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How to Make Books Work

#ABR: Always Be Reading. (But here's how to read wisely.)

As a child, books provided a look into other worlds: the world of muggles and wizards, high-tech societies, and post-apocalyptic terrors. But books can be more than an escape to other worlds. They are reminders of lessons learned, nudges in new directions, and sometimes, completely new perspectives. Reading books keeps our minds from calcification, from hardening in place. Books — those scribbles on paper or pixels on screens that form words that form sentences — can help us to review and rethink our foundations.

As my reading habits have evolved, so has my relationship with books. The sections below cover Strategies, Memory, and Quakes.

Books offer a lot of possibilities, so I've developed some strategies for reading them.

A few books have inspired my own earth-shattering shift of views. These are my "Quake Books."

My hope is these strategies and books can guide you to read more meaningfully and develop your own principles.

Reading Strategies

Books are like patient mentors. They offer advice at seemingly the perfect time without judgment. Through the years, I've created a few key principles for how I read books. They have evolved over time to become powerful guides. These principles will change how you read. They will help to squeeze the most you can from each book and give you a sense of freedom to enjoy reading because you know your time is being used wisely.

I hope some of these approaches help you get a book’s full benefit, stop feeling guilty about being a slow reader, and enjoy the process more.

  1. Starting a book doesn't mean you have to finish it. You have a finite amount of books to read in your lifetime. Suffering through one to fulfill some internal sense of accomplishment won't help anybody. If you're reading a book for a purpose, and you've accomplished that purpose halfway through, stop reading the book.

  2. Have a why. What do you want out of this specific book? Is it a behavior change? Learning a skill or understanding how someone thinks? Remind yourself why you believe something? If entertainment is the goal, then treasure each page. Reading without a purpose is worse than not reading; understand the purpose beforehand, and allow the book to do its job.

  3. Use your brain and your eyes. This is about active reading. This means writing notes, asking questions, and connecting dots. To get something out of the book, whether it's a change of mindset or change of behavior, requires more than passive reading — combing over words with your eyeballs. I always read with a pen or pencil; for digital books, I use highlights and notes to link ideas. It keeps my mind from wandering as I swipe through pages on my iPad.

  4. Know the source I've gotten burned a couple times buying books online that could (should) have been a short blog post or were clearly a scheme. Read the inside cover, do a google search. Learn something about the author, because anyone can publish a book. However, it's the bad books that make me a better writer and makes me appreciate the good ones.

Books and Memory

Remember book reports? I shudder at the thought of speed-reading during the last days of summer. I wasn't as concerned with understanding the fundamentals of the books I was reading.

I still struggle and become embarrassed at how little I can convey about a book I truly loved! It hits me that I didn't really understand the central idea at a deep level, and absorbed very little.

Andy Matuschak writes about this problem that I and most readers encounter:

"When someone asks a basic probing question ... I'll realize that I had barely noticed how little I'd absorbed until that very moment." We assume that "people absorb knowledge by reading sentences," but are unable to communicate after reading a lot of sentences.

I want to remember books and to be challenged by them. Last August, in the midst of the pandemic, I started a book club that was initially designed to provide a forum to discuss the altMBA books together. We have continued to meet and discuss books each month. Many of these I've listed and ranked. This group helps me distill what a book is about and reflect on my takeaways. Discussing the ideas has made me a better reader and communicator. James Clear writes in his 3-2-1 Newsletter:

"Books are more likely to change minds than conversations.

There is too much happening internally during conversation:

Did that sound stupid? What do they think of me? Will I lose the friendship over this opinion?

Books can let you chew on an idea without social risk."

And book clubs can unlock powerful truths for us when we let them. So what books make the juice worth the squeeze?

View Quake

Most Book Club selections have been great. Memorable. They hold a few moments that elicit a "cool!" or an "aha!" But every now and then, a book rewires my brain. It causes a "view quake," a term coined by economist Tyler Cowen, pushing your mind into new territory, shifting your views to their core.

The Quake Books aren't the 'best books' necessarily, as the impact depends largely on timing and circumstance; these are the books that make a difference on your life or that cause an epiphany. I've read plenty of books labeled "Incredible!" or "Must-Reads" that under-deliver. But the right circumstances, author, and ideas can shake a person to the core.

A couple of my own quake books are below. These books have had an outsized impact on me, sometimes when I didn't expect them to. I will always have them on my bookshelf.

My Quake Books

These are the four books and authors that have had the biggest and most prolonged impact on my journey through life.

My grandfather gifted me this book for my birthday in middle school. The book follows Jason Stevens as he follows steps directed by his grandfather's will to learn twelve lessons. Life, Stevens determines, is about values, lessons, and people. The gifts include the gift of friendship, work, giving, and laughter, among others. On the Gift of Problems, Stovall writes, "When we can learn from our own problems, we begin to deal with life. When we can learn from other people’s problems, we begin to master life.”

I've read this book perhaps a dozen or more times. It's made me appreciate both a hard day's work and welcoming learning a lesson that could be easy to avoid. I continue to read it as a reminder of the sorts of gifts I want to seek out. It's a reminder of how to live life to the fullest.

Jesse Itzler's book is the story of his month spent with one of the toughest Navy SEALs on the planet. Jesse is bold, risky, and gritty. Something I admire. The one rule of the SEAL: Jesse couldn't say no. That meant running into frozen lakes. Pushups in the middle of the night.

The willingness to try the experiment, create challenging conditions for yourself, and the mentality to get through tough times left an impression on me.

It taught me two crucial lessons:

  1. Learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

  2. You can do anything for a short time.

The body is forgiving, and while 30 days feels long, it's not. My first read, I wrote and did a lot of the workouts. I still read my highlights regularly.

David Foster Wallace gave one speech about Life in his time with us. With wit and cynicism, he describes the internal monologues of our lives, and opens our minds to the possibility that we aren't at the center of the universe. "School", he says, "teaches us how to choose how to construct meaning from experience." In higher education, we learn how to think and to pay attention so we can avoid unconsciously moving through our repetitive adult lives.

Taking the time to regularly read or listen to this speech helps me to reground myself. The morning commute or errands of adult life can become monotonous. It's easy to move through a grocery store thinking everything and everyone is in our way. It's much harder to move through a grocery store with empathy and a smile on our face. David Foster Wallace demonstrates how we can actively participate in our adulthood, something I try to do each day by journaling and constantly learning.

Humans get things wrong. And we are stubborn. Adam Grant shows us the power of unlearning, relearning, and curiosity as individuals and groups. New mastermind communities and passions from the pandemic have rewired how I think about my skills and how I contribute. I felt Grant speaking to me when he wrote, "Rethinking depends on a challenge network: a group of people of people we trust to point out our blind spots and help us overcome our weaknesses. They help activate rethinking cycles."

Grant's message of rethinking options and career cycles spoke to my current season of life. As I grow, I will keep this book close at hand to be reminded how to persuade, open minds, and rethink my own beliefs to avoid calcification of the mind.

(The above books are my first experimentation with affiliate links.)

Thank You, Books

These strategy principles, memory tools, and quake reads have taught me valuable lessons on how to have a productive, working relationship with books. Used effectively, they offer so much. Here's to all of us finding new books, enjoying the process of reading them, and getting their full benefits. What rules do you follow when you read books? How do you remember the lessons from your favorite books? And what are your quake books?


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