This week, I’d like to borrow a turn of phrase from Marie Kondo, the renown tidying expert. Arguably, reading has far more life-changing magic about it than tidying. Here are some lessons I learned along the way when I got back into books.
I read a lot as a kid.
Barely when I got to university.
Then not one bit when I started full-time work.
It’s not evident at which point the drop-off happened, but it certainly happened as soon as I entered law school. It would be a feat if I managed to finish the “required reading” list prescribed at law school. Kind of sad really.
Reading opens a new world of ideas and perspectives we don’t often come across in our “normal” lives. When you read a lot, ideas come around quicker—and you might even start thinking differently about the world.
But there’s a catch. It takes time to reap the benefits, which might seem all too hard if you’re in it for a quick return on investment. However, everyone loves a story. If you happen to be literate (as is evident), then you’re one of the lucky ones with the ability to delve into a good book.
Lessons from Book Land
Having neglected books for a good ten or so years, I was keen to make up on lost time when my perspective on life (and work) changed in early 2017—and here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
#1. Make the time
Wow, there are so many things in life that I’d love to do by osmosis. I suspect you do too. Like learning a new language, or water skiing (last time I fell flat on my face). The reality is that if you don’t make the time, it won’t happen.
We all have 24 hours in one day. Reading is something that you have to carve out time for. Have a spare moment while traveling on the tram? Pull out a book. Waiting in a queue for dinner? Pull out a book.
My excuse for a while was, “There isn’t the time for books!” But I found that if I looked hard, there were plenty of spare minutes in the day. Spare minutes that I would otherwise waste, including aimlessly scrolling through my mobile phone.
Something to ask ourselves is this, “Do you remember what you were looking at on your mobile phone 20 minutes ago? How about two days ago?” I don’t.
But with a book, you’ll remember it.
#2. Create the habit
A close relative of #1 above.
When you create a habit, it seems like the time you need automatically appears—tada, it’s magic!
When you create a habit of pulling at your book rather than pulling at your mobile phone, I can guarantee that a whole new world of inspiration will open up for you.
#3. Keep an open mind
For anyone either starting out or getting back into books—picking a topic that interests you is important. But we should also keep an open mind to check out books that we don’t always think about as a natural choice. This is something I’m still working on, and so far it has yielded some pleasant surprises.
#4. Mix and match
Fiction and non-fiction play different roles.
Reading fiction is like going on a journey with a stranger. This person might become a friend. Or they might remain a stranger and you finish the book thinking, “What an oddball I ran into!” (*cue* Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”). Fiction can be oddly voyeuristic in this sense.
Reading non-fiction is like having a chat with a friendly stranger who might take you on a journey as a bonus. Like fiction, the range of topics is enormous—you could read about ancient Rome in Mary Beard’s “SPQR”, or contemplate the oddities of the human mind in Kahnemann’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, read someone’s life story such as Kimberley Motley’s “Lawless” or Murakami’s “What I talk about when I talk about running”, go back to ancient wisdom in Cicero’s essays compiled in “How to Win an Argument”, or wisdom from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, and the list goes on.
So, fiction or non-fiction? It’s not an either-or paradigm. They’re both important and different ways of telling stories from the lens of humanity.
#5. A book for every season
Not every book will speak to you, at this very moment in time.
One book that falls in this category for me is Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. It took a good 15 years between when I first picked it up to when I finally finished it. The funny thing is, sometimes books need you to grow up and experience life before you can understand its subtlety and meaning.
So it’s OK to say, “this book doesn’t speak to me right now” or “I can’t relate to it at this point”—but know that it might later in your life.
#6. Book flirtation is totally OK
This is not to everyone’s taste, but… here goes, a dirty secret.
I read more than one book at any one period of time (but not at the exact same time, obviously).
The reason? You might not always be in the mood to read about geopolitics in the Middle East, so it’s nice to know that you have other options floating around.
#7. Save money through the library
Want to save $$$? Reading is a cost-effective activity when you start with your local library.
Can’t find what you want? Most libraries have a book request service so you can get the latest copies of almost everything under the sun (perhaps with some exceptions).
#8. Some books are bunk
Let’s be frank. Not every book is born equal.
Some writers are terrible. Some make ludicrous assumptions or leaps in logic without evidence. Or the book is a self-promotion piece for the author’s business because “everyone writes a book these days”.
So you have the permission to throw bunk books out.
And not feel one inch of guilt.
(Added bonus = it was a library book)
Starting in 1506, Hernando Colón (1488–1539), the Spanish illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus set out on a weighty task. His aim? To create a universal library containing “all books, in all languages and on all subjects, that can be found both within Christendom and without”. On a trip to Nuremberg in Christmas of 1521, Colón bought 700 books. (In other words, he had a bit of a shopping problem.)
These days, the task is a metaphysical one. In 2010, Google Books estimated that there were around 129 million books in the world. A lot has been written since then, bunk books included. Given that we know only Google Books (subject to copyright) or AI will read all the books in the world, it’s more important than ever to value quality over quantity.
Aside from those fun facts, here are a few things that surprised me when I started dedicating more time to books:
- Reading is like meditation—it takes your mind off the world.
- Reading has a substitution effect. In my case, I’ve spent a lot less time thinking about buying useless “crapola” (as a friend calls it) or aimlessly scrolling through Instagram in my spare time when I’m not doing anything else.
- Reading gives you a ton of ideas and new mentors.
- Reading makes you a better conversationalist and storyteller.
- Reading more makes you read faster (a strange paradox).
- Reading is addictive (because of all the things above). But a great addiction and a relatively cheap one, unless your name is Hernando Colón.
Further reading (ha ha):
- Alison Flood, “How Christopher Columbus’s son built ‘the world’s first search engine'” (11 May 2018)
- The University of Cambridge Research, “The man who tried to read all the books in the world” (26 Oct 2017)
- NPR, “Google’s Tally Of World’s Book Titles: 129,864,880” (12 August 2010)