I’ve been feeling guilty about my reading habits for more than 10 years now.
The problem: I don’t read enough books.
Reading books is universally praised. It’s good for your career they say. Bill Gates averages around 50 books a year. Icons like Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama regularly share book recommendations.
Thirsting for attention but don’t have a gym selfie? Post a page from your fave book and watch the likes pour in.
My “problem” isn’t actually reading though. I’ve always been a reader. Growing up, I remember weekly visits to the Times bookstore in Penang — usually leaving with a new Enid Blyton book. But in my teens, I discovered the Internet — and my attention switched away.
I’ve become a master of Internet articles. Long-form, short-form, mainstream media, independent blogs — you name it. I read wide, and I read fast. I even contribute my own articles to other websites.
But I suck at books. For the past few years now, I’ve had “spend time reading before bedtime” in my new year’s resolutions. If I had spent only 30 minutes a day reading, this website estimates I’d finish at least 55 books a year.
Last year, I think I finished five.
Why the Obsession With Books?
Is not reading books a real problem? I’m actually doing well in my career, and perhaps more importantly, I enjoy reading online.
I’ve thought about it — there’s good reasons and there’s bad reasons.
Good reasons: Online articles can only go into so much depth. If I’m serious about writing my own book one day, I should study deeper. Every writer and leader I admire is a voracious book reader.
Bad reason: Status. It bugs me I can’t humblebrag how smart I am because I finished 24 books last year. How does everyone else achieve this!?
I’m gonna try to ditch the bad reason. This year, I will stop reading books so I can show off. I’ve already got so many commitments at work — I don’t need another obligation, which just repels me from reading more.
No, this year I wanna do it for the love.
Dealing With Guilt: Ditching Books
The first book I clearly recall ditching is “Your Money or Your Life.” I remember it because in the personal finance/FIRE world, that book is pretty much sacred.
Even though I agreed with a lot of the content, I somehow didn’t enjoy the book. I desperately wanted it on my finished list (STATUS!) though, so I kept struggling through. When I finally gave up, it felt like blasphemy.
Why do we feel guilty when we start but don’t finish books?
My biggest challenge is likely my hate of waste. For years, I’ve forced myself into this mindset where I try to optimize everything. Unfortunately, it’s also crept into the money I spend on books.
The stingy inside me still tries to finish every single grain of rice at every meal. Even if it’s an RM 8 nasi campur. How dare I not finish every page of an RM 88 book?
“And what about the 40 unfinished ones scattered around your home bitch?”
I’m stuck in this loop: I feel guilty about the books I have but haven’t finished. Even when I get excited about new books, I force myself to numb my curiosity. So I continue struggling through material I’m tired of, driven by an irrational goal of “completion” — becoming a chore I secretly dread.
All the while, the list of books I really wanna read grows longer.
Price vs Value
What’s the alternative? Ditch books quickly, and buy new books whenever you like? I think so.
Here’s Naval Ravikant:
“I probably spend 10 times as much money on books as I actually get through. In other words, for every $200 worth of books I buy, I actually end up making it through 10%. I’ll read $20 worth of books, but it’s still absolutely worth it.”
(Highly-recommended source: Everything I Knew About Reading Was Wrong)
But how do you reconcile that with responsible spending?
I know — books can seem expensive. If you look at just the price. But look at the amount of value you’re getting vs what you’re paying, and books might be the best investment ever.
How else would you be able to explore the thoughts of the wisest people who’ve ever lived?
All my life I’ve looked at books as an expense. Even if that were true, I could have clearly afforded them just as entertainment.
But if I look at them as an investment, I realize I’ve just been stupid.
New Goal, New Systems
Many years ago, I remember reading one of Robert Kiyosaki’s books backwards. It happened to be lying around in my uncle’s home during a vacation.
I didn’t have much time, so I went straight for the conclusion. But it was so interesting, I started going backwards chapter by chapter. When I reached the middle, I decided to just start from the beginning. Within a day, I’d finished a book I never intended to start.
Realization: if I’d been willing to go against the “rules” of reading, I would have likely finished more books and had much more fun. Indeed, my favorite two articles about reading more books (by Michael Simmons and Johnny May) suggest going directly into chapters that interest you, and skipping immediately when you get bored.
We’re not kids following strict learning plans anymore. Our books should serve us, not the other way round.
I don’t have a guaranteed system that works yet, but this is how I’m planning to read from now on:
- Read books out of interest (not status)
- Skip chapters (and books) whenever I get bored
- Buy whatever books I fancy
- Accept there’s nothing wrong with reading online
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In January 2021, I finished three books I’d put off for a long time: Atomic Habits, The Big Short, and The Psychology of Money. (YES I can finally #humblebrag.)
Last week, I got bored with “Thinking in Bets” so I bought five more books online, and switched to “Liar’s Poker.” I lost momentum there too so I skimmed through the CFA Institute’s “Guide to Bitcoin, Blockchain and Cryptocurrency for Investment Professionals,” and CoinGecko’s “How to DeFi.”
I don’t know how many books I’ll be able to finish this year, but it seems like a good start. And even if I fail to beat my record last year, I think I understand the secret now.
As long as I’m enjoying myself learning, who cares?
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