If you want to read more, something needs to go
And it’s not what you might think
📚 Tsundoku in the flesh
Some time in mid-2018, I glanced at my Pocket reading list, and was aghast to see that I had saved over several hundred articles for later perusal. My office desk at home was littered with nearly 60 books and periodicals I had amassed over the past three years, in some morose tsundoku case study (tsundoku is a Japanese slang term for the act of collecting reading matter, and subsequently not reading them). And it was no wonder — the latest brief that fell on my desk at work, the newest episodes of Better Call Saul on Netflix, or the siren call of YouTube subscriptions almost always got the best of me.
In perhaps some delirious state one evening, admist the piles of unread articles and books, I saw a younger me, sitting beneath a desk lamp reading the Chronicles of Narnia. It seemed as if nothing could pull those volumes from my fingers, eyes dashing across each thrilling page after the next. Such focus, such engagement, that today seems lost to email notifications and the lure of an infinite internet. My parents owned (and still own) a used bookstore where I spent many hot summers rifling around, looking for the next tome to lose myself in. Might I discover that younger self again that plowed through The Lord of the Rings or Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?
I was committed to being a reader again. Years ago, I had quit Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in an effort to regain my focus, and was successful by and large. But I had failed to turn that focus towards my own personal learning and natural love of the written word. Glancing at the massive piles of reading on my desk, and my seemingly unending Pocket reading list, I knew I had my work cut out.
Productivity pundits will have you schedule time in your day to read, or make it part of your 20-stage morning routine, or make sure that you’re spiritually centered before you turn the first page. All important perhaps, but what can you do today to get cracking on that reading list?
🔑 The Key: transform your phone, or give it up
At this point, you’re probably already rolling your eyes at me. Another article about giving up your smartphone. But here’s the truth you don’t want to hear: your phone and how it’s set-up today, will cripple your ability to read in a focussed way. I was inspired by Jake Knapp’s article about living with a distraction free iPhone.
Here’s what I did:
- Turned off all my notifications (except for UberEats, because, eating)
- Deleted my email apps. On iOS, I just deleted the stock Mail app
- Deleted Slack (I configured Slack to send me an email if I get any DMs, but since I don’t have email on my phone, I get IFTTT to text me whenever I get one of these Slack email notifications — convoluted but it works)
- Deleted all games, social media apps, news apps, or anything that might be even mildly entertaining or that you might use to kill time
- Told my wife to implement parental restrictions on my web browser and locked myself out. That’s right. No web browsing on that super high res display. You’re out to do some reading here aren’t you?
- Kept my reading list front and centre on my home screen (for me, it’s the Kindle app, and Pocket)
Now all this seems pretty extreme, but if you’re the type who unconsciously unlocks their phones without thinking, removing any and all possible activities from your phone (except for reading, of course) is the only route to go. Soon, you’ll develop a habit of unlocking your phone, only to realize that there’s nothing to check up on.
Reading and learning are high value experiences, whilst checking email ranks pretty low on my list. And stripping your phone of all distractions, still leaves you with a powerful camera, a near limitless notetaking device, a GPS, a calendar … need I go on?
Other important factors to consider
As best you can, try not to read in a browser
As much as I love using Pocket, it can be hard to stay focussed on reading a long form article when hyperlinks can derail your progress at anytime.
A hyperlink, styled just enough to be visually accessible and call attention to itself, breaks the natural flow of language.
When I come across a long read on the web, I clip it to Evernote, strip it of non-essential photos or images, and print it out on the backs of recycled office paper. I stuff these print outs into a folder in my work bag, pulling them out to read between meetings, all the while marking up passages worthy of tagging later in Evernote.
There are other compelling reasons not to read in a browser. A 2009 study by UCLA developmental psychologist, Patricia Greenfield, reveals that the wide spread use of “screen based technologies has undermined our capacities for the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection”.
Food for thought, and perhaps a strong enough impetus to check out a physical book from the library before you go looking for that Kindle edition.
If you’re reading non-fiction books, don’t read the entire book
Almost every college student gets taught how to read and research effectively—whether that student takes that advice to heart is a different matter. I sure didn’t, and for years I spent needless hours pouring over research materials in the middle of the night, ahead of actually writing my papers.
It wasn’t until years later, after reading this article, that I was reminded of how to actually get the most out of non-fiction. In a nutshell:
- Get a lay of the land: read the book’s jacket, inside flaps, author bio, and the table of contents to get a good sense of the book’s structure. As an added bonus, spend time thinking about the author — what motivates them, and how might that change your perception of what is presented?
- Read the introductions and then the conclusion. Reading the introduction clearly introduces any core arguments and provides valuable context. The conclusion usually reiterates the opening argument, and likely summarizes many of the key sections of the book, further strengthening your understanding of the author’s framework
- Read the headings and opening paragraphs of each section of the book to gather clarity about what each part of the book is about, and skim as much as you can. Your goal here is to quickly assimilate the “gist” of the author’s key points — keep reading in detail if the key points don’t reveal themselves quickly
- Finish by re-reading the table of contents, and see what aspects of each section of the book you can recall.
One step I take before putting the book away, is to go through the book quickly one last time, underlining key take-aways.
I tend to summarize these take-aways into Evernote, tagging them for future reference. Reading is an investment, and you might as well get the full return with minimal effort.
Now: go read, and be better for it
Our species’ ability to comprehend what we read in a deep and meaningful way is in rapid decline. Yet even the knowledge of this great unseen cataclysm may not be enough for you to put your phone down and pay heed to the grand display of tsundoku unfolding in your living room or on your apartment bookshelves.
Perhaps we are meant to unfold this way as a species — after all, reading itself has never been a panacea for humanity’s shortcomings. That, has always been knowledge.
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