up a list of the best ones. We all work this way, even those who deny doing so.

        Knowledge comes in multiple ways. It isn’t only (or even mostly) experiential. I never have held my hand in a fire. I always have relied on “someone else’s opinion” that my hand would be burned if I did so. I truly KNOW the fire would injure me: my knowledge is real knowledge, even though it differs from experiential knowledge.

        • I worked for Mortimer Adler for a few weeks as a sort of intern. Familiarity did not breed respect. However, I respect the great books approach, but as a starting point, not an end in itself.

          Ultimately, the experiential approach is the only one I accept, but I am willing to follow all sorts of suggestions, including those of Hutchins and Adler, but I make my own decisions on what is great. I prefer reading books from other times rather than those about other times. I read a lot of Victorian fiction, but I don’t care for historical fiction set in Victorian times. The choice is so vast, I look for advice, but I decide for myself.

          My current favorite book is a theological treatise from the late 13th, early 14th Century, although I am not a religious person. I would not have found it on my own.

          One of the wonderful things about being alive today is that it is so easy to find and access books from worlds that are so distant from our own. The late 13th, early 14th Century in Europe was nasty: famine, plague, war, and religious dissension. Both a crisis of belief and religious organization. Some historians think cannibalism was common. And we can read what people said and thought at the time. It amazes me.

          Read a 100 books a year. Absolutely. But what you read is at least as important as how much you read. Myself, I prefer books that take me years to read. There is a ton of advice on what to read, but you owe it to yourself to grow your own taste. You will get odd stares, but, hey, they will be stares at you, not some straw dummy.

          • Oh, what is the treatise, please? 🙂

            I also get that thrill when I think I’m reading the thoughts of someone who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. It really is a wonder.

            • I want to know also. 🙂

              • The works of Meister Eckhart. I find the Penguin collection of translations easy reading. I have some German, but his original German sermons are tough going, like reading Chaucer in Middle English. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t much Latin, so I have never tried to read his Latin works.

                Try Anthony Trollope if you want to know how Victorians thought.

    • There is a reflexive opposition to our “betters” telling us what or why to read.

      • Felix J. Torres

        Plus it’s not hard to identify where the author is coming from and how few people in the real (reading) world reside there.

        Just consider what if all the people buying tough guy action shoot-em-ups by the million were really buying them solely to learn how to kill people creatively or because they want to emphatize with the likes of Mack Bolan.

        Uh, no.
        Not a world I want to live in.
        Fortunately, I don’t.

        • Mack The Bastard Bolan! Yes. Truly great books. I had forgotten all about him.

          Just went to Amazon and bought the Kindle edition of Terrorist Dispatch (Executioner)

          • Felix J. Torres

            With a Pedigree that awes:

            “In 1969, War Against the Mafia, featuring Mack Bolan, the Executioner, was published. The phenomenal success of the first novel led to thirty-seven sequels over the next twelve years. Dozens of imitators, inspired by Don Pendleton’s success, arose during the 1970’s to constitute a new particularly American literary genre and the term Action/Adventure coined by Pendleton himself, has since spread to encompass television and motion picture formats as well. The original thirty-eight Executioner novels have had numerous printings and been translated in more than thirty languages with in-print figures of more than 200 million copies worldwide. Pendleton franchised “Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan” to Harlequin’s Gold Eagle Books in 1980, and close to 900 books based on the Executioner and spin-offs–Phoenix Force, Able Team, Stony Man, Mack Bolan, Super Bolan, have been published under their program. At present, four new Executioner novels are published each year.”


            That’s a lot of educational empathy.

            • Sounds like a bunch of writers moving from “please read my manuscript” to “and then you get paid!”

              Probably a bunch of mouth-breathing losers who write for money instead of Art. We’re not going to let them into *our* clubhouse!

              They should have learned when we froze out that Mickey Spillane dude. Sure, he sold 200 million copies and slept on a pile of money, but it had to have been a miserable life outside the pale…

              • Felix J. Torres

                Well, paperbacks were cheap in Mr Spillane’s day but still, $10M is a honking lot more than educational or empathic writers ever get to see. And the dollar went 10 times as far.

                Money may not buy happiness but it does make the pursuit a lot comfier.

            • For a lot of guys in barracks and construction camps, Mack introduced them to reading.

    • There often is a reflexive opposition here to the suggestion that which books one reads matters.

      We can’t say if it matters unless we know the reader’s purpose.

      That’s how one identifies the great books in the first place.

      That’s how one identifies books someone else thinks are great.

      There are good books, harmful books, useless books, and great books.

      That’s a function of the standard being applied.

  8. Depends on where you’re at, and what your purpose is. There are more than those two fundamental reasons to read. First, yes, to gain knowledge. But the second isn’t to expand empathy – it’s to expand your worldview using that knowledge of how other people, places, cultures, and environments act and interact.

    There is a very long and emphatic tradition of reading in the military: not only are there squadron libraries that are full of books to pass the time (Which contain everything from Plato to Mack Bolan), but there are recommended reading lists by service and by rank, of “By the time you reach this rank, you should know these things, and have contemplated how they affect your world, and the people with whom you interact.”


    • Felix J. Torres

      Not really arguing, but both of those are forms of learning.

      Learning is more than just about facts or looking up references.

      NBCNEWS.COM yesterday had a long piece about the job market for freshouts (it’s graduation season! Time to move out into the real world!) and they made a big thing about how many of them know their stuff fine but still have to learn, as they put it, adulthood. Things like showing up on time, listening, critical reading. They’re also apparently quite good at working in teams and following instructions but less so at solving problems on their own.

      So yes, as you say, learning about other places, times, and attitudes is a big part of reading. And a very important part. And in tbe process you might even learn a thing or two about empathy.

      But the distraction/pastime/entertainment value is also important. If nothing else because it makes the learning go smoother. You see it best with the better biographies and science popularizers. They’re entertaining and fun as well as educational.

      But learning isn’t limited to non-fiction.
      There’s plenty of learning of all kinds to be found in good fiction. And that is where the OP is way offbase.

    • Starship Troopers had inexplicably disappeared for a while from the list. I’m glad to see it’s back…

      One unheralded benny from having a USMCR son is that he gets free access to the Navy Digital Library.

  9. Does reading Manga books, comics, and graphic novels count?

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