Has your reading become a bad habit? - Why you need to read wisely over widely.
Why I believe you don’t need to read more, but read more deeply.
Are you like I was, in the habit of buying book after book? Reading title after title? Proud of how much you are spending on books and watching your library grow? Following every recommendation, picking up each alluring title? Confident that because you are reading widely, you were growing? You weren’t wasting money but investing in yourself?
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself if your reading has become a bad habit?
I fell into the reading trap; constantly buying books and rarely finishing them, quickly moving onto the next shiny book somebody recommended to me. I wasn't learning or growing, merely chasing. Because reading is meant to be good, I didn’t realise it had become harmful, it was actually stunting my growth; I didn’t realise the damage it was doing.
Until one day, I looked over at my ever growing library, and all I saw were half read books full of makeshift bookmarks. The few that had been read I could barely bring to mind what was in them or what knowledge they had given me.
If you look at your bookshelf right now, could you say the same thing?
I realised the more I was buying and reading, the less I was learning; I was rushing what I read and thinking not about the words in front of me, but the next book. I believed I was improving myself when in reality all I was doing was causing clutter.
Many books were a waste of time and I bought them for the fancy title or because people I looked up to recommended them; I bought into their hype, not their worth. They were nothing but cleverly marketed books, with very little wisdom, written for the sole purpose of profit.
There were so many books, all promising me fulfilment and wisdom, yet none came close.
For a time I felt dismayed, putting reading on pause for a couple of weeks, then I decided to return to the books which had never failed me - the Stoics. There on the first page of ‘Senecas Letters’ was my answer. It was a passage that I had never really taken to heart:
‘You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.’ - Seneca
‘A multitude of books only gets in one's way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.’ - Seneca
‘Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over if it is being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong.’ - Seneca
Reading this passage, which I had read many times suddenly hit me like a thunderbolt; I was the plant which frequently moved, never growing strong, passing from author to author never digesting what I read.
I thought about it for days and kept coming back to this passage again and again, realising I was not reading wisely, I decided to correct this, and develop a method to ensure no more money was wasted, and more importantly, time on books that I didn’t need, receiving the most from the books that will help improve my life.
This is the method I developed:
Firstly - choose wisely
I followed Senecas advice and began with the books which had stood the test of time.
Secondly - focusing on reading wisely over widely
In the past, every New Year, I would set a goal to read at least 3 books a month. This year, however, I decided to choose 10 books to focus on and aim to master them as best as I can, to read and re-read, again and again, to digest every last page and tap every last drop from my chosen books.
Every time I re-read a book I notice lines which I had missed previously or have new meaning to them. The books themselves have become very special to me, each time I return to them I get more joy than the time before.; I think back to passages I read months ago and how much I have changed since first reading them, realising previously neglected passages have renewed meaning. The books almost come to life the more I return to them; the more I read them, the more they speak to me.
I have learnt more and gained a much deeper understanding in the last 7 months than I have in previous years combined; the effect has been completely overwhelming and utterly life changing.
If you wish to do this now, choose 4 books for the remainder of the year - I promise you, there will be far more to gain than reading 15 books once.
If you are stuck, here are my recommendations:
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
How to think like a Roman Emperor - Donald Robertson
Senecas Letters - Seneca
Walden - David Thoreau
* A point worth mentioning, I do read books outside the aforementioned 10 choices (mainly novels), but the ten core books will be the primary focus for the year.
Third - A litmus test for purchasing books.
Firstly, I qualify and put the book in question on trial.
I ask myself, do I really need this book? Without buying the book, how much do I know about the topic? What new knowledge can this book give me, and how will it help me? If I wrote this book what would I put inside it?
If possible, begin reading it in the shop, some bookshops will have couches for you to sit and read.
Ask yourself, if you think this would be a book you would return to again and again, if it isn't, is it worth your time? A book read only once is a book that will be forgotten.
To reiterate, Stoics tell us to do nothing blindly; we must deploy wisdom and especially reason when it comes to what we are feeding our mind. The correct books read and studied in the proper manner will change your life. Aimlessly reading book after booking for the sake of doing so, is as much of a bad habit as time-wasting or procrastinating. Isn’t this new practise much better than frantically hopping from book to book without meaning or direction?
If you use this method for buying and reading, eventually you will begin to know what a good book looks like. You will also, through questioning, begin to understand what knowledge you are seeking and instead of reading books on every topic and issue, you can now read from a position of strength. You will know what a good book is, you will know what you want to gain from the book and you are confident; you can have peace of mind your reading had not become a bad habit.
I am not saying avoid books, I am an avid book lover and always will be, but we cannot know everything and there are more books in existence than we could every possibly read. Our time is limited and we must only read what will benefit us.
What I am saying is to deploy wisdom when reading; read the right books and not purchase for the sake of purchasing; read with meaning and purpose, ensuring for the time and money put into them, they are giving you the appropriate return investment.
We can all fall into bad habits, even when we think they are good, which is why it is so dangerous. On the surface they have all the traits something good and fruitful we do not realise the harm it is doing.