One year ago on Christmas Day, I wrote about the revival of independent bookstores in the US. It was a win for book lovers and for those who long for a sense of community. This year’s Christmas theme is, as you might have guessed, is also books.
By coincidence, I came across an article on Christmas Eve about how to get people to read more in 2019. As a book lover and a daily commuter, I often peek at other people’s book covers in the subway or on the bus. What is everyone reading? What do people like to read about? Are they into fiction or non-fiction? Kindles or hard copies? And I wonder how many books a year they read.
My news feed is loaded with stories of billionaires and entrepreneurs who somehow make the time to read 50-100 books a year, between boardroom meetings and negotiating million-dollar deals. Leading this pack of voracious readers is Bill Gates whose non-fiction book club is well known to the legions of fans who follow him on LinkedIn. Mr. Gates and I have overlapping tastes. We are both fans of history and education. This year, two of the books I’ve read were among his picks of 2018 (Educated by Tara Westover and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari). I am not as big of a science nerd as he is and I question some of his top choices, but being a member of the Bill Gates book club has encouraged me to read and explore every nook and cranny of history, science and contemporary society. So it makes sense to set an annual target number of books to read.
But I often find it challenging to meet my personal target every year. It’s not just me. As the author of the FT article stated, many readers lament that they should be reading more. One suggestion in the article is to spread out your books like bowls of cookies laid out on coffee tables to create an environment conducive to reading. This is a useful suggestion, but I would like to add that books are also among many sources of information that compete for readership.
What the author did not mention but something familiar to all of us living in 2018 is the lure of technology; smartphones and tablets have transformed nearly every aspect of life including our reading habits. We are used to information presented to us in fragments, what with 140-character tweets and the popularity of listicles (e.g. 10 ways to beat the holiday blues or 15 life hacks to survive the next snow storm). We are often distracted by them because they are easy to comprehend without recondite language.
We are immersed in this fast-paced culture. Information, just like your next Uber ride, is at the next swipe on your app. This information should ideally be summarized in point form and in a list. Nothing more, nothing less. Who still bothers to read 300-400 page tomes when all the information you need is summarized on Google or at one swipe of the Flipboard app?
Contrary to conventional thinking, it’s not for a lack of time that we do not read as much as we would like. Correction, we do read everyday; we scroll through our smartphones for the latest political shenanigans. We read plenty of commentary on our social media and follow religiously the blog postings of self-help gurus and other celebrities. But at some point, we have lost a sense of what it means to read anymore. We like to absorb snippets of information, often unsupported by facts, because they are easier to digest and require less brain processing power. Books tend to be more long-winded but they are the products of research and editing. So we claim we don’t have time. The real reason is that we are distracted by the convenience of technology. Information is cheap in 2018. The real challenge is to look beyond the low-hanging fruits of literature. This is why I turn to books.
One doesn’t have to be terribly talented or have the IQ of Bill Gates to read more. How can we read more in 2019? How can we become better informed citizens? The first step is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe it’s not entirely correct to analogize books to cookies in a bowl. I am afraid that given my poor 2018 record, I may not be able to finish all those “cookies in a bowl”. A few good quality books in a year will be more meaningful than speed reading through 50 books. And to all a good night!