Of the many debates that stoke the flames of the internet’s engine rooms, what and how to read is surely one of the most present. Because reading has become so important to me of late, for reasons both professional and personal, it’s one I pay particular attention to, and the following two arguments left me uncertain as to how I should proceed with my own education.
First, the viewpoint that had me questioning my habits. In the The 4-Hour Workweek chapter titled “The Low-Information Diet,” author Tim Ferris recommends taking a break from media consumption, suggesting that “unnecessary reading is public enemy number one during this one-week fast.” One of the major rules for the diet: “No reading books, except for [the 4-Hour Workweek] and one hour of fiction pleasure reading prior to bed.”
The footnote on that page, too, is especially telling:
“As someone who read exclusively nonfiction for nearly 15 years, I can tell you two things: it’s not productive to read two fact-based books at the same time (this is one), and fiction is better than sleeping pills for putting the happenings of the day behind you.”
That resonates with me, as I feel information sick on a regular basis. At the same time, there are books that interest me, books that are relevant to the work I’m doing, and books that I would like to read for projects on the horizon. Why Ferris’s assertion stung: By not focusing on the essential projects, am I not being productive? Am I shooting myself in the foot by thinking too much of the near-future and not focusing it all on the present moment?
In that way, what James Altucher writes in a blog post titled “How to Become an Idea Machine” is a comforting counterpoint:
“Every day, read/skim, chapters from books on at least four different topics. For myself this morning I read from a biography of Mick Jagger, I read a chapter from “Regenesis”, a book on advances in genetic engineering, a topic I know nothing about. I read a chapter in “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed. Her recent book, “Wild” is an Oprah pick and was also excellent. I read a chapter from “Myths to Live By” by Joseph Campbell, and I, to waste time, I played a game of chess online.”
This idea, which he expands on in his book Choose Yourself!, is the closest to how I approach each day. Right now, for example: I have a history of the civil war, a collection of nonsense poems, essays about modern China, and a fiction book. I find that, more often than not, they complement each other, allowing me to read without getting burnt out or bored. At the same time, I am conscious of what reading keeps me from doing, in that time spent reading is also time I could be thinking more deeply about just one book, or writing, or developing ideas.
Now, Ferris is writing for an audience that wants to pare down their lifestyles to the absolute most essential, and in doing so to transform their tendencies into productive skills that eliminate unnecessary work. Altucher, on the other hand, is writing for people who feel helpless, directionless, stuck and uninspired, who need tools to get themselves feeling creative and productive again. He writes of cross-pollination (idea sex) and the rewards of constant idea generation.
For people who feel like they read too little and too narrowly, Altucher justifies reading more. For those who feel like they read too much and too aimlessly, Ferris separates your reading wheat from the chaff and argues for an uncrowded nightstand. He advocates for reading intentionally and for thinking about how what you’re reading will help you in the now, in your current situation. You should not be reading for later if you are trying to get your life geared up and pointed toward one goal now.
What they both have in common, though, is a logical process to their reading. Understanding why you read, why you choose what you read, and how all those books connect, is important. It’s urgent work. It’s self-defining work. However, there is value in being open to meeting in the middle. Finding books that complement each other makes each book more memorable, and the information even stickier.
And if you’re still uncertain about which method is right, whether you should read one book at a time, two books, non-fiction books or no books, take comfort in knowing that at least you are more discerning than Johnny 5.