Last week we talked about habits — the importance of thinking through details upfront while forming new habits, and intentionally concluding old habits rather then letting them fizzle out. I will come back to this topic in future issues, as there is more to share. I also received questions from readers that I will address.
This week we talk about books, reading, and the idea of an “inverse bookclub”
A System for Reading, Not Finishing Books
Do you feel like you have to finish every single book you start reading? Or do you have a hard time answering questions like “so how many books did you read last year?”
We consume different types of books for different reasons. And in this essay, I’m referring to non-fiction books that we read with the desire to learn something. In order to learn about specific topics we have to cross-reference a number of resources to get to the core ideas and truths. The only way to judge a book (if not by it’s cover) is to read it. Some of it. After reading some pages, we can decide whether the content is relevant and if the author’s style suits our taste. However, just because we explore a book by reading some pages, it doesn't mean that reading all of it is the best use of our time, at a given point in our life.
Nevertheless, the idea of not finishing a book is associated with some level of guilt and anxiety for most people. While it’s true that some of the times we don't finish a book because we get distracted and forget to follow through. Barring those, most of the time there is a really good reason to not finish a book.
Okay but then how do we keep track of books that we’ve read? I came up with a system to record all of the books that I've consumed in some way, including unfinished books. This simple system involves two steps:
- First step is to observe how you’re currently reading books and decide on your “modes of reading”.
- For each book you explore, record the "mode of reading" along with a date. That’s all.
You can come up with your own modes of reading OR use the once below that I’ve been using for last two years:
My 5 modes of reading:
- Skim and Skip - read beginning/end of each chapter OR read 20% of the book from the start to give it a fair chance. If I'm not convinced that it's worth my time after that then move on. Example: Principles by Ray Dalio. The tone and context surrounding the author didn't resonate.
- Read - read cover to cover and sometimes take notes. Many books do fall into this category. Recent example: The Art of Possibility.
- Reread - read old notes, reread, take new notes. soak it all in. On Writing and On Writing Well. I want to read similar books back to back and cross reference common points to extract insights.
- To Be Continued - these are books that are either too long or too dense that I intend to finish them at some point but haven't yet. Thinking Fast and Slow and Long Walk to Freedom are an example of this.
With this system, you still may not have an easy answer to the question "so how many books do you read per year?" (but I’d argue that’s not a meaningful metric, or a useful question!). This system allows you to have a complete log of books you've explored along with a date for your own reference. With this simple system, I feel at ease about consuming books in any of the category, extracting what I like, and cross referencing different points-of-view on a topic to connect some dots and understand at a deeper level. I feel confident that I won’t loose track of which books I’ve already explored and when in my learning journey.
Next: How to keep track of books you want to explore. And also I’ll share how I acquire books - library apps, ebooks, audiobooks, etc. More thoughts on this topic in future issues of Leaf Node!
Inverse Bookclub - A Different Way to Connect With Fellow Book Lovers
All bookclubs fail. I’ve participated in a number of bookclubs over the years, both in-person with good friends, with colleagues at work, and virtually with Internet strangers/friends most recently. And this is my common observation — most traditional bookclubs fail to become a consistent lasting activity. They start with much enthusiasm and attract earnest book lovers and then…after a couple of books, few months, they fizzle out. The attendance diminishes and the enthusiasm dissipates.
Why? I’ve thought about this and here is my theory:
- Most bookclubs requires a book selection step. Repeatedly deciding on a book that will appeal to all participants. That is an impossible task. And given my thoughts above about not always finishing books, it feels unnatural to commit 8 to 10 hours of time reading a book without exploring it first.
- Most bookclubs aim to discuss the entire book. Chapter by chapter, sequentially. Again, you can guess why this can be problematic given my thesis of not finishing books and parsing to extract what you need. It would be much more interesting to discuss the most important ideas from a book, instead of the whole thing.
So what is the solution? It's an idea I call “inverse bookclub”. I’ve tried this experiment with colleagues and some friends in the past. It would work even better with a larger group of online community. Instead of doing the traditional thing of selecting a book first and discussing it chapter by chapter with others reading it at the same time. How about this? Share books that you’ve recently finished reading/exploring and find someone else across the Internet who has also just finished the same book and wants to discuss. You won’t always find a match but the probability of finding an overlap with other readers increases with more people. If you want to take part in this experiment, share which books you’ve read recently below! What Are You Reading?
Here are the books I’m currently exploring:
- Deep Work (skim)
- Age of Cryptocurrency (parse)
- Bird by Bird (read)
If you’re currently reading any of the above books as well (or have read them in the past), what is one interesting idea of takeaway you recall?
How to draw invisible programming concepts - as I’m currently working on my illustrative abilities and I have a bunch of experience with making written and verbal explanations of programming concepts, this was interesting to explore. This one is by Maggie Appleton, she’s in charge of illustrations on egghead.io
Business ideas from experienced entrepreneurs - randomly came across this podcast and enjoyed the episode with Rob fitzpatric (of “Mom Test” book). Describes a business idea in the online teaching and education space. This will be an interesting listen if you too are interested in meta-learning and pedagogy. From my experience teaching, this part resonates with me: when it comes to teaching code it’s "less about creating new content, and more about creating a learning journey through the content." This matches with what I do in my 1-on-1 mentoring sessions. Telling people what they need to consume and in which order. Telling students about the must learn basics, as well as what can be safely ignored.
How to improve writing skills (with neat illustrations) - there are 29 ideas in this list and I really enjoyed the illustrations. I only skimmed this list to be honest. That's okay because 29 would be too many ideas to implement at once. I picked out three, #2, #13, #17, to try in the coming months. What ideas can you apply to your writing?
- #2 Read the writings of other writers
- #13 Use vivid language to make abstract ideas concrete so readers grasp and remember your message.
- #17 Avoid weak words and cliches; spice up writing with power words and sensory phrases
Nouns and verbs writing game - the idea is to list some nouns using the objects you see around you and also list verbs having to do with a specific activity or occupation. Then match verbs and nouns that don't normally go together. I did this with cooking verbs and items in my living room. The result were weird with phrases like "chop the Legos" and "spread the Rug". This one is from Austin Kleon (of “Steal Like an Artist” book)
Making writing preparations - I enjoyed this analogy of preparing for writing as you prepare a kitchen for cooking. A place for everything and everything in it's place.
That’s all for this one! I hope you feel free to explore many books without feeling obligated to finish every book you open.
Until next time,