As a small human being, I made fortnightly trips to the public library with a garbage sack slung over my shoulder. Not a tote, not a grocery bag; a big ol’ garbage sack.
Short stories, novellas, comics, teen fiction, non-fiction—all of it disappeared into the sack’s insatiable maw. My siblings and I just about stripped the shelves bare. Picture five barefoot children, each triumphantly hauling their own bodyweight in books to the checkout counter.
Inside that sack, dozens of universes jostled together, each of them crying out for exploration. On family road trips, New Zealand’s stunning scenery streamed by largely unloved and unnoticed, no match for the armoured bears of Svalbard or the heaving hilarity of the Ankh-Morpork metropolis.
Every night, my and I brother stayed up reading into the small hours; hitting the lights and diving under the covers if we thought we heard mum on the prowl. Besides the razor-sharp reflexes required to throw the switch in time to avoid detection, I also learned to fake the cherubic features of someone deep in sleep (a skill that still comes in handy to this day).
As I moved into my teenage years, the love affair began to cool off. A new array of temptations—the black hole of internet bulletin boards, unlimited television, pornography—were eating away my reading time. Once I started university, things got worse still. I developed a fixation on the daily news cycle (the natural neurosis of a journalism major) while most of my actual book-reading was limited to the bland and mechanical parsing of required texts.
The love of reading for pleasure continued to slip away. I laboured my way through a misguided attempt to read ‘the classics’ to try amd seem interesting and sophisticated, but most of them left me cold.
[sees girl reading The Catcher in the Rye]
"Ah I love that book. The way he just [clenches fist] catches all that frickin rye."
— David Hughes (@david8hughes) June 1, 2014
By age 22, I’d been working as a business reporter for a couple of years, which forced me out of my bubble and exposed me to subjects I’d never thought about before. I finally got back in the habit of picking up books. I can’t pinpoint exactly how it happened—I don’t even remember what I was reading, maybe something by Michael Lewis or P.J O’Rourke—but my life started to open up in every direction.
New and exciting ideas smashed through my consciousness. Some of them ricocheted off each other or spun back into the void; others fused together in intriguing combinations or stuck in my gray matter. For a short, glorious period, I had the whole world all figured out. Of course, my newfound omniscience didn’t last long.
An Intellectual Embryo Stirs
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”
— ALEXANDER POPE
Prolonged exposure to the collective force of human intelligence gently rubbed my face in the puddle of biases, flaws and ignorance I’d been wallowing in. I came across ‘quake books‘ that tested and challenged everything I believed, and ended up doing a complete about-face on things I was righteously convinced of.
The great thing about being an intellectual embryo is that it comes with a built-in sense of awe and wonder. Merely opening a book is probably not enough to get you down on your knees. But if you read consistently and widely, the entire world slowly opens up before you. Your brain starts having freaky ideas sex, cross-referencing and synthesising bits and pieces from every corner of your literary travels. Sweet moments of serendipity crop up constantly.
It’s a virtuous circle: as your general knowledge grows, every aspect of the universe gets more interesting. The same book that previously made your eyes glaze over now keeps you up at 4am, feverishly turning pages with fingernails bitten down to the quick.
Golden Words of Antiquity
“Any man will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar, but here are golden words which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of.”
— HENRY DAVID THOREAU
Whatever question you’re pondering, whatever existential angst is eating you up inside, you’re not the first. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We might go our entire lives ignorant of the conclusions arrived at by geniuses who have dedicated their entire lives to a subject, in favour of our own idle speculation. This is weird.
We have 5000 years of wisdom to draw upon, refined and filtered through the ages. At any time we can step into the shoes of people who have endured unimaginable hardships, and solved the most difficult problems. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl explains how even a man who has nothing can find salvation in love. Marcus Aurelius, once the most powerful person on earth, reflects candidly on his weakness and foibles. Socrates takes his hemlock cheerfully, rather than betray the principles he holds dear.
We also have access to the greatest literary minds in history, who have created stories and poems of exquisite beauty. The greatest scientists have taken the time to explain the secrets of the universe to us lesser mortals, if only we would open the cover.
…or, ya know, we could stay up until 2am hitting refresh on the latest Twitter shitstorm.
Lighting the Fire Inside
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
If you put a live coal and a dead coal side by side, one of two things will happen. Either the live coal will light up the other, or the dead coal will extinguish its companion.1
Our brains are lumps of meaty plasticine, shaped to a large degree by the people we surround ourselves with. This influence extends to our reading material and even our thoughts themselves, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Toxic, ignorant and relentlessly negative influences should be excised before the cancer spreads.
Why not keep company with the smartest, funniest, bravest people who have ever lived? They will become your guides, your muses, the burning coals that light the fire inside. Sure, they can’t help you shift house, but they’re always there for you, only a bookshelf away. If you spend enough time hanging out with them, they will sculpt your brain into something beautiful.
Finding the Signal in the Noise
“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”
— HENRY DAVID THOREAU
There’s never been more information produced than right now; a frenzy of banality and bile and nonsense and distraction. In a world where everyone feels it necessary to scream their two penneth into the public sphere, it’s getting harder and harder to find the signal amongst the noise.
The most useful heuristic we have is frequency. The faster something can be published, the less value it’s likely to have. Reading the stream-of-consciousness dished out by anonymous commenters beneath an online news article will actively make you dumber. But the article itself—banged out by a reporter on deadline with no in-depth knowledge of the subject—might not be a whole lot better.
Anything based on a single piece of data or anecdote almost certainly becomes meaningless noise once you zoom out to look at the longer trend. A well-researched feature article in a weekly newspaper is an improvement, and a monthly magazine is better still, but books have far and away the strongest signal-to-noise ratio.2
The best books reflect years of research and reflection by actual experts; maybe an entire lifetime of work. Because authors operate on longer timeframes, they can look at meaningful data, rather than a handle of anecdotes or data points stripped of any context. Frequency heuristic is only a rule of thumb (a couple of blogs have changed my life, some categories of daily news are crucial) but on the whole, it’s a pretty good one.3
Page A Million of the Worst Book Ever
“I never read anything. I’ve never read all these novels that are like these beautiful stories that have continued to have a resonance with people for so many generations, like beautiful works of art that I could read at any point. But instead, I choose not to read them. And I just read the Internet. Constantly. And hear about who said a racial slur or look at a photo of what Ludacris did last weekend. You know, just useless stuff. It’s like, I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m on page a million of the worst book ever.”
— AZIZ ANSARI4
Our biology and our environment have stacked the decks against us. The best software engineers in the world use their talents not to further the human race, but to create algorithmic feeds of ‘content’ that stimulate our addiction for likes and keep us from straying from the comfort of our own little bubbles.
Meanwhile, Netflix serves up an irresistible buffet of easy entertainment, anywhere and anytime. The fact that we haven’t yet degenerated into the placid, doughy blobs from the Wall-E dystopia is kind of an achievement in and of itself.
These influences are powerful, but not impossible to overcome. In 2015, I decided to make a conscious effort to fight back, setting a goal to read 100 books over the course of the year by cutting back on all the other crap. I didn’t come close, but I read a hell of a lot more than I otherwise would have. I tried the 100 books challenge again in 2016, and got a little closer still.
I’ve got a good feeling about 2017.
(UPDATE: I finally nailed it in 2018! Here’s what I learned.)
Taking the 100 Books Challenge
I feel that setting a big, hairy audacious goal is in keeping with the spirit of my 10 year old self. My eyes were frequently bigger than my stomach back then, and not all of the books in the sack actually got read before they had to be returned.
I chose 100 because it’s a big round number, and it’s technically achievable for me. I have infinitely more leisure time than, say, a solo mum working two jobs who wants nothing more than a bit of reality TV escapism in any fleeting moment of freedom. The important thing is that the concept scales. The number is irrelevant; reading one book is better than reading zero books.
If there’s any single habit more likely to improve your life than reading books, I don’t know what it is. That’s why I don’t really care if I don’t manage to crack triple figures this year. Maybe I’ll never quite get there. That’s OK too. The only thing that matters is making that little boy with the big sack proud.
If you enjoyed this essay, come be my friend on Goodreads (the world’s least popular social network!) I’ve found it handy for both curating my reading list and measuring progress, and I’d love to see your recommendations and reviews.
- The coal metaphor also comes from Epictetus’ Discourses; one of the best books I read in 2016.
- Nassim Taleb runs the numbers in Antifragile. Assume you’re observing some trend that has a signal-to-noise ratio of 1:1 on an annual basis (50 per cent of the data are meaningful, 50 per cent are random). If you look at the same data on a daily basis, the composition changes to 95 per cent noise, 5 per cent signal. If you look at it hourly, as news hounds and market junkies do, it becomes 99.5 per cent noise, 0.5 per cent signal. Taleb: “That is two hundred times more noise than signal — which is why anyone who listens to news (except when very, very significant events take place) is one step below sucker.”
- e.g. Slate Star Codex and Mr Money Mustache are both book-quality blogs.
- This comes from a Freakonomics podcast, which is worth listening to in full. Ansari proposes an interesting thought experiment: think about your daily browsing of the web; scrolling through your Facebook feed, Instagram, Twitter, whatever. Now imagine that every morning, someone printed all of it out and give it you as a bound, hard copy so that you didn’t have to go online. Would you really read that book?