The Best Self-Paced Course I’ve Ever Taken

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Last week on Twitter Tiago Forte asked the question, “What is the best ‘self-paced’
course you’ve ever taken? And why?”

My brief answer was:

I wanted to take the opportunity to elaborate on my response.

“Books can take you anywhere”

From a very early age, I can remember my mom encouraging me to read. “Books can take you anywhere” she would tell me. Moreover, on most evenings, I would sit with my dad on this hideous maroon-colored couch we had and he would read to me, mostly Dr. Seuss book, which to this day, I still have memorized from those repeated readings. Perhaps the first book that really took me places was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. Somewhere around the age of 5 or 6, I checked that book out of the Franklin Township Public Library in Somerset, New Jersey, and read it over and over. From that book, I disovered the planets, the solar system, and the universe at large. So from a very early age, I held the power of reading, of books, and of libraries in high regard.

Theory of learning

Looking back over the course of my formal education today, I see a clear pattern:

Therefore, at the time I graduated from college, in June 1994, I was primed for learning. I was ready to get started to learn anything and everything I could. My curiosity was at an apex. But school was over. I had my degree, and it was time to get a job so that I could support myself. Four months after graduation, I landed a job with a think tank — a job that, 28 years later, I still hold today.

The best self-paced course I’ve ever taken

It took me some time to settle into my new job, and figure things out I wanted to do well, and I was surrounded by people who all seemed far smarted than I was. So I worked hard (and not without struggle and self-doubt) for the first 15 months before I felt, if not quite equal to, then at least accepted by my peers as someone who could be relied upon to do a good job.

But that yearning to learn stayed with me. This was still the very early days of the Internet. One day, while browsing around, someone in late 1995, I came across the website of a fellow named Eric W. Leuliette. On his website, he listed out all of the books he’d read since 1974. I was incredibly impressed, not only by the numbers, but by the sheer variety of books he’d read. I didn’t have the time to go back to school, but my undergraduate experience had taught me how to learn, and so, inspired in part by Eric W. Leuliette’s website, and in part my desire to learn more, I set myself a goal of reading one book per week, and tracking that book on a list.

This was the self-paced course of learning that I challenged myself with. Given that I was young (in my mid-20s) and had limited time on my hands because of a full-time job, one book a week seemed to be a reasonable pace. In reality, it wasn’t until 2013 that I finally managed to read more than 52 books in a year (a pace of one book per week on average). There were years before that when I came close, but never quite hit the mark. Still, I read as much as I could, initially within a fairly narrow framework of subjects, and finally, expanding outward to an ever wider range of subjects.

The list of books I have read

I started keeping a list of the books I read on January 1, 1996. I had a few simple rules for my list:

  • any book that I finished reading could go on the list, no matter how long or short.
  • but for a book to get on the list, I had to finish it.

The first entry on my list, on January 13, 1996, was Isaac Asimov’s collection of science essays, From Earth to Heaven. On September 20, 1998, more than 2-1/2 years after starting my self-paced course of reading and learning, I recorded my 100th book on my list, Isaac Asimov’s Nine Tomorrows, a collection of short stories. On October 10, 2012, nearly 7 years after starting my list, I completed my 500th book, The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick. And on May 23 2020, nearly a quarter century after started my self-paced course of learning, I added my 1,000th book to the list, Will Durant’s The Reformation.

As I write this post, there are 1,208 books on my list, the most recent being And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle by Jon Meacham.

The format of my list has evolved over the years, but it has been accessible online in one format or another since the mid-1990s.

The value of learning

On that same Twitter thread, someone asked me what I tell people if asked if reading books has really been useful to me:

I have pointed people to this post I wrote about why I read, but having given this a lot thought over the years, there are three important ways in which my reading has been useful to me.

The practical value, or “applied reading”

I begin each book, fiction or nonfiction, with the hope of taking away something of practical value. I don’t rate books on a scale of 1-to-5 stars. If a book provides me with something of practical value, it was worth reading, even if there was a struggle to get through it. In reading fiction, that practical value can be a lesson in how to tell a story in a certain way; or it can be an example of what not to do when telling a story.

In nonfiction, those practical lessons can be just about anything. A frequent example I point to are three unconventional books on project management that I read years ago, that I have made me a better project management–something I do regularly in my day job, but something for which I was never formally trained. None of the three books were specifically on the subject of project management, but they were all histories of large-scale projects from which I was able to extract practical lessons that I cold apply to my own work.

I have written before, that, despite taking the full gamut of AP science classes in high school, as well as general, and organic chemistry, and general physics in college, almost everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov. I’ve read all of the science essays he published in more than 30 years of columns in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, most of which have been collected in book form, to say nothing of his many other science books. His contribution to my knowledge of science provides the historical context that most science courses lack.

The cumulative effect

In addition to the practical value I get from reading, there is a cumulative effect. Reading something in one book will remind me of something in another book. What used to be obscure references to me suddenly have new meaning because I recognize the references. I begin to see patterns in various subjects: the evolution of knowledge in the sciences; the trends in history over long periods of time. Moreover, I see repetitions. Reading an essay about the noisy modern city, I am struck, for instance, by an essay Sececa wrote “On Noise” more than 2000 years ago, but which could easily substitute the modern essay on the same subject.

The cumulative effect is one of the great pleasures of this self-paced course I’ve set my on, for it is the result of combining many random books and I never know what insights will emerge.

The butterfly effect of reading

Occasionally, I have an idea to pursue a particular line of study in my reading. Early on, for instance I read lots of Isaac Asimov’s science books. There was a time in the late 1990s where I relentless read everything I could on the Apollo program. But over the years, what guides my reading more than anything is what I call the butterfly effect of reading. I’ll sit down to read a book, say, on World War II, and come away wanting to read more about Franklin D. Roosevelt. A book on Roosevelt might lead to a book on his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, which in turn might lead to a book on the muckrakers of the day, which in turn might lead to a biography of Ida Tarbell. With the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, I’ve gone from World War II to the biography of a pioneering investigative journalist.

If you take a careful purusal through my reading list, you can sometimes identify these butterfly effects.

The next thousand

These days, I manage to get through around 100 books per year. I take notes to help me remember what I read, to apply what I read, and to relate it to other things I’ve read. I scribble in the margins of paper books, or jot notes on index cards while listening to audiobook, all of which eventually get transcribed into my note system.

Perhaps the strangest effect of this self-paced course of learning is that the more I learn, the more I want to learn. This is a course with no end in sight. It is a course without a final exam. It is also the single best course of self-improvement I’ve ever encountered. I look back over the list of 1,200+ books I’ve read in the last 27 years, and while I am occasionally amazed, my usual reaction is: I wonder what’s in store for the next thousand.

Written on October 25, 2022.

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  1. This is a great post. I’ve kept track of my book reading over the years and sadly found that a pace of a book a week doesn’t happen for me and hasn’t for a while. But I love the idea of reading as a “self-paced course” on life.

  2. Hi Jamie, brilliant post. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Inspired by posts on Reading, now I wanted to seriously track what I read and possibly publish my notes on my blog.

    In addition to your Butterfly Effect for Reading, do you keep a curated TBR list for inspiration?

    1. Ridwan, thank you! I don’t keep a curated list of TBR, but a couple of times a year, I post a list of books I am interested in reading–most recently this list. I don’t always get to all of them as soon as I like (that darn butterfly), but it does help give me some direction.


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