The Mathematics of Reading, Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the mathematics of reading. I considered the matter closed until I re-read my post and realized that there were a few questions left unanswered, and I wanted to address these.

In the previous post, I asked, why do we focus so much on how many books we read? I suppose that it is an easy number to count. Thinking about this, however, brought more questions.

1. What is the goal of so much reading?

The Quartz article quotes Warren Buffet. The secret to his success, Buffet said, was to read a lot. Knowledge accumulates like compound interest. The implication in this quote is that reading leads to success. Thus, the more one reads, the greater their chance of achieving success.

But that isn’t why I read. I read because I enjoy reading. I read because I want to learn new things. I read because I want to learn old things. And I read because I want to be entertained. I count books because I can, but it has been a very long time since I set a reading goal.

When I started keeping my list back in January 1996, I had a goal of reading a book a week. That’s 52 books a year. In the 21 years since, I think there has only been one year that I have exceeded that goal—2013. I used to count words because books vary in length, but words are a more consistent measure. But I stopped that, too, and just allowed the list to take care of itself.

2. How diverse should our reading be?

While I don’t know this for a fact, I often suspect that attempts to read 200 books a year are aided by reading shorter books in a prolific genre. Self-help books, business books, romances, mysteries, science fiction novels. There is nothing wrong with this, but if the goal of reading so much is to acquire knowledge to build success, then it seems to me a more diverse scope is required.

At least, it is for me.

That wasn’t always the case. A glance through my reading list’s early years will tell a story. Over time, my reading habits have changed, and settled. Whereas I used to read a lot more fiction, the vast majority of my reading today is nonfiction. I sample all sorts of subjects. Some I find more interesting than others, and often times, my curiosity about one subject leads to another.

3. Is it realistic to think we can absorb the contents of 200 books a year?

For you, perhaps, but for me, it is not likely. I have on occasion, re-read books, and have been amazed upon re-reading at discovering just how much I had forgotten from the first time around.

According to the Quartz post, you can get through a 50,000 word book in a little over 2 hours if you read at 400 words per minute. That isn’t a remarkable reading speed (although in all honesty, I have no idea how fast I read). But how does one measure comprehension? How do you know you’ve absorbed what you’ve read?

This is a challenge even reading 50 books in a year. For those books that struck me in some way, I will often write about them (sometimes here) and that helps me think about what I’ve read.

Too often, however, I’ve found myself finishing a book at 7:55 pm and starting the next book at 7:57 pm with barely a breath in between to consider what I’ve read. I tell myself I should wait to the next day to start the next book so that I have time to think about what I just finished reading. But I’m too eager to start on the next book, and I’m sure my comprehension suffers. I can only imagine how it would suffer if I tried to read 200 books a year.


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