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Reading 50 Books every year: your questions

May 07, 2017 Success, Sunday Nation

Greetings, book-lovers. How are you doing with #50BooksIn2017? I just completed my 16th book of the year, so I’m more or less on track. What about you?

I started the #50BooksIn… hashtag to try and persuade more and more of you to read books. I am delighted to see so many of you writing or tweeting me to say you’ve been inspired to get back to your first love: books. Let’s stay winning.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to discuss the questions some of you have raised. Two in particular are common. First, why does reading books matter more than reading newspapers, magazines, posts, updates and tweets? Or watching movies, documentaries and YouTube videos? Second question: why fifty books? That’s an unattainable goal for most. Why not fewer, better-quality reads?

Let’s take the first question. Why books?

Here are some of the books I’ve just finished, or intend to read soon. An excellent tome by a young Wharton professor, containing compelling research on why being generous in business is a winner’s game. A Japanese mystery novel that is a mind-twisting puzzle, but one that also gives me fascinating insights into that culture without having to visit it in person. A comprehensive study into the history of the gene and what it actually means to be human.

That’s why. If you want to understand yourself, your fellow humans, our shared history and myriad personalities, your first recourse is a collection of books. Our delights, our foibles, our flaws, our accomplishments – they have all been recorded and displayed in literature by people who know their stuff and are giving you the knowledge. You will learn more from good books than you ever can in person or through your own work.

James Baldwin has another reason: “Then I started reading. I read everything I could get my hands on, murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. There were two libraries in Harlem, and by the time I was thirteen I had read every book in both libraries.”

Baldwin’s point: books are often a path to escape, a liberation from restrictions, a freeing from the shackles of conformity, a way out of the poverty of the mind and the poverty of the situation.

Why a long book rather than a regular stream of short-form writing? Or just watching the movie or the reality show or the video summary? Because the book makes you do the work. It requires sustained effort. It demands immersion into a single stream, concept, story or exposition. It forces you to go deep, rather than flit on the surface and jump from stream to stream. It is exercise for the mind. To read a book, you have to be thinking with the author.

Now the second question: why am I asking you to read as many as fifty books every year? Quality matters more than quantity, surely? Wouldn’t five excellent books, read with deep attention, beat fifty mediocre books read quickly just to meet a target?

Yes, they would. Skimming and speed-reading are not the point of this. Fifty is a number that equates to a book every week, approximately. I offer that as a target to the genuine bibliophiles; those who, like me, cannot imagine a life without books. Those of us who love books read them not to impress others; not to project the impression of knowledge; but out of love. We read them all with rapt attention.

Most bibliophiles absolutely can read a book every week. It will require that you cut back on screen time and social-media time and chatter time, certainly; but so what? Go beyond the froth into the depths of understanding. Human beings respond to targets. So fifty is your target.

What about those who love reading, but by nature read purposefully, slowly, reflectively? Reading a new book every week will probably be inappropriate for you. But you absolutely should read a book every month. If you aren’t making time for that, your commitment is in question. You probably aren’t the bibliophile you think (or hope) you are. Commit a little. 12 is your target.

Lastly: what of the other folk, the vast majority who have no real love for books, who just manage an occasional flip through the latest bestseller that everyone is talking about? For you, too, twelve books every year is the target. Don’t do it out of love; do it because a dozen deep dives every year will be good for you. Do it for a year, and thank me later.

(Sunday Nation, 7 May 2017)

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