How many books did you read last year?

How many books did you read last year? How many do you plan to read this year?

Reading books is in decline.

Taylor Pearson1 writes that “in a 1978 survey [US], 42% of adults had read 11 books or more in the past year, and 13% they had read more than 50. In a 2014 study, Pew found that just 28% hit the 11 book mark and only 1% had read more than 50%.2

In our interconnected reality books have to compete for time against Facebook, instant messaging, mail, or whatever the app of the moment may be. As Seth Godin says, if we have to choose between reading a book and checking e-mail, e-mail wins. The chime of a text message coming in is so irresistible that for many texting while driving is a serious problem.

Our use of the Internet and social media trains us for short bursts of attention and jumping between tasks, not for deep reading or activities that require long spans of attention. Even if we find time for reading a book, we may have a hard time reading it effectively –which is essential for learning– because it has become difficult for us to focus in one thing for even half an hour.

Are books the only way of learning?

Reading books is of course not the only way to learn things.

For example, the offer of open or paid online courses today is better than ever, with plenty of alternatives from serious institutions and companies. Some universities like MIT have published almost all of their course content online for free. But online courses have their own problems. For example, according to a 2014 study3, only an average 6.5% of enrolled students complete open online course, and the rates are negatively correlated with course length.

TED is another great way of learning. TED offers interesting talks, and maintains its quality thanks to the events organizers and the TED community. But I think part of its success is because the talks are around 15 minutes long. Watching a 15 minute video of a talk by an interesting speaker –many times a reference in her field–, with good text transcriptions, is something most of us can do.

Shane Parrish makes a distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding4.

A good heuristic: anything easily digested is reading for information. Consider the newspaper, are you truly learning anything new? Do you consider the writer your superior when it comes to knowledge in the subject? Odds are probably not. That means you’re reading for information.

There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how most people read. But you’re not really learning anything new. It’s not going to give you an edge or make you better at your job.

Learning something insightful is harder, you have to read something clearly above your current level.

Listening to a 15 minutes video may give you some insights and ignite the spark of curiosity needed to learn further about a specific topic. But if you need a deep and thorough understanding of the matter, books are still one of the best choices.

Why read

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider." – Francis Bacon, The Essays.

The benefits of reading books are widely known. Reading broadens our understanding of the world, improves focus and concentration. It enhances our imagination. Reading books allows us to have a conversation with men and women of the present and past, learn from them, and let them affect our lives.

“People who do little or no serious reading (that is, reading for other than practical purposes or shallow amusement) don’t comprehend others, or their culture, or the complexities of reality, as well as those who do such reading."5

The habit of reading correlates with better reading skills and higher academic achievement6. “Learning constantly is one of the best ways to get results in life. And reading –reading effectively, and reading a lot– is one of the best ways to learn7”.

According to his father, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates was an avid reader since an early age8:

Just about every kind of book interested him -–encyclopedias, science fiction, you name it. I was thrilled that my child was such an avid reader, but he read so much that Bill’s mother and I had to institute a rule: no books at the dinner table.

As you can see from his book recommendations page on his personal blog, despite his multiple responsibilities, Bill hasn’t stop reading.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose challenge for 2015 was to read a new book every other week –with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies– states that books allow us to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.

Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways. (…) The data (…) demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities.

Amazon’s best selling business author Taylor Pearson, who reads around 60 books a year, writes:

For all the tricks I’ve developed to, the real reason I think I read so much is that I see it as a career competitive advantage. If I have to cut something out of my schedule, reading books is one of the last things to go. (…)

As less and less people read books, it’s getting even more valuable. As more people are focused on USA Today [newspaper] articles on their phones, the more profound the benefits from older books.

Reading is also an expression of who we are. Harold Bloom’s answer to the question of why should we read is that “only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self.” Read not to change the world or to be a better person but simply to know, to become, yourself9. We read (…) in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests10.

All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. – Nick Hornby, Ten Years in the Tub

A closing quote from Bloom, Why read:

We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life… We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure. I am not exactly an erotics-of-reading purveyor, and a pleasurable difficulty seems to me a plausible definition of the Sublime, but a higher pleasure remains the reader’s quest… I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.

How many do you plan to read this year? Set yourself a goal, it’s worth the effort.

  1. cfr 8 Ways to Read 60 Books A Year

  2. If you were wondering about reading habits in Peru (where I live), according to a survey by Ipsos, only 19% of adults in Lima read a book the previous year, compared to 24% in 2010 and 25% in 2009. Note that there is no mention for adults reading more than one book a year, so the data wasn’t worth mentioning. According to another survey by Arellano (2014), 26% of peruvians have never read a book. 

  3. cfr Jodan, Katy. Initial Trends in Enrolment and Completion of Massive Open Online Courses

  4. cfr Farnam Street, How to read a book

  5. cfr John Hallwas, Reading decline

  6. To Read or Not To Read, National Endowment for the Arts, 2007. 

  7. cfr The Best Way to Get Smarter? Learn to Read the Right Way.

  8. cfr How to Raise a Billionaire: An Interview with Bill Gates’ Father in Forbes, Jan 2016. 

  9. cfr Michael Gorrat’s review of Bloom’s How to Read and Why

  10. cfr Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why

deep-understanding learning reading

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