Why do people have trouble reading books? The primary answer you’re likely to receive when asking this question is that reading is boring. And to this response I agree. Reading is boring — but it doesn’t need to be.
The reason that reading is boring is that many people view their relationship to reading in a black and white manner. For example, think of a book you’ve read recently. What were your goals in choosing to read that book? For many people the answer is of the form:
- To read every single word
- Remember everything
If these goals were even possible1 then reading would very often be extremely boring. How would you handle a book that just isn’t well written? It would be painful to read every word. What about a book that is complicated or uses language that you’re not familiar with? In this case the act of remembering everything would slow your reading speed to a crawl. What if you read a book that is complicated, uses unfamiliar language and is not well written? Most people slog through the first 100 pages or so2 then forget about the book, read it off and on from time to time, forget what they’ve read and ultimately give up and think that reading is boring.
And they’re right. Reading like this is boring! Not only is it boring, but it’s oppressive. How does it feel to constantly see that book mocking you from your desk? Not great. The best solution in this case is to simply stop trying to read that book. Go out and find a zombie novel or something else mostly fun and non-challenging to cleanse the palate so to speak. The problem is that many people have a hard time doing this because they feel like they’ve invested valuable time already and didn’t meet their inaccessible goals. You’re not a failure if you give up on a book — you just didn’t like it.
Sadly I do not have a cure-all solution to this problem. However, I can explain my approach to reading that is summarised as simply “establishing a relationship with your book”. The act of establishing a relationship with a book for me is to think of the following, before starting to read:
- My goals in reading the book — I guarantee they never look like the goals listed above.
- When will I read the book? I talked about reading contexts previously.
- How can I supplement the book? For example, are there any blogs that discuss the book that I can reference during or after reading it?
It’s a very personal system, so let me outline an example below.
I recently read Kent Beck’s book Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. The twist to this story is that I’ve worked at Relevance for over a year and it is indeed an “agile shop”. So what was the point of my reading Beck’s book? As it turns out I had two goals:
- Beck is an excellent technical writer and I am extremely jealous of his ability and I want to write like him when I grow up.
- Even though I’ve worked at an agile shop for a year, I’ve yet to truly reflect on my experience.
And that’s all. Did I achieve my goals?
Goal #1 was a no-brainer — read Beck, learn how to write more gooder. Goal #2 was met, but some of what I read was not directly applicable to my daily work-life. That’s OK though, because in reading Beck’s book I enhanced my “agile lexicon” and this fact may prove useful in the future. I tended to read the book in the morning before work so that I could have fresh ideas when pairing with my co-workers and chat about them as time allowed.
It took me two days to read the book and I’ve thought about it and talked about it ever since. I’d say that was a very rewarding experience, but not life-changing. All of my reading experiences will not be the same, every book is different, and so every relationship will be likewise.
1. Unless you’re Alan Kay, but you’re not, so don’t sweat it. If you are, then hello Dr. Kay, I am a great admirer of your work.
Extreme Reading [Send More Paramedics]
Michael Fogus is an open source programmer and core member of the Clojure programming language development team. His favourite books are “House of Leaves”, “Rings of Saturn”, and “The Code of the Woosters”.