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Editorial | The Forsaken Art of Reading

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Shivam Jha, Editor-in-Chief

When was the last time you read a book at a stretch, without taking a week-long break in between chapters? Or rather when was the last time you actually read a full-length book?

All the regular readers I know are stuck on some book. Perhaps you’re stuck on some book right now as well. You are on page 173 and you are unable to go on any further but you know you should finish the book, so what do you do? You give up reading for a while, and devote time to things that require your immediate attention, and hope to resume with a clear mind later.

That, for me, is a tragedy because I grew up on books, and then I switched to blogs and then I switched to Twitter and Facebook, only to realise I wasn’t really learning anything substantial -- so I went back to essays and books. Reading on social media deludes you enough into thinking you are trying to gain valuable insight into issues when you're actually far away from it. As much you may try to convince yourself otherwise, the truth remains that consuming content on social media websites is nothing but just taking little dopamine snacks all day long. 

So, are you stuck on some book right now?
Maybe.
Maybe not. 
Either way, you know that feeling because you’ve been there before. We all have.

After being stuck long enough, quitting a book is almost like ending a relationship. The emotions are not as intense, but the process is similar. We avoid the decision for weeks, accumulate guilt, and hope that things will improve; but deep inside, we know that we’re delaying the inevitable.

Sometimes the book isn’t bad — you just never feel like reading it. The prevailing wisdom is to power through, but that is terrible advice.
And when the book is critically-acclaimed, it’s even harder. I experienced this while reading Nassim Taleb's "Fooled by Randomness", the first book of the Incerto series. 
About a third of the way in I hit a wall. Perhaps I couldn't get a hang of the rife statistical theories throughout the book. But even after several attempts, I never felt like reading it. And the most annoying part? The book was actually good.

I gave it a month, then two, then three. It didn’t help.
Soon enough, whenever I heard about an interesting book,  ( which happens at least once a week ) I would get excited for a second, but then remind myself that I have to finish “Fooled by Randomness” first, and my excitement will fade and turn into guilt.

These sunk costs have an enormous influence on our decisions.
When you are midway through a book, you have invested hours into it and t that point, finishing the book feels like the only way to redeem our investment. 
The same analogy can be drawn to understand the opportunity cost of our decisions. Every day that you spend being stuck or reluctantly reading a mediocre book, is a day you could have spent engaged with fascinating and impactful works. Living in a world of information overabundance, the opportunity cost of being stuck in your learning is way beyond the price of a new book.

However, one of the perils that come along with an acquired taste for literature is the affinity for reading a great book only once. In the first read, some books fit so perfectly into a certain part of my heart, that I’m worried they won’t fall into the same congruence upon rereading. Some narratives are just so poetic and so sensual that it can make you feel things in a way you didn't know you could.

 

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” –Francis Bacon


And there is a multitude of factors that made the first reading experience special: the sandwich I ate alongside Woolf in a train, the blankets that covered Orwell and me, even the melancholy that enveloped my reading with Robinson. 
You just can’t recreate that first experience.
It’s like taking a picture of a bonfire — it’s never quite as beautiful upon a second view; you can’t smell the smoke, or hear the crackling, or feel the fire’s warmth on your face. 

I'm afraid that you can’t, unfortunately, love a book as much as you did the first time you read it. So I look at these titles, tucked away happily on my shelves as markers of times in my life, and know the words in their pages but that's exactly how they'll stay. 

There are significant benefits to reading a variety of genres as well. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into thinking you only like one genre. I am almost always reading one fiction and one non-fiction book at the same time. Your mind grows as you experience new things, and you learn to connect ideas that prima facie do not have any commonality. 

The aficionados of print literature, like myself, would never be able to read an e-book with the same adulation as we read a yellowed, tattered paperback that preserves some remnants from each of its previous readers, and somehow makes us feel connected to all the people who held this book before us. With digital devices, you really only get one sense involved — sight. But with a physical book, which engages three of your senses, you are completely drawn into the activity of reading, making it a far more immersive experience. 

In these e-everything times of 24x7 news channels and streaming video sites, when the death of the print newspaper is considered a certainty, we are just a book away from re-imagining the vanished passion for reading in a small bookless library room full of those supposedly dying entities. This is the age of distraction, and it's up to you to consciously curate the things that excite and distract you. So read as much as you can, because the time constraint only shrivels from here on.

Lastly, I would like to recommend an incredible podcast which partly inspired this editorial. 
The 18th Episode of The Knowledge Project where Naval Ravikant discusses reading, happiness, decision making, habits, and mental models. It's two hours long, but worth every minute, provided you are habituated to podcasts.

Posted by Shivam Jha

Leanness is a methodology, not a goal.