Mar 10, 2015

Reading for quantity

For a long time, I have kept a record of the books I have read. For many years, each book read was recorded in a small spiral-bound notebook. At the end of each year, I would count up the number of books I read during that year, write the total at the bottom of the page, and begin the new year on a fresh sheet.

Lately, I have been book-tracking in excel. The system remains the same: log each book in an excel sheet; at the end of the year tally up the total and move to a new sheet. I have added the step of reporting out my reading here, with short blurbs about each book.

There are a couple of reasons for tracking my reading:

  1. Having a log I can reference when trying to remember what I read and when I read it.
  2. Knowing how much I am reading, and thinking about whether I want to increase or maintain my rate (decreasing the rate never appeals to me, for some reason).
  3. Comparing my reading rate to others.

Reason 1 is bland and innocuous. Reason 2 seems useful. Reason 3 is thoroughly negative.

I read a lot, more than most people do, I think. This shouldn't matter very much, but I find myself thinking about it sometimes. Some part of me cares about how much I read, and uses this as a proxy of "how knowledgeable I am" or "how seriously I'm pursuing the life of the mind." Success by these measures is entirely relative – it matters not that I read X books a year, but that I read at least as many books as X person.

This way of thinking is toxic, and the metric I'm using is inane. "Books read" is a poor proxy for "quantity read", "quantity read" is a poor proxy for "information retained", "information retained" is a poor proxy for "insight gained", "insight gained" does not necessarily play the leading role in the life of the mind, and the life of the mind is quite possibly not the good life.

If I wanted to continue keeping track of this, I could make improvements – I could count pages read instead of books; I could count all the reading I've done, not just books finished; I could consider more carefully what I get out of each book I read, and strive each year to "get more out of things read" rather than to simply finish more books.

But I really don't like keeping track of this sort of thing. It is an ego-stoking waste of effort. When I see a passage like this, or read that Kay Redfield Jamison used to read three or four books a week before she began taking Lithium to treat her manic-depression, I launch into comparisons –
Four books a week isn't so much, right? Oh wait, that's 208 books a year. How many books did I read last year? Around 30 ...

When I come across things like this, I spend a non-trivial amount of time comparing myself to these "competitors" in a harsh, cutting way. I'm not good enough. I'm not reading fast enough. I'm not even reading the right things. This is a silly line of thinking (never mind that I am drawing competitive comparisons between myself and somebody with manic-depressive illness). The silliness is brought out when I consider that, even if I was reading at precisely the rate and volume of my competitors, I would still be making all of these arguments to myself, just applying them to another set of rivals.

I'm going to continue logging the books I read, for reasons 1 and 2 (and for reason 4: solemn respect for long-held personal traditions), but I'm not going to worry so much about how I am stacking up to others. And when I do worry about how well I'm doing relative to other people I respect, I'm going to say "Hey, remember when you wrote about how this doesn't matter very much at all?". Then maybe I'll skim over this post, and feel a little better about doing something I promised I wouldn't.

[rereads: 3, edits: some passage changes as I finished out the thing; added the parenthetical about manic-depression, changed one of the speedreading links to the relevant wikipedia page]