A Reading Diet

Ryan James Spencer

Thorsten Ball had this interesting thought bubble about having a personal reading coach:

Following your own curiosity is a highly personal activity. The crux of books such as Introspect gather around honing one's curiosity, letting it blossom, and nurturing more of it in the world. A coach could slowly learn one's personal sense of curiosity, but it will never be to the same depth that you will know yourself.

Coaches are sometimes hired to help create a tailored diet, however. I consistently drown in content. I think I fare better than most, but I still am enticed by the idea of someone helping me create a specific plan for my reading to be able to glean the benefits of reading while having time and sanity for the other things I want to do.

In lieu of paying someone for this imaginary role, here's an exercise doing it with myself. What does my current reading regiment look like?

  • mailbrew emails with updates of
    • twitter
    • news
    • hackernews
    • weather forecast
  • articles on the web (easily 20-70+ multiplied across a few devices)
  • books, largely technical

Major changes I enacted on immediate review was:

  • no more news updates first thing in the morning. I will get this anyways throughout the day.
  • far more fiction rather than being squarely focused on non-fictional content.
  • drastically thinning down the web content.
  • less twitter, by using a fifteen minute limit as well as a stopping the mailbrew updates

A diet isn't only what you consume, but also adjusting the methodology of how you consume. Often, with non-fiction books, there's a tendency for people to treat them as fiction by attempting to read them linearly, but this is a bit aimless. Being first clear about what you are after is good, but not always possible if you are interested in a variety of topics inside of the book.

One technique of handling this is to continually make progressive passes on the book in increasing detail. This is similar to how you can reading abstracts, introductions, and conclusions with research papers. The aim here is to pick up the things you are interested, and not waste your time sludging along with other material you don't care as much about.

Alternatively, you can use your passion as a gauge and if you find yourself bored, simply skip ahead. There is no shame in it.

If the book is massive, with lots of things you are interested in, a useful trick is to abandon the book for awhile once you've learned exactly thing, or perhaps max three things. Whatever limit you impose depends on you, but the aim is to limit you trudging through the book, and to make actual use of it in a limited scope of time, rather than letting a day, become a week, become a month, etc. This is a topic I've been quite absorbed in lately, in that gains should be brought into smaller and smaller time frames.

Another thing I sometimes do is to use a front, back, and middle bookmark, forming a sort of semi-binary search of information. The point of all of these techniques is that they are means of filtering out content that is less useful for us, and ultimately eliminating or reducing work to find the most useful content for us. It is rare I find a non-fiction book that I want to read front to back.

The highest value reading in my diet are books. Books given me a tremendous amount of value. Books inspire me to write, they give me deep, refined conversations with others who have taken the time to structure their thoughts onto page, and they let me dream. This is why a completely non-fiction diet of books is ineffective: solving problems is not just about discovering knowledge and patterns to cycle through, but instead exploring problems in unexpected ways. This means having many non-fiction books, using the techniques above to work through them, as well as a single fiction book, one at a time. This allows me to let my mind relax, in the same way that I assume artists explain the process of doing "automatic drawing".