“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested…we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life
Last week, one of the guys I work with, Paul, stopped by my desk to talk about books. He’s in the middle of reading 52 books this year; he said that in the past he has mostly read books by white men and, in an effort to expand his literary horizons, he is intentionally reading broadly and widely from other perspectives. His current book is The Refugees, about the Vietnamese refugees in America, and his reading list has a litany of other books that sounded amazing.
It made me think a lot about my own reading list. My explicit reading goal this year is to read a greater number of books than last year. But after talking to Paul, and hearing about how he was selecting books both for quantity, quality AND perspective, it made me realize that I’m absolutely not taking the second characteristics into account whatsoever – I’m focused only on quantity, and on books that I feel I SHOULD be reading and not books that I really want to read, and can enjoy.
“I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.” – George H. W. Bush
Like The Lean Startup. It’s an important book in the tech industry; tons of people say it might be the most important book about technology that a person can read. But the person who recommended it to me most vigorously and aggressively was an entrepreneur who, when I quizzed him about it, admitted he hadn’t read it; he had only read a synopsis of it, and also watched a YouTube video about it. I have tried to read it six or seven different times, and I can’t for the life of me get through the first few chapters; I just put it down once again on this train trip because I kept falling asleep over it. (In contrast, it took me four days to read The Game again – a book that is almost 200 pages longer and has probably has more important skills to teach.)
So from now on, I’m going to focus on the quantity and quality of reading I’m doing, but NOT the number of books or what people tell me I SHOULD read. If I make it through a single Robert Caro book in one month, I’ll be far more satisfied than if I can list off ten titles that I only mildly enjoyed or slogged through. And I’m going to still have learning goals – for example, learning about technology and business and startups and Russia and Napoleon and money and sleep and philosophy and everything else in the world – but I won’t read a book that I hate.
Or maybe I’ll spend a year of only reading Pulitzer-prize winning books! Or Nobel Prize-winning tomes, or Booker books. The Western Canon, and then the Eastern Canon, if these can be agreed upon. Or getting the reading list for this course, the Hardest Course in the Humanities, and making it the foundation for reading for the rest of my reading life.
Taleb wrote, “One of the shortest books I’ve ever read had 745 pages. The longest book I’ve ever read was 205 pages.”
To play off of that aphorism: life is long, but books shouldn’t be – no matter how many pages they have.