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Passion, People and Principles

I’ve Stopped Reading

post # 240 — November 15, 2006 — a Careers, General post

A while ago, I was asked which books I was currently reading, and I realized it had been a long time since I really sat down to read a book that I wasn’t absolutely required to read for work. Even then, I found I skimmed a lot, looking for the punchlines, rather than settling in to absorb the logical or narrative flow that the author wanted to present.

Truth be told, I don’t really have the patience for magazines either anymore, and I rarely read the newspaper nowadays — certainly not as regularly and thoroughly as I did. Even the glorious ritual of settling in to absorb the Sunday paper has gone. If it weren’t for airplane rides, I probably wouldn’t keep up with any reading at all.

It’s not just that I am busy with my own career as well as helping to launch my wife’s new business.

What’s happened is that I have (slowly or rapidly, I’m not sure) been losing the ability to read. Ever since I started really participating in the Interent — particularly the blogosphere – my mental metabolic rate has been re-set. I find that I can no longer slow my mental processes down long enough to give attention to a well-reasoned, expansive think-piece. A 250-page book is now a mountain, and a 400-page biography an impossibility. Yet I used to consume these with relish.

And, if what I hear from other people is true, many of you are suffering from the same problem. “Give me the punchline” I’m told. “Get to the point.” Clients ask me “What’s the one article I can read on this: don’t give me a book!” The blogosphere is filled with top ten lists. We want the action points, not logic or narrative flow. Venture capitalists tell us that if we haven’t grabbed them in the first few sentences or pages of the proposal, they’re not going to read on.

There’s something very important being lost here. At the personal level, I grieve not only for the loss of my (deeply satisfying) leisure reading, which has almost disappeared. It’s happening in my business reading which is increasingly rushed or not done at all.

By reading less (and reading less well) some very adverse things happen:

a) I learn less.

b) I’m missing nuance and logic in what I am reading.

c) That forces me to rushed conclusions (accept /reject) about what I’m skimming.

d) My critical faculties are declining from lack of use. I’m not reflecting enough to ask questions like “What would it mean if this were true?” “Under what circumstances would this apply?” “In what other contexts might this be applicable?”

e) The failure to ask those questions is making me less creative in my thinking.

f) Obviously, by reading less (and less in depth) I am becoming less informed — about the world, my clients’ world, my own specialty

Here are some questions for you:

(i) What’s your experience? Do YOU find yourself reading less (and less well) nowadays?

(ii) What other negative consequences do you think it has?

(iii) What approaches have you tried to solve the problem?


Carl A. Singer said:


I think you’ve really hit the nail on the thumb ;)

Your experience certainly reflects my own — at least when it comes to “work” books — I can still wrap myself around a well written biography (I recently read the 1956 autobiography of General Matthew Ridgway) or (less and less) fiction (Wodehouse is always worth a re-read) — but even there — once I pick it up, I have to read it cover-to-cover, if it can’t hold my interest and I put it down, then it will forever gather dust in my library.

Is there a lesson to be learned for authors and would-be authors — less is more. Get to the point! Or build a layered book so that one can skip the introductions and background material, the “build up” and other “width” (that may be vital to some readers) and get right into the meat. Then again, how would your publisher respond to a 50 page book?

No doubt some psychologist will note that our reading attention span has been shrunk by the internet, blogs, etc.

posted on November 15, 2006

Susan Marshall said:

Dear David, You’re right about this and it makes me sad. Deep thinking is disappearing as our reading becomes more superficial. I wonder what happens to our ability to solve ever-more complex problems? Thinking about the evolutionary process, are we shrinking our minds and our emotional capacity by quick-sipping information instead of drinking deeply from works of wisdom? What are the implications for business, education, politics, personal relationships, parenting, you-name-it? Maybe more important, what happens to quality of life when nothing stays on our minds long enough to matter?

posted on November 15, 2006

Heidi Ehlers said:

Completely agree. I’ve gone from devouring books when I was younger, to not being able to get past the first 30 pages. Especially with business books. I find many of them derivative, the concept is usually outlined by then, and the next six chapters are a repetition of the core thought. Hungry to get lost in a book, I’ve tried to find some fiction that doesn’t have a jacket summary that begins with, “Poor downtrodden woman….” Or, “Theirs was a family with a dark secret that threatened to…..” But just last week I finished a book!!! I laughed out loud at least every four pages, and cried, and laughed and cried. And if you’re looking for a breezy, up, touching book, I can’t recommend 700 Sundays by Billy Crystal enough. Enjoy!

posted on November 15, 2006

Peter Vajda said:

I’m curious as to how many folks read (basically, non fiction, but also fiction, I suppose) out of fear as opposed to reading out of passion and curisoity…fear of “not knowing”, fear of being left behind, fear that if they don’t have “more information” well, they will just lose out, fear that if they can’t quote the latest and greatest to their colleagues they will be seen as out of the loop, fear that they are judged as not keeping up and probably unconsciously, fear and lack of confidence about who they might be if they expressed “original thoughts as as opposed to repeating, repackaging or regurgitating others’ thoughts.

After all, how much of what is written, non-fiction, is really, really, really new? Yes, some…but…

I’m curious about folks’ responses to the question, “Who might I be and what might happen if I stopped reading for a time? Would/Could I be creative, insightful, imaginative and could I rely on my own inner resources for right information, right action?”

Or, what would it be like if I did not read another book in my field for six months and read only in areas I knew little about? Would that be self-destructive, a waste of time?

What does all this reading get me anyway? Really, really new ideas? Ego gratification? Safety in that I can now “talk” with others? Great pats on the back and adulation that I “have knowledge in my brain?” A sense that I’m “somebody”?

I hear and listen to numerous conversations daily on the transit system, in hotels, restaurants, around water coolers, and, frankly, much of it centers on rehashing, repeating old ideas, or others’ new ideas, what folks read, heard others say, etc. To tell the truth, I hear what seems to me, at least, very few “original and creative” thoughts in many of these conversations.

I’m reminded of two folks when I read your post, David: one is Dag Hammarskjöld who was Secretary-General of the United Nations and Michael Flatley of “ Lord of the Dance” fame. Both said, in their own ways, they never read and the best thing one can do to be fresh and creative is to never pick up a book or newspaper. In this way, they both said this allowed them to be creative, light, fresh and have a clarity about their life and work.

Anathma, heretical and very scary (even to the point that we may feel we are dying) to those of us who gain our identity by what’s in our brains…and who feel we might never, could never, have another thought, and a good one at that, or be able to be effective in my work, or on the social scene, if we were to read less or not at all for a period of time. Whose thought is it anyway? How original am I, really? Hmmmm. When am I showing up, authentically, and when are others showing up….albeit out of my mouth and brain?

posted on November 15, 2006

Colin said:

This is a particulary pertinant thought in so many ways. First, I also no longer read books at all, but it is not because I have less attention, think less critically or with less empathetic nuance, or am less willing to accept new ideas with open-ness. I have never read newspapers or magazines, nor do I read any blog with regularity [to be perfectly honest, not even this blog which I am responsible for building and maintaining, to be totally transparent], so it can’t be the internet’s fault.

The world I live in, have created and am creating [because our experience is always a combination of forces from without and from within], is becoming increasingly verbal, and more specifically almost entirely conversational.

It’s that all my day is passed reading and writing emails, reading and writing code [and debugging!], doing lots of intense critial analysis, but all in a mode that is so based on specific, person-to-person relationships that I find that if I pick up a book I just think, ‘How am I supposed to know how to take this? Who is/was this person anyway?’ Meaning and language for me are so inextricably linked to who is saying it and where and how and especially why, that I just can’t accept ideas from a context-less vacuum like a book anymore. Not to mention the patience and more importantly leisure time that I simply do not have anymore.

I do not read for this reason above all: there is too much to DO. After all this interaction and analysis through the computer machine, when before maybe I would pick up a book for fun now all I want to do is go and enjoy interaction and analysis verbally and physically with real people. So for the most part I’d rather have a friend tell me about a book they read than read it myself, because I love my friend and am interested in his/her point of view, but the author? Never met him/her and probably never will.

posted on November 15, 2006

Mark Graban said:

You’ve articulated what I’ve been feeling for a while…. I love reading, but I never finish a book anymore. This bothers me, particularly as I’m trying to start your “Managing the Professional Service Firm.”

I’ve also been reading your website articles (short pieces) and listening to your podcasts (short bites of time).

As a blogger, maybe I contribute to this mindset. As an internet user, there’s always something different/additional/more/better that I could be reading, so I jump around a lot. That short attention transitions over to book time, I suppose.

I too, find it sad. Not sure if there’s any going back though.

posted on November 15, 2006

Lance Dunkin said:

It seems that having the determination to and excitement for reading books (and quality periodicals) could be a competitive advantage. I know it is in graduate school.

To answer David’s questions:

I do find myself reading less.

I have often felt that I have doubled my education from what I have read outside of school assignments. This reading list includes David’s books, other great business books, the WallStreet Journal, etc. So as I read less (mostly due to time constraints), I know I am short changing myself. I can’t prove it, but I know when I read more, I am better off—as I get ideas that lead me down certain roads, help me in certain conversations, etc.

To combat the problem, I have committed myself to reading 40 minutes a day. I have kept this up through a semester that has included several 60 hour work weeks and sometimes staying up late to get my reading in (so I know it is possible). I feel this reading has made a huge difference in my life over the past few months.

As I’m not really bored with reading, I tend to come at the problem from a time management perspective. Another solution I can give is to actually plan one’s day. Not just a list of things to get done, but an actual 30 min by 30 min schedule of when things will get done. (You have to keep in mind that this schedule is a tool, and greater/serendipitous events during your day should never be foregone because you have something else on the schedule).

I think it is fair to say that we all waste at least an hour during the day. If we schedule things better, we find that hour (by giving up wondering what we should be doing, generally idling, or watching TV).

As far as finding books that are engaging—read more Maister! Sorry David, I had to. Really, I think by taking the plunge, setting a goal, and reading a new book; we will remember what we are missing and make reading a habit again. I also find that it is more fun to read a series of books or several books by the same author with some type of theme. You can also follow themes or topics in the newspaper. Say you like personal finance—look for regular columns in periodicals.

A question I want to pose is where do we find our reading list from?

Currently, I like to look at WSJ’s business best sellers, ask people who are smarter than me to recommend books that helped lead to their success, and listen for recommendations from other successful people (in the University setting, this is fairly common).

posted on November 15, 2006

Coert Visser said:

Hi David and others,

Here is my experience. About 20 years ago I chose a simple reading rule that I still stick to and which keeps reading a great activity for me. The rule was: to NEVER READ ANYTHING AGAINST MY WILL. Practically the rule meant that whenever I noticed that I didn’t like what I was reading …. I had to stop immediately and put the book/article away. So even when I bought a book and found out after a few pages that it bored my I stopped and put the book away. The effect of sticking consequently to this rule was that I never / hardly ever read anything I did not like and that reading became always enjoyable. Reading became fun! The unexpected effect over time also was that I became much more aware of what it was I was interested in and what not. To my suprise I sometimes found myself picking up a book which I had found boring before, and now liked it because it now answered some questions that were connected to issues I was now working with. Another suprising thing for me was: I did not end up reading less, as you would think. If anything, I got to read more, and I liked it more. I don’t know if this rule is applicable for anyone else but for me it worked fine.


PS David what a pity you (probably) have not read a gem of a book that has recently come out: Mindset by Carol Dweck. Read an interview by me with the author here: http://tinyurl.com/ybn8xt

posted on November 15, 2006

Ed Lee said:

if i can get a little geeky here, since i started reading stuff through RSS i’ve gone from deeply reading about 50 blogs to skimming 200.

it’s gotten to the point that if the article isn’t pithy, punchy and to the point, i’m unlikely to read it. Some, like this one, i actually go to the site and take my own time reading it – rescuing it from the river of information flowing through my computer – but it’s not good enough.

workers and managers alike have so many pressures on their time that they spend their days being defensive, pushing around assignments that are urgent, not important, in order to stay out of trouble with their bosses.

if more people took just 30mins a day to read something worthwhile, and then to think on it and perhaps come up with a really good idea, then their managers and by extension, their companies, would fare much better.


posted on November 15, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

I read less books than I used to (heck, I used to put away a minimum of 5 a week) and it’s a problem. You simply don’t learn enough about any given subject to really understand it from most blog posts or magazine/newspaper articles. This may or may not matter depending on the sort of work you do, for me, it’s a problem and one I know I have to tackle before the amount of material going in starts exceeding by too much the amount of material already inside.

Things you know are what you think with, the more you know, the more different connections you can make between disparate facts, stories and theories. And the best way to get that stuff is reading, and for larger topics, the best medium is books.

A word specifically on business books. Most are overlong for the topic. A friend once told me that if you want to keep up on business ideas the best way is to simply read the original HBR article which the book was based on. There are exceptions, but in most cases that tells you what you need to know, without the superfluity.

posted on November 15, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

Oops, sorry, this:

“one I know I have to tackle before the amount of material going in starts exceeding by too much the amount of material already inside.”

Should be

“one I know I have to tackle before the amount of material going out, exceeds by too much the amount of material already inside.”

ie. I’m draining the resevoir, and I’m not refilling it fast enough.

posted on November 15, 2006

Mike Gilronan said:

David, I’ve read your books and blogs and subscribed to your podcasts for some time and I’ve never felt compelled nor expert enough to respond, but you’ve touched a nerve.

I consider reading one of life’s great joys, and have found two main times when I (consciously) “slow down my clock” to indulge in the kind of in-depth reading that you mourn the loss of:

  1. each year on vacation (book/bike/beach) — I try to make a point of not setting an ambitious “see everything/do everything” schedule when on vacation, and recommend travel to an island to combat this tendency
  2. every time I’m on an airplane — air travel is routine, but still hassle enough that deep focus on good prose is a welcomed respite

I know that some people don’t/can’t partition themselves this way (perhaps it makes many of them more successful in their careers than I am), but I treasure these breaks. Reading something about which I am passionate helps, too!

posted on November 15, 2006

Jason Alba said:

Interesting dialogue. I find myself reading more but that could be because I recently switched from employed to unemployed to self-employed. I’m on my own schedule, I have my fav blogs, don’t use RSS (yet – and maybe never based on a comment above ;)). I find myself skimming other blog posts more than reading them, which kind of bugs me.

Perhaps the worst part about this whole blogging thing – at least if you follow my blog – is the bad spelling? As it is informal communication, perhaps we are more relaxed on spelling and grammar then we should be (worse in places like MySpace… but I see lots of bad writing).

posted on November 15, 2006

Jerry Van Polen said:

In response to a similar observation, I have been considering whether a so-called media diet would be worthwhile. Here are two somewhat relevant quotes collected in my own years of more frequent reading:

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. Even the facts of science may dust the mind by their dryness, unless they are in a sense effaced each morning, or rather rendered fertile by the dews of fresh and living truth. — Thoreau

Even for a poor man, to buy books is easier than to read them; to read them, than to comprehend; to comprehend them, than to assimilate them; and all is easier than to correct and apply what one has found in them. — Austin Warren

posted on November 15, 2006

Jon Sacker said:

David, A couple of thoughts/comments.

Like many of your respondents I used to be a voracious reader, but like you had found that my intake had slowed to an absolute minimum. A couple of years ago I took a year out and went off travelling for a year – and found that I was tearing through books again like they were going out of fashion, largely fiction, but interestingly (for me anyway) not just holiday pulp, but a number of ‘heavy’ novels which I had once started, but never before finished.

But once I returned home, my reading had once again diminished. I have thought about this a lot since and come to the conclusion that it was largely about time and space – once other things didn’t matter and, possibly more importantly, I was disconnected from the web, reading once again became a pleasure and not a chore.

On a completely different tangent I was interested by your reference to “top ten lists”. It seems to me that the UK (where I’m based) and I guess the US is becoming more and more dominated by a ‘list’ culture where either through a lack of time or inclination we are saying, I don’t have time to think for myself, tell me what is top, what is it we need to know. Be it the top ten comedy films or business thinkers we no longer analyse for ourselves but pass the responsibility onto others!

So, do we have the desire and the inclination to once again make the space to read or is it to late and the precis will now rule?

posted on November 15, 2006

Ric said:

I have been a voracious reader most of my life (even reading cereal packets at breakfast if nothing better was around!), and I have found myself in the last few years in exactly the position you describe. I start (and don’t finish) books and magazines, not from lack of interest, but lack of time. There is a growing pile of half-read material occupying more and more space in the study, much to my chagrin. Reading these days is also mainly web-based, blogs in particular, but characterised by the short ‘bites’ of information by their nature.

I recently decided it was time to try and reverse the rot, and over the last two weeks have read more books and magazines cover-to-cover than the last two years. and enjoyed it immensely.

(FYI, the books read:


Mavericks at Work (passed onto the boss so he could understand me!)

Naked Conversations, and just started

Designing Interactions)

While it is useful these days to be able to scan large amounts of information quickly, I agree that our understanding is lessened if we don’t make the time to dive more deeply into at least some of it, and that will reduce our effectiveness (via the efficiency of it all)

posted on November 15, 2006

Ron K Jeffries said:

Like he said! I invest a lot

of time reading (skimming) the Internet, especially blogs.

I seldom sit down with a book.

It’s my loss. Maybe a 12 Step program is called for?

posted on November 15, 2006

Michael Webster said:

I am half down that road. The RSS feeds demand constant eyeball attention.

But I am also addicted to purchasing cheap books -to be read covertly over lunch while at work.

The last illicit lunch pleasure was Steve Gilbert’s book on mind and expectations.

Talk a walk, cheat your schedule, and visit your used book store.

posted on November 15, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thank you everybody. This is (and I hope will continue to be) a very interesting (and high-quality) conversation. You’re all being very perceptive, I think.

Like many of you, I think there’s (MOSTLY) no going back. Once your mind starts processing information in a certain way, or at a certain speed, you lose the “training.”

Let me stretch for an analogy. Something else I love is going to the theatre (or theater, if you insist on American spelling.) I grew up in London on a diet of the “greats”: I saw many so-called “serious” plays with Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench.

Here’s the point. Back then, it was ‘normal’ to settle in, sit and watch a three-hour drama unfold from a playwright who was trying to say something.

I’m not trying to be make a point about my tastes, except the same one I made about reading. In today’s world, I find that I don’t have the mental capacity to absorb such dramas unless they’re REALLY, REALLY good.

Both in London and on Broadway, (places I have the good fortune to go to regularly) theatre (theater) has been taken over my a form that says “Don’t make me think too hard. Make it fun. Make it entertaining.” And I don’t blame anyone else but people LIKE me – I’m part of the problem, too.

If theater is not your taste, how about TV? Same phenomenon. Yes, I may want to get some information, but you had better sweeten it with lots of entertainment. How many of us REALLY tune into PBS except for something like Mystery! or a costume drama?

It’s not that we’re not interested, but I do think ALL the media are training us to have only limited mental absorption capacity – each and every one of us (unless we work to correct it) are becoming less “capable” each passing day.

That’s why, even though Colin’s point is absolutely fascinating (conversations with real people are always better than one-way passive receiving) I do agree with those who think we should try to develop techniques to bring reading (and the benfits such as critical abilities that go with it) back into our lives. So, yes, Coert, I will read the book you recommended.

posted on November 15, 2006

Isabelle Hakala said:

Interestingly, I /do/ find that I read less, but not *zero* and when I do read I don’t skim. However, I have found that I /write/ considerably less than I would like to. I think I have gotten a little bit more self-consumed over time, and less inflamed about trying to get people out of their own boxes. Or perhaps I just know less people that need to be pushed! Either way, I wish that I wrote more. The writing bug just doesn’t bite me like it used to. And I am pretty sure it is because of the net. I think alot of that influence is the feeling that what I would say is already out there somewhere, so why bother.

posted on November 16, 2006

Andrew Smith said:

I think the short answer is – yes, people generally are reading less in the sense of devoting time to lengthier books or articles that require a greater degree of focus and concentration.

The concept of continuous partial attention has been doing the rounds for a while now – and clearly technology is partly to blame. In the UK, Baroness Greenfield had a good piece on this.

But clearly there are other factors as well. Everyone is under such huge pressure to “maximise” their time, that you almost want to know in advance that if I’m going to spend 1 – 2 hours doing something, I will gain a sufficient return on my attention.

If you start reading a longer article or book, and you don’t feel as though you are getting value from it within the first 5 mins, you will almost certainly decide to move on to something else.

Also, creating the time in one’s life to devote to real reading. Everyone now has to be “always available” – especially in the work environment – I don’t see a problem with leaving an hour or so each working day devoted to proper reading – but don’t a lot of people regard that as “not real work” ie reading is done by people who aren’t really occupied with proper work ie if you are spending an hour reading you aren’t billing your time for this.

There is also the “always on” syndrome of email, RSS newsfeeds, etc – the temptation to just “check my inbox” or newsreader, just to make sure I’m not “missing” something. This in term leads to a dissipation of focus/attention and making it ever more difficult to create the time and space to focus on more concentrated thinking and working.

And yes, there are some serious negatives. Not least of which in my own field of PR. What’s the point in generating lots of great press coverage if nobody actually reads it? Our own anecdotal research suggests that the more senior the audience you target, the more likely they are to be people who don’t read anything (indeed, we’ve found that some senior figures employ people to do their reading for them – which again has some curious implications for PR eg tailoring a message that you think will be interesting to the person doing the reading rather than the person who ought to be reading it…..)

What is the solution? I’ve found David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is helpful (http://www.davidco.com) – without going into the detail of his method, the end goal is to clear your mind so that you CAN focus on something in the moment eg proper reading. As well as creating the right time and space to do it. As with most things in life, it requires some serious effort to acknowledge the problem and change one’s behaviour accordingly.

posted on November 16, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

Sorry I’m late, I meant to comment the first time, but this was kind of a long posting, and I had to run, you know how it is…

David, sometimes you play the Bob Dylan role (circa Blond on Blond and Highway 61) to me, that of articulating the thoughts that I had but didn’t articulate. Like this time. Yup.

I really hate facing it, but it’s true; adult ADD is rampant in my life. And I justify it more than face it.

I’ll have to go back and read everyone else’s comment to see if there’s an answer. Later, that is, just now I gotta run…

posted on November 16, 2006

Dean Fuhrman said:

I have had two totally different kinds of experiences. On the one hand in exploring some new terrain I have read a lot of books. Most of which are not business books. I have found that if I pick up a business book I rarely finish it. If it is about something that has some passion, some spirit, some bit of human-ness I typically read it cover to cover and fairly easily. If the books attemps to instruct in the way most business books do, I generally am unable to stick with it. I find I need a story line that attracts my attention and that I am interested in. This probably says more about my state of mind than in anything else. But there is an effect of the “continuous partial attention” that has been written about. I see the effect of that in the way I approach blogs, newspapers, and magazines. And I agree that the face to face human contact has something that you need, can’t get in any reading, and is harder to come by than it used to be. I have also found that I read some poetry whereas I did none of that before. Reading poetry makes you slow down because it is distilled thinking at generally a deep level. Somewhat of a paradox in that it distills in a way that matches our need for to the point, concised, great thinking and takes more time to cipher. I think the decline of reading is a symptom and there is a deeper root cause.

posted on November 16, 2006

Andrew Smith said:

Speaking of books worth reading, Neil Postman’s Technopoly anticipates many of the things being discussed in this thread.

Here’s a sample:

“Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deificaiton of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity’s superhuman achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved. They also believe that information is an unmixed blessing, which through its continued and uncontrolled production and dissemination offers increased freedom, creativity, and peace of mind. The fact that information does none of these things — but quite the opposite — seems to change few opinions, for unwavering beliefs are an inevitable product of the structure of Technopoly. In particular, Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down.”

Real reading = gaining knowledge vs information gathering?

posted on November 16, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Another fascinating Maister topic!

I find myself reading less than I did several years ago, although I still read 50-60 books per year. The decrease is due largely to increased parental responsibilities, writing, and the recent successes of the Detroit Tigers and Michigan’s football team

I have to challenge the premise of David’s post — that his critical faculties are diminishing. Any regular reader of this blog can attest to the ridiculous nature of such an assertion. I believe that David’s lament confuses inability with the lack of a conscious choice to continue his previous habit of devouring substantive books. If David crashed a plane today on a desert island with a planeful of books, I suspect that his reading comprehention would revive quickly. Many opportunities for personal growth are lost because we underestimate our capacities to learn or relearn critical skils. See Betty Edwards’ classic work, Drawing on the Left Side of the Brian, as evidence for this assertion.

As a devout reader, I benefit greatly from the intellectual exercise of following an author’s sustained thought. But books are not a superior vehicle for stimulating deep thought than articles or blogs in many cases. This blog has raised more intellectly-stimulating topics this month than a roomful of books.

The true tragedy in this area is the intellectual complacency of so many of us. We fail to value the continuous need for personal growth in every area of our lives — and consequently fail to make deep thinking a habit. (We know enough already!)

This blog topic reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with a musician considered by some to be the world’s greatest Bach pianist. When I asked him whether he sits at the piano and plays for the sheer joy of playing the piano when he has an extra 15 minutes, he seemed surprised by the question. He responded, “Bill, I AM NOT A RECREATIONAL PLAYER. When I sit at the piano, I am either rehearsing for a performance or working on my skills as a pianist.” At first his response evoked sadness, but then it dawned on me that he would never have become the world-class musician he is today if he ever felt that he was “good enough.” (He is the life of the party when he plays the piano recreation for us on occasion.)

Dale Dauten’s brilliant book, Better than Perfect, (a 10-star out of five recommendation by the way) discusses the concept of becoming “better than perfect” — that yesterday’s perfection may be exceeded by someone willing to grow and experiment. Would that we all commit to growing intellectly every day and act on that commitment!

posted on November 16, 2006

Jerry Van Polen said:


Perhaps in each of us there is a secret soul which would either read deeply or not at all. If we read habitually, yet by our habits demonstrate a lack of trust in the rewards of deeper reading, we might also demonstrate a lack of trust in ourselves. This we will rue.

Apparently there are different kinds of experience to be had under the category of “reading.” The temptation exists to identify these with one or another text medium. However, one can be just as hasty pulling book after book off a shelf in a library, or picking off lead paragraphs in a newspaper, as browsing the web. Haste is not new and not wrong, but hurry can become its price.

Perhaps a different approach is to ask what *we* bring, to *make* a particular experience of reading what it becomes. We know that the rewards of book-reading can include finding depth and pleasure, and filling the well, but what do we bring? I believe a crucial element is to bring commitment; that is, how much benefit-of-the-doubt will we offer, and how much attention will we invest? What is the minimum increment of investment for careful reading — twenty pages, twenty minutes, more? This call all be relearned, but it is not what a five-second rule in browsing behavior will reinforce.


posted on November 16, 2006

Jerry Van Polen said:

correction: can all be relearned

posted on November 16, 2006

Mark Needham said:

I have a similar experience if not identical. I seem to go through periods when I just can’t put books down but then eventually I get bored and don’t pick anything up for a few months.

I often wrestle with the problem of finding a book boring, say half way through and then debating whether I should just stop reading it and pick up another or skip a few chapters or what. The mistake I usually make is plodding through hoping that it will get better and as a result reading less and less frequently until I’ve finished that particular book.

I love reading in general so the sudden increase in blogs on the internet has allowed me to spend hours just clicking between various blogs reading different opinions on similar subjects. For me that is one of the main advantages of blogs/web articles over books – you can quickly gather multiple opinions and make your own mind up what you believe is correct. Obviously the same process can be done with books but it’s significantly more expensive and time consuming!

I think books are really useful for getting background information on a subject and getting a much more thorough covering of the subject. That’s not to say that I haven’t read books which seem to just repeat themselves over and over again but the ones I’ve read generally cover different aspects of a subject matter. Blog articles on the other hand tend to either roughly cover the main areas of a subject or just focus on 1 or 2 main aspects.

I think they can therefore compliment each other, although personally I find that I can understand the theory of subjects better from a book and then read blogs/internet articles for ideas on how people have implemented them.

posted on November 20, 2006

Marcel Goldstein said:

Hi David,

You touch on a topic close to my heart. Our lives are richer when we read books and, if we value the benefits we gain from reading books and wish to avoid the adverse effects you speak of, then we must develop habits to make book reading a priority.

Two ideas for making book reading a priority in our lives:

1. A Non-Work Schedule. I have posted a schedule in my kitchen that allots book reading time on certain nights of the week. With all of life’s other demands and distractions, I decided to schedule in the habit.

2. Public Transportation. Living in or near a city opens up the opportunity to commute by public transportation. With a commitment to keeping my Blackberry in my bag, I am assured of the habit of 60 minutes (30 minutes each way) of book reading every workday.


posted on November 23, 2006

Susan Abbott said:

My first visit here, and what a fascinating and rich discussion. I have also noticed the same problem, at a time when the number of things I need to stay informed about seems to be increasing.

My list of ‘must-read’ books is getting longer, but the number I’m getting through is shorter. I had to slow down buying business books because I just wasn’t actually reading them. And a number of other good publications are getting short shrift as well, such as McKinsey Quarterly, HBR, strategy business.

I worry that the bad is forcing out the good. To try to offset this trend, I tried to reallocate my Bloglines time to other reading. But that meant I was no longer current on the ‘now’ stuff in the culture, which is important for trend monitoring.

One overwhelming notion: I can see that my clients are in a much worse way than I am. They look to their consultants to provide these sources of knowledge, sometimes to help them find the best new thinking / research.

From the standpoint of anyone writing, you’ve certainly got to get to the point quickly, and keep it snappy.

posted on February 9, 2007