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When Should You Read? And How Much?

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IMAG2173 If you’ve read SGM for a while you’ll know I place a high importance on reading (books).

Reading is important because for most people it’s their main way of gathering information. And people’s inputs for information invariably affect the thoughts they’ll have. That’s why you shouldn’t read magazines or watch the mainstream media. You should read books.

But, when should you read, and how much?

These are questions I have put much thought into over the past 1.5 years.

However, I have resolved them by using the strategies in this article. I have not changed my approach since I first started doing these things, and I feel confident that they work.

—————————

Arthur Schopenhauer is the one who has contributed the largest share of inspiration to my current take on these questions. His main argument for why you shouldn’t read too much is that it handicaps your capacity for original thinking.

Much of his advice is sound, but bear in mind that times are now different from when he lived ca 1800, especially in regards to how we take in information, and the sheer volume of it that’s out there now.

Enter Arthur:

If a man’s thoughts are to have truth and life in them, they must, after all, be his own fundamental thoughts; for these are the only ones that he can fully and wholly understand. To read another’s thoughts is like taking the leavings of a meal to which we have not been invited, or putting on the clothes which some unknown visitor has laid aside.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

He goes on to say,

Reading is nothing more than a substitute for thought of one’s own. . . A man should read only when his own thoughts stagnate at their source, which will happen often enough even with the best of minds. On the other hand, to take up a book for the purpose of scaring away one’s own original thoughts is sin against the Holy Spirit. It is like running away from Nature to look at a museum of dried plants or gaze at a landscape in copperplate.

Here’s one of the key things that has changed: people today don’t read books for the purpose of “of scaring away one’s own original thoughts” . We have the Internet, porn, video games, candy, or other — much more efficient distractions — for that purpose.

A man can always sit down and read, but not—think. It is with thoughts as with men; they cannot always be summoned at pleasure; we must wait for them to come. Thought about a subject must appear of itself, by a happy and harmonious combination of external stimulus with mental temper and attention; and it is just that which never seems to come to these people.

When he says “these people”, he is referring to people who are well-read and know a ton of concepts, but don’t know anything about their application or what they mean, they only know that someone else has said it. Certain academics are a lot like this.

And finally,

A man must wait for the right moment. Not even the greatest mind is capable of thinking for itself at all times. Hence a great mind does well to spend its leisure in reading, which, as I have said, is a substitute for thought; it brings stuff to the mind by letting another person do the thinking; although that is always done in a manner not our own. Therefore, a man should not read too much, in order that his mind may not become accustomed to the substitute and thereby forget the reality; that it may not form the habit of walking in well-worn paths; nor by following an alien course of thought grow a stranger to its own

My arguments:

Fundamentally, I agree with what Schopenhauer is saying. But it comes down to purpose: sometimes your own thinking will only get you so far. And if you read intelligent people’s thoughts, it’ll save you a lot of time, compared to reinventing the wheel from scratch.

In other words, it’s not black or white. It’s a matter of judgment — after all, why do you read? What is the end goal?

when should you read?

I usually read for specific learning purposes. I also frequently read to write, meaning that I read to find an interesting topic to think about. If I read thought-provoking content in a book, I’ll put the book down (or minimize the Internet tab) and start to write a mini-essay on the topic. Then, once I’ve exhausted my train of thought, I’ll get back to reading.

I’d like to think that Schopenhauer would nod in approval to this.

[Note: The mini-essays accumulate and sometimes become the articles I put up on the site.]

Books as Mental Crutches

So, is Arthur Schopenhauer right? Can reading books be harmful?

To be fair, I think that it’s rare in this day and age. Sure, information overload is extremely common, in fact, it’s the norm.

But from reading books? I don’t think so.

I think the main reason why many people suffer from information overload is because they read with such shallowness and move on to new information too quickly. And that’s a lot easier to do on the Internet than it is from reading a book.

I have previously said that most people don’t find it particularly entertaining to read lengthy books.

It is so.

Since most people aren’t in the habit of doing it, they don’t like the effort required to focus. Instead they want the information to be fed to them effortlessly.

They want it to be skimmable, not very challenging, quick and witty, and after having read it they want to be left with a feeling of superiority relative to the suckers they read about. So they tune into the mainstream media, read at big forums, or hang out at Reddit where they can get a seemingly large benefit from a small investment of energy.

Having said that, I don’t think reading is harmful when you do it the right way, or when you use it to jumpstart your own thinking — which is what Arthur prescribes.

Reading the right way has a lot to do with. . .

How Much Information You Retain

You know you’re reading too much — or too quickly — if you don’t retain much of the information later. Like the boring and practically useless information you were forced to learn in school just to pass an exam in a subject that no one even knew why it was mandatory.

You can fix this by improving your framework for learning things:

  • Take notes and summarize the key points of things you read online.

IMAG2172

  • Take physical notes with a multicolored pencil to make it faster to go through later by being able to distinguish between different types of information. Plus you feel like a badass when you create your own system.
  • Talk about the things you have learned ASAP while this information is still fresh in mind. Bring these things up in conversation to get extra repetitions, and memorize it better.

[Note: I do this all the time to strangers and girls when I go out socializing. People like to learn new things, and if you do it the right way you’ll come off as smart. Try it out.]

  • Have specific questions in mind when you read, this helps your brain look for patterns.
  • While you’re reading, be sure to write down associations that interesting paragraphs or quotes from the text make you think about. Associations strengthen memory and help you connect dots. Here’s an example:

The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

–Hermann Goering

Association: This seems familiar. Isn’t this like what happened in the U.S with 9/11?

The key words being: “This is like… XYZ” .

Over time, as you read a lot of books and write down associations, you’ll be able to see patterns that most other people don’t see.

Learn Now or. . . Never?

One of the most important points I made in Breaking out of Homeostasis was:

Learn things and form your view of the world while your potential to do so is still at its peak. Which, according to different studies seems to be somewhere between ages 30-40 years old. After that point in time your prefrontal cortex (PFC) — which is imperative to learning — is no longer as neuroplastic.

That doesn’t mean you stop learning, but your rate of learning isn’t as fast as before. The information you’ve already retained is going to be extra important after that point, because the amount of associations you already have will determine — to a large part — how easily you take on new information.

The typical person doesn’t read books, watches TV a couple of hours each day, where he sees about an hours worth of commercials. Such a person is unlikely to have a rich bank of associations stored in his brain. When he gets old, he will not have an easy time learning things. He is not very adaptable. He is heavily reliant on his current profession and limited store of knowledge, for lack of learning new things.

Good luck teaching that old dog a new trick. Good luck getting him to change his world view, even when he is confronted with compelling evidence.

It’s not gonna happen.

So, you better get it right the first time around, and learn the important things while you still can and feel compelled to.

—–

To be fair, I might be reading too much. It’s hard to say with certainty right now. I will know eventually if I’m reading too much. The results will speak for themselves in time.

Check back up on me in 5-20 years, and I’ll have a satisfying answer.

All in all, does this mean that you should read all day long?

Probably not.

But if you’re anything like most people, you’re not reading enough. In my opinion, you should read (quality books) at least an hour per day.

If you read less than an hour per day. Read more.

If you do read a lot:

Why do you do it?

–What ways do you use to stimulate your own thinking, and not just mindlessly absorb the information?

–How do you practically apply the information you learn?

Photo Credit: Flickr

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Comments

  1. Hi Ludvig

    ” If you do it the right way you’ll come off as smart”

    Reading this made me ‘think’:

    What is the right way? And how could you do it the wrong way? What would happen if you did it the wrong way?

    :)

    • Hey Jen!

      I can’t specifically say how the “right way” of doing it is. But the wrong way is when people think you’re just being a know-it-all who is bragging. And the effects of that would be that they think that you’re an ass.

  2. Hmm…why do I read?

    I read because that’s one thing that’s as addictive as video games but brings far more benefit than other addiction-inducing items combined.

    Although, I can’t say how I stimulate my own thinking because I think I’m predisposed to think a lot but generally it boils down to what book you read. If the book is not intellectually stimulating, cliche(like most romantic novels or self-help books), and trending, then it would probably wouldn’t give you seeds of thoughts.

    In terms of applying, I guess we need to be more of a creator after we read – write about it, talk to your friends, record your thoughts, etc just like what you preached in your blog.

    Anyway, the way I read is still not critical enough so I need to work on that because it definitely helps to shape the way you see the world and ensure that the reality we see is the reality and not some sort of hocus-pocus writers subtly plant inside their readers’ mind.

    • Hey Wan,

      Thanks for the detailed comment.

      “I read because that’s one thing that’s as addictive as video games but brings far more benefit than other addiction-inducing items combined.”

      — Indeed… That’s how I started.

      “it definitely helps to shape the way you see the world and ensure that the reality we see is the reality and not some sort of hocus-pocus writers subtly plant inside their readers’ mind”

      –Yeah. I was reading the book you see in the featured image (Plato — The State). It’s a book that necessitates serious note taking, because otherwise it’s very easy to just be swept away by the arguments without thinking critically. But because I did that, I was able to see through a number of flaws in the logic today. But it didn’t help that some annoying child kept screaming in the background of the train.

  3. Alexander Skafte says:

    Ludvig, great post. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’ve just got one question:

    What have you found are the pros and cons of taking notes on the computer (in a program like Microsoft OneNote) versus taking notes by hand? What I’ve found is that taking notes on the computer is more efficient and I can get through books faster, while taking notes by hand takes a lot more time and kind of slows the reading down. On the other hand, taking notes by hand enables me to draw and get a graphical/visual structure to your notes.

    P.S. We use the same multicolored pencil! That one’s awesome, the only thing missing is erasable ink…

    P.P.S. One link does not work. There is an excessive “greater than” tag at the end of the link. (“large benefit from a small investment of energy.”)

    • Hey Alexander!

      Notes:
      — I agree with you. It goes faster on computer. But I would wager that it also does less for the memory retention. Also, I think physical writing helps you think better. There’s some science indicating that when we write, it helps us activate more neurons in the brain than when we don’t write at all. I am not sure if the same kind of studies have been done on keyboard writing, but I expect handwriting to be more powerful.

      They both have their advantages and disadvantages. I prefer writing on my computer because I think way more quickly than I can talk or write.

      Thanks for the heads-up on the link. Fixed.

      • Alexander Skafte says:

        I guess the best thing would be to choose the one most appropriate at the moment or depending on what type of book you’re reading. I don’t know which types of books should belong to which type of writing, though…

      • Yeah. At least in theory.

        In practice, it sounds like a lot of micromanaging. I think ultimately it comes down to in which medium you have the book. I am fine with either medium: physical or on my computer screen. If I can get a book for free on my computer, I usually will. If I can’t, I won’t hesitate to buy it.

  4. I’m definitely not reading enough. I have close to a full shelf of untouched books and it’s driving me crazy.

    I think I actually retain a lot of the info from books when I do actually read them. Partly because I read very slowly as compared to many people, and also because I tend to ponder on concepts for quite a bit before moving on to new chapters. I can’t help it man.

    I’ll definitely be writing notes as well when I read my next book. Feels really good and there’s that sense of pride when you collate a bunch of notes where you can see everything you learnt visually.

    P.S. I like that new contact feature on the left. Really cool.

    • Hey Jeremy!

      “I tend to ponder on concepts for quite a bit before moving on to new chapters”

      –That’s a good thing. Especially when it comes to self-development books. :P

      “Feels really good and there’s that sense of pride when you collate a bunch of notes where you can see everything you learnt visually.”

      –For sure.

      “P.S. I like that new contact feature on the left. Really cool.”

      — Cool. I’m hoping it’ll increase readership feedback and get people to ask for certain content they’d like to see.

    • Hi Jeremy,

      What you said here…
      “I’m definitely not reading enough. I have close to a full shelf of untouched books and it’s driving me crazy.

      I think I actually retain a lot of the info from books when I do actually read them. Partly because I read very slowly as compared to many people, and also because I tend to ponder on concepts for quite a bit before moving on to new chapters. I can’t help it man.”

      This is exactly like me. I like to retain the info too and apply it where possible. These things can’t be rushed? Especially books designed to prompt your thoughts.

      Every time I decide to get back into reading I buy a new, interesting book that I don’t finish, hence the reason why I have shelves of unread books too.

      This year is different. I’m reading the books I have first – no new ones. They are all useful and great books but my concentration needs work.

      Your comment made me realize it’s not just me, so thanks.

      Naomi

      • Naomi,

        “These things can’t be rushed? ”

        — They most definitely CAN. But I’m not at all sure it’s a smart thing. I also hate “stressing” when it comes to reading. That’s probably another reason why I disliked most litterature while studying at university.

        “but my concentration needs work.”

        — Ca 3 years ago when I first began reading — I mean seriously reading — I couldn’t focus for more than 15-30 minutes. But my goal was to increase my “focus time” for 5 minuter per day, up to the point where I could sit for 3-4 hours reading. Definitely practiceable.

  5. Schopenhauer was dead wrong. Only a child passively assimilates the content of a book. An adult analyzes the content, compares it with everything else he has learned, understands, judges, and integrates. His ideas are not constrained to imitate those of other writers, but are influenced by knowledge from thousands of sources, including personal experience, interacting with his mind to construct an acceptable interpretation and, perhaps, to discover something new.

    Did Schopenhauer think the best source for new ideas was uninformed self-contemplation? Anyway, there is a logical inconsistency in his claims about reading, since he clearly expected others to read his own writings and to take ideas from them.

    • Abgrund,

      “Anyway, there is a logical inconsistency in his claims about reading, since he clearly expected others to read his own writings and to take ideas from them”

      — That’s true. I believe he himself said something about it in one of his books. It doesn’t excuse it though.

      By the way, around how many books have you read? If you could make an estimate. You seem to have read widely.

      • Abgrund says:

        It would be difficult for me to guess how many books I’ve read, partly because I’ve read /from/ a great many textbooks that I never actually read cover-to-cover. I’ve also read a fair amount of stuff online (like Wikipedia) that isn’t exactly in book form. But if I were to put a “book equivalent” number on everything I’ve read (including fiction), it would probably be on the order of five thousand.

  6. Hi Ludvig,

    I guess of argument of ‘can an old dog learn new tricks’ has finally been settled!

    When I first read the title of your post I thought it was going to be boring and you giving his your opinion on how often we should be reading. But I admit I was wrong (which is rare!).

    Explaining how to get the most out of what you read is highly useful because most of us don’t read enough anyway. Providing me with more benefit is encouraging for me.

    I’ve always admired the amount you read and this year I will increase the amount I read too. Reading is so unrated when you consider the benefits.

    And I agree about the TV. The quality of TV is at it’s lowest. Is it just me or does it seem that camera crews just follow people around, in different situations and add fuel to the fire to make it appear interesting?

    And I like that you added images of your own work. Great personal touch.

    Naomi

    • It’s just you. The TV I watch consists entirely of deep, insightful analysis of the world’s great thinkers and ideas.
      .
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      April Motherfucking Fools. I haven’t watched any fucking TV in 18 years because it sucked. If it’s gotten even worse, why in Hell are you watching it?

      • Hi Abgrund,

        Genuinely, worst ever April fools! And it’s late too.

        As this particular post pointed to mainstream mass media television only, I assumed you would of known what I meant.

        But as you didn’t… I was making reference to mass media television only.

        But thanks for the ‘April fools’, It’s certainly is one i’ll remember!

        Naomi

      • Abgrund says:

        It was still well before midnight in my time zone when I posted that. But anyway, it’s the thought (or whatever) that counts.

        What TV is there that /isn’t/ mass media?

    • Thanks, Naomi.

      I think that’s a good decision. You’ll thank yourself within a few years, even if it’s boring at first. I really recommend creating your own systems (frameworks for learning things) and investing heavily into the process, because it makes reading and writing and learning a lot more fun. It becomes your own thing.

      “I guess of argument of ‘can an old dog learn new tricks’ has finally been settled!”

      — Let’s hope so. I’m very curious to see how the masses of my (our?) generation will behave in 30 years from now.

  7. Derek McCullough says:

    I read because it opens my thoughts. When I feel like I’m getting stuck in a consumption mindset and just chugging information without spinning it my way, then I slow down.

    I “pump the brakes” if you want to say, haha.

    I get caught up sometimes in consuming anything and everything around me. Lately, it’s all been useful information, but it’ll get lost if I just keep chugging.

    I ‘black out’ on too much reading, ha.

    • Sounds like my rationale, Derek!

      I can really identify that. That’s why I think it’s essential to be massively disciplined in what kind of information you plug yourself into. Especially if you’re someone who’s naturally immersed in things. I’m so glad I quit video games, heh.

  8. Dan Erickson says:

    I think the Internet and blogging is ruining us as readers. Take for instance the fact that I just scanned your article so that I could make a comment and get to another blog. Since I started writing and blogging regularly a few years ago, my reading has gone down by at least 60 percent. There have been years that I’ve read a minimum of 30 books. The last few years I’m lucky to read 10. But I still read books with deep intensity and thought, and sometimes to learn something specific. Sometimes I read fiction just to escape. I think there are different ways to read as there are different kinds of writing.

  9. I definitely read a lot, finding it both an escape from reality, a source of enlightenment, and a way to relate to other people — since my interests vary widely, reading helps me think of something interesting to say in most conversations. I have a small daughter and a son on the way, so reading has been very much on my mind lately: I want to make sure I model good behavior for them, as well as claim the benefits of literature for myself. I think it’s important to teach by example, and one of the things we really need to teach in this busy, Internet-fueled world is that skimming is useful, but cannot replace the almost soul-searching depth that comes with immersing yourself in a really good book.

    • Sarah,

      Definitely true about reading being great for conversation. I just came back from a two day long business fair, and I kicked some serious ass over there. Mostly thanks to my ability of being able to connect with so many different people, because I could quickly find a commonality and refer to books on that topic, and start the conversations off like that on a positive manner, and then take it from there.

    • Heathenwinds says:

      Why would you want to escape from reality?

  10. I have been reading your sporadically the last three weeks and liked it. (liked) But Im not so sure I will continue to do so, heres why:

    As a self-respecting citizen of the greatest nation on earth, the United States of america, I find your comment regarding 9/11 highly inappropriate. Not only did a lot of good men and women die that day, but that you have the indecency of comparing it to Nazi scum like Goering is offensive. Since you are not a citizen of the US you shouldn’t think you understand how it works here.

    • Travis, assuming this is not an April Fool’s Day prank, let me have the honor of being the first to tell you, as an American, that you do not speak for me or for any Americans but yourself, and, furthermore, that you are an imbecile.

    • Travis,

      I didn’t mean to offend. I was just giving an example, and that one came to mind quickly.

      I think it’s amusing that this is your first comment on the site, and that it is not about some content you liked, but that you specifically picked out something you disliked before commenting.

      Seriously, did you read this entire article and decide to focus on that little segment? Is that what you got out of it?

    • Travis, America is spelled with a capital A. Haha.

    • I did pick other good parts of the article but after all I have integrity and I know where to draw the line. I won’t accept bullshit and offensive or ignorant statements.

      And yeah I forgot to spell America with a capital letter. So what? This is a goddamn blog, not CNN…

      And yes, I DO speak for Americans and I must represent the country and stand tall as a proud citizen who does not tolerate such things.

      Bye.

  11. I’m curious. What’s your favorite novel or science fiction book? As in story for pleasure.

    • No pleasure in non-fiction?

    • Favorite novel: Fountainhead, The Godfather, Fools Die (both from Mario Puzo). I read fountainhead recently, the rest I read when I was much younger.

      Favorite science fiction: Haven’t read much of it. A book called Bill, The Galactic Hero, by a rather prolific science fiction writer (forgot his name), comes to mind.

      I might someday read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It seems good. Douglas Adams, the author, was a fascinating guy.

      What about you, Sebastian?

      Abgrund,
      More so.

      • Abgrund says:

        Harry Harrison wrote Bill the Galactic Hero, a parody on the old “space opera” genre of sci fi (to which he was a contributor).

        I read very little fiction anymore. For the most part, history is more engaging.

  12. I read because that’s my lifelong habit. There wasn’t much else to do in Poland before the fall of communism.
    I don’t agree with Schopenhauer at all regarding reading. I don’t need to stimulate your own thinking while reading. It’s the natural process. Whenever I read a book I digest the info at the same time.
    I don’t have specific techniques to retain info. I make up for this reading a lot.
    Well, I comment every blog post I read.
    If I get some really cool tidbit, I implement it immediately. That way I check it usefulness and retain a bit more.

  13. Dan Black says:

    Great topic Ludvig! I primarily listen to audio books during my commute (which allows me to listen to about 1.5 hours of a book during a one day period). I often have to pause the book to think through what the author was saying/digest the thought. I know a lot of the time my subconscious mind is getting full even though I might not be catching everything that is being shared.

    Like you, a lot of my content comes from my personal growth/reading or listening to books. Books spark our creativity, ideas, and thinking. Great post!

  14. Intersting topic Ludvig …

    I just remembered that Tim Ferriss (I think) once said that he often reads only the parts of the book that directly interest him. The rest of the book he doesn’t read unless he really fancies the author or the subject in general.

    I think that’s an interesting approach although I kind of feel like I’m leaving out potential golden nuggets hidden within the parts of the book that are of no interest to me.

    Just some food for thought.

    • Hey Dejan,

      That makes sense. But then again, he is probably more time-starved than most people. His time is worth a lot of money. Most people’s time aren’t. Therefore I’d say it’s a worthwhile investment for most people to read more than just tiny bits of a book.

  15. D/C Russ says:

    I like to read things and then put them to practice right away. Lately I’ve been under the impression that my particular impulse to read a certain book is for a very good reason.

    Once I discover that reason, I feel free to stop reading the book. Although it’s difficult for me to not finish books, so I end up reading them quickly anyway, just to let the author come full circle with his argument.

    But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t choose what I read. The information I need is given to me and I’m supposed to find it within the text. Once I find it, I put it into practice immediately. Sometimes, like you, I will begin writing as soon as I feel that “aha” light up within me. And in that way I can immortalize the teaching.

    Up until a couple months ago I used to write exactly 101 words every day about the lessons from that day. That was helpful but it also became more like a chore and I lost interest in doing it because my efforts did not seem to be helping anyone.

    • Russ,
      “Although it’s difficult for me to not finish books, so I end up reading them quickly anyway”

      — Same here. It’s almost compulsive.

      “But as far as I’m concerned, I don’t choose what I read. The information I need is given to me and I’m supposed to find it within the text”

      –Seems like a very good and motivational way of looking at it. As long as it works well.

  16. I remember seeing the 4 color code for note-taking somewhere. What was it for you?

  17. Robert Greene says that in his research phase for a new book he reads around 200-300 books. Unbelievable!

  18. This is an outstanding article, Ludvig. I immediately put down my favourite parts in my notebook. The quotes by Schopenhauer and your analysis of them got me thinking the most. Can you recommend a book by Schopenhauer?

  19. Why do I Read?

    I came to the realization Videogames and mindless browsing offers little to no ROI( too many nights up to 3-4 AM playing FMH ha-ha). Books and quality information forces me practise trial and error of what I learn, which I find more satisfying as I see positive visual results of my efforts

    How I stimulate my thinking and not mindlessly absorb information?

    As suggested I use a notebook for Summaries(On-line and Books). This helps me retain more as I stop to think and make associations between other concepts I’ve come across and what I read. This has forced me to consume less information and move towards implementing and observing more. Transferring summaries to my Commonplace and talking with Friends helps my retention process.

    How I apply the information I learn?

    I see if it fits into my system ( by trial & error, observing or tracking the results and tweaking the process to achieve desired results) and what it will improve. If it passes this test it becomes part of my system.

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