“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
–David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
A Reluctant Reader…
I used to be a reluctant reader at best. I managed to get through high school English and college humanities without reading very much. It might surprise you how far one can get by skimming, only occasionally reading in-depth, and by reading summaries online. It might also surprise you how easy it can be to pull compelling arguments directly out of one’s buttocks and apply them to the page. (Despite what you may be thinking, I did very well in high school English, often scoring top marks on my papers. I even placed in an essay contest about civil rights in the Middle East during my junior year in high school, stealing that place from writers in the college age-group. I think I owe much of this to my mother, a lifelong writer, aspiring author, and former editor who taught me virtually everything I know about writing and has religiously given me feedback on every important thing I’ve ever written.)
Part of my reluctance to reading was that I always used to feel that I read slowly or, at least, slower than my highly gifted peers. Reading therefore didn’t seem like the most efficient way to process information. The other part of it was that I often simply couldn’t understand the point of why I was being forced to read books like The Scarlet Letter or The Age of Innocence (neither of which I particularly enjoyed at the time of reading).
I realize now that I don’t read slowly–I simply have a short attention span. When I read, particularly when I read something that isn’t immediately interesting, my mind tends to wander and I often find myself rereading pages over and over again because I didn’t focus long enough to truly read it the first time.
I also realize now that in many ways my high school English curriculum turned me off to exploring literature more on my own. I think the point was to give me an overview of literature from different time periods so I could begin to understand the theory of writing and storytelling as it has developed through the centuries. However, at the time it was taught, I wasn’t a particularly willing participant in that journey.
As it was, I barely read anything outside of English in high school and in college I stopped taking English courses as early as I could. I was the classic “techie,” taking almost solely engineering-related classes and, while I always tried to avoid condescending to “fuzzies,” I never truly understood their passions for the humanities. “Sure, I love a good story,” I would say, “but I can get my fix by watching movies and TV, playing video games, and reading only very occasionally.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that I had read nearly 20 books in just the last 7 weeks. Sad as it is, I wouldn’t be too astonished if I found that this represents nearly the majority of reading I’ve done in my entire life–certainly, I’ve never consumed books at anything near this rate in the past. In fact, in the past 7 weeks I’ve found that my entire attitude toward reading and literature has drastically changed.
A Change of Heart
So what brought about this change of heart?
First, I have a more voracious thirst for knowledge now than I think I have ever had in my life. Ironically, now that I have left university and am no longer being constantly indoctrinated by the Stanford Computer Science program, I’m rediscovering just how broad my academic interests are. And for the first time, I’m comprehending the true power of books: nearly all of human knowledge passed down from generation to generation written down in a universally understood format.
You know that obnoxious Apple joke, “____ there’s an app for that”? Well, the mighty truth of the world is “____ there’s a book for that.” So while my interests have broadened and I am (sadly) no longer able to take classes on interesting subjects, I’ve discovered the next best thing: knowledge available at my fingertips through the pages of a book, just waiting to be absorbed, understood, and improved upon. (To give you a better sense of breadth, I am now reading books about healthcare, software engineering, startups, business, economics, economic theory, politics, philosophy, people I admire, cooking, and foreign languages.)
What’s more, with reading comes the comfort and revelation that all those perennial questions we sometimes find ourselves thinking about truly have been mulled over by older and wiser people for centuries. Since virtually all stories are in some way about the human experience, I’ve found that I can test and mold my own philosophical view of the world by reading them. There is no better way to understand another human being’s view of the world than to read and think about the things that he or she writes. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if by reading their books I have gained a better understanding of how some of these authors think than I could have if I had had an intensely thoughtful conversation with them. (John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is one such book for me, where I realized while reading that not only did Steinbeck ponder some of the same questions as I do now, but, in fact, some of his ultimate conclusions to these ponderings were written into the book!)
Second, I am no longer required to read. The freedom that this grants me is incredible: I alone choose the curriculum, and I never have to read anything that doesn’t sound interesting to me in some way. Strangely, with this ability choose comes a greater appreciation of the choices made in my English classes. I have found myself actually wanting to go back and reread some of those books to see if I truly disliked them or if I just resented being forced to read them.
Third, I have developed a greater appreciation for language and the human ability to communicate meaning during my travels this summer (which I hope to finish blogging about soon).
When I started to blog about my travels in Greece, I realized just how long it had been since I had written anything of any kind of substance or length. I once again started thinking about how my words fit together both in speech and on the page, which then led me to pay more attention to the vastly more elegant ways in which my favorite authors are able to express themselves. I think consuming books both in written and spoken word forms enhances my ability to appreciate the literary choices authors make (more on audiobooks later in this post).
Additionally, having spent so much time in Chinese-speaking countries this summer (and having struggled to make myself understood), I’ve gained a greater appreciation of my ability to read and write fluently in a language at all. While I certainly wish I were fluent in Chinese (I’m work on this, and may blog about some of the crazier things I try in order to learn the language), I’m now completely amazed at the ease with which I can read English particularly when compared to my painful (and slow) experiences trying to read Chinese. I feel I would be a fool not to take more advantage of this.
Fourth, I found new ways to consume books which are both more comfortable and more efficient for me.
I currently have a Platinum Subscription for Audible, an audiobook marketplace similar to the iTunes Music Store. I find that I can often listen to books much more quickly than I can physically read them (I typically double the playback speed in Audible). I also love that Audible makes it easy for me to consume books when I otherwise wouldn’t be able to: while shopping for groceries, walking to class, or doing the dishes. It’s as if I’m able to take the passive, mindless parts of my day and turn them into something active and productive.
I also recently invested in a Kindle Voyage. With my Kindle, I can carry around what would otherwise amount to hundreds of pounds of books in a single device that weighs less than half of a pound. What’s more, with my Kindle’s backlight I never have to worry about straining my eyes to read in the dark or finding a reading light when other people are trying to sleep. I feel faster and more confident reading on my Kindle because it can actively predict how long it will take for me to read sections of a book. In fact, I often make this a game, seeing if I can push myself to finish chapters faster than my Kindle thinks I can.
Books truly are an invaluable fountainhead of human knowledge. Rather than annoyances, I have come to think of each book as a treasure trove of learning that I have the great privilege to tap into. Now I understand why there truly is no greater gift than a book or a book recommendation!
In case you’re curious about what I’ve been reading, find me on Goodreads.