About 15 years ago we hosted Steven K. Roberts when he passed through Chicago with his Behemoth, a computer and communications-laden recumbent bicycle. Steven is a life-long high-tech nomad, though on this trip he was soft pedaling Behemoth—transporting it cross country via truck, that is.
An image invoked by Steven during dinner at the Akai Hana restaurant in Wilmette, Illinois has stuck with me all of these years. We were talking about the bottlenecks to acquiring knowledge. Steven said “I wish there was a vacuum cleaner attachment for my brain so I can just suck in the information.”
And that brings me to the topic of this post: my reading philosophy. I don’t mean reading philosophers (though I’ve done my share of that), I mean my philosophy about reading. We already have a vacuum cleaner attachment for our brains—two of them, in fact—but it takes some thought and practice to get the most out of them.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned as a life-long, voracious reader:
Read the great books ASAP – Get your hands on Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World and read the entire set. Seriously. You can often find used sets for a fraction of the price of a new set at used book sales. (Don’t worry, the greatest books ever written haven’t changed much over the last 50 years.)
What can you expect to get out of reading the Great Books? You will acquire a wonderful foundation of knowledge. You will exercise your brain. And you will develop the discipline to be a Great Reader.
I recommend ignoring Britannica’s “reading plan” and attacking the set in chronological order. I don’t think it’s necessary to work through all of the geometry and mathematics, however. If you read every day, you should complete the set in less than five years. (I did it in 4.33 years.)
TakeEvelyn Wood Reading Dynamics – I took the class about 20 years ago and it was well worth the fee. Most people can read faster and comprehend more just by learning good reading habits. Don’t “speak” the words in your mind and keep your eyes moving. A capable instructor can show you how to get more out of reading.
Work on more than one book at a time – I discovered that when I am reading and start to feel tired I can switch books and catch a second wind. These days I tend to work on 2-4 books at the same time. This approach works best with books in different genres or at least on different topics, however.
Read a variety of books – The quest for knowledge should be as broad as it is deep. I mainly read non-fiction, but it’s important to read an occasional novel. The more I read the more connections I see between what I’m currently reading and things I learned in the past. In the quest for knowledge, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Be an empathetic reader, but limit your patience – I give every author a fair chance to convince me—even if the thesis of a book seems to contradict what I believe. However, my time is valuable and I won’t finish a book just because I started it. If I think a book is weak, I might switch to fast-scan mode, harvesting what little value I can find. I rarely pick books that turn out to be totally worthless, but it happens once in a while, and the sooner I stop reading them the less time will be wasted.
Start reading at 4:00 am daily – OK, it’s not for everyone. I only need 5-6 hours of sleep per night. I get the most reading done (about 2.5 hours on average) by starting before other family members get up. Life is too short to get to every book I want to read, but by starting early each day I can read 100 books per year.