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I. Supposedly I’m Doing It All Wrong
My last post was my monthly round-up of book reviews. I mentioned that at 12 reviews it was the second longest collection of reviews I’d ever done. What I did not mention was that if we are actually judging it based on the more significant criteria of the most books I’ve read in a single month then it’s number one. This is because the 13 books I finished in December of 2019 included four books which I had read over the course of an entire year, and at the beginning of January I always start fresh. Acknowledging this record seems an appropriate occasion to go “off topic” and do a whole post on the business of reading, and how it should be done.
(Also I’m leaning into the “Look at me! Aren’t I so amazing!” angle for reasons which will soon become apparent.)
I should start off by saying that I have no strong feelings on how it should be done. If your ideal life includes reading a hundred or more romance novels every year, then, assuming this endeavor doesn’t lead you to neglect your family or your job, it would sound like you have a hobby which is no worse or better than binging TV shows. Where I do have strong feelings is when people tell me that I’m doing it wrong. And in part this post was engendered as a reaction to many people doing just that.
All of these people make the argument that when it comes to reading quality is more important than quantity. As such anyone who prioritizes quantity, has obviously missed the point. Here’s how David Perell, the noted writing guru, describes such people:
Mike boastfully reads 100 books per year. He listens to audiobooks at 3x speed whenever he drives and swears he can remember it all. His browser has a plugin that lets him speed up YouTube videos, and for a while, he listened to podcasts on a special app because of its unique “Smart Speed” feature. All around, his strategy for learning is simple: shove as much information into the mind as possible.
He’s one of those white-collar workers who’s always on the brink of quitting his job. He listens to podcasts while making pivot tables in Excel and stopped taking the subway to work because the train noise made it impossible to hear the audiobook narrators. During coffee breaks, he avoids conversation because he doesn’t like living life at “1x speed.” With a sped-up voice in his ear instead, he looks out of the 32nd floor of his company’s office and dreams of the day when he can finally quit his job and have the time to consume even more information.
200 books per year, he hopes.
I now understand that telling people the quantity of books you read last year is the dick measuring contest of the pseudo-intellectual.
For example, as younger me plowed through books, it was never really about the “learning”. It was about having some objective measure I could lean on to signal how smart I was.
Every book I binged was about adding another notch in the bookshelf. A +1 to an ever growing number which I would bandy about so I could be showered with validation.
The insinuation in both of these quotes is that if you are reading 100 books a year (I am) or listening to stuff at 3x (I do) or mentioning how many books you’ve read in any kind of self-congratulatory fashion (which I just did) that this is ironclad evidence that you are a “Mike” or an odious pseudo-intellectual who should be barred from polite society. You are obviously prioritizing quantity over quality, and have thereby missed the entire purpose of reading. Basically, you are doing it wrong. Obviously I don’t think I’m doing it wrong, and I’m here to argue that it’s possible to do reading right even if, and especially if, you’re doing a lot of it—that, as the saying goes, quantity has a quality all its own.
II. The List of All the Reasons Why I’m Doing It Wrong
As all of the complaints mostly hinge on my practice of listening to stuff at 3x (or as fast as I can understand it, which is sometimes only 2x or 2.5x) we’ll start by examining the various criticisms of that practice. Some of these criticisms are contained in the passages just quoted, some of them are found elsewhere, some of them are implied and some of them are things people have said to my face. Let’s start with mild objections and work up to the major ones.
Listening that fast keeps you from enjoying books: People who know me don’t generally accuse me of not understanding the books I listen to, rather their objection is that I can’t possibly be enjoying them. Those who appreciate audiobooks imagine that at those speeds it’s impossible to enjoy the narration and that good narration is one of the big selling points of audiobooks. I wouldn’t say that there’s zero truth to that, but in my experience it’s far less of an issue than people think. I’m not sure of exactly what adjustments they make in addition to just speeding it up (I know it doesn’t end up increasing in pitch) but in my experience the quality of the narration is persevered. George Guidall still sounds great and having an author read their own book is still a hit or miss proposition regardless of the speed.
Furthermore, while I very much enjoy reading, enjoyment is not my primary reason for doing it. I do it to learn. But even if I was prioritizing enjoyment, reading serious books quickly allows me the time to read additional books strictly for enjoyment. If you look at the 12 books I read last month, and imagine that by listening more slowly I only was able to read 8 books, which books would have gotten cut? Almost certainly the enjoyable ones, particularly the three pulpy sci fi books I read.
It puts you in the mode of forever preparing and never executing: There does seem to be a specific and identifiable failure mode where people are stuck constantly creating a plan, but never actually executing on that plan. But some of the people who’ve fallen into this trap read books very slowly and carefully, and some don’t read books at all, but endlessly browse aspirational websites, while some are forever busy trying to get their website to look just so, or perfect their marketing plan. Since the humble ship has already sailed I might as well point out that unlike “Mike” I quit my job to do a startup in 2007. (Which was a horrible year to decide to do a startup by the way, but that’s another story.) So while I have many problems I don’t think a lack of execution is one of them.
It’s primarily about signaling: In Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain they argue that everything is about signaling. So if you buy that, which I do though, not unreservedly, then of course it’s about signaling. Nor do I have any problem admitting it. In my case I’m trying to signal, “You should listen to what this guy says because he’s trying really hard to be informed before he says anything. Yes, he’s biased and wrong and caught in an echo chamber just like everyone else, but he’s trying really hard to lessen all of those things by exposure to lots and lots of books.”
When you listen that fast you don’t remember anything: If you were paying attention I previewed this subject back when I did the round up of the books I had finished in October. In my intro to that post I took issue with some retention percentages Holden Karnofsky had published for various reading methodologies. He asserted that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but at the time I drew particular attention to his claim that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title.
Setting all of my objections to Holden (which were many) aside I do agree that lots of people read in a detached manner. (I would say that “detached” and “engaged” are better descriptions than “quickly” or “slowly”) And that retention under such conditions isn’t great. I think you have to be engaged with what you read regardless of whether you’re listening at 3x or 1x. In fact, in my experience, listening to something at 3x forces you to be focused and engaged. Still, it’s clear that regardless of the speed and the manner in which you read, engagement would, ideally, also include taking notes (which I do), summarizing the book later (ditto), and having an intellectual landscape in which to place the book. All three of those things are made easier by reading quickly. Allow me to explain:
The problem with taking notes and summarizing is that it takes time. If you read/listen faster you have more time available. For example, let’s assume that you’re able to carve out 15 hours in which to listen to an audiobook, and that, coincidentally, all your audiobooks happen to be 15 hours long. At 1x all you will be able to do is listen to one book, with no time left over for summarizing or taking notes or anything like that. Let’s go on to assume that to really do that would take an additional 2.5 hours. In that case you could listen to the book at 1.2x and fit everything in. The advantages to engagement of increasing the speed even a little bit become apparent! Okay but now imagine that you’re listening at 3x. At this rate, using the same 15 hours you would have time to listen to and take notes on two books.
But it’s really with the third item on my list, being able to place the book in an intellectual landscape, that the advantages truly start to manifest. Because each and every book you read is part of a larger dialogue, and taking sides in a vast debate. Reading one book, no matter how deeply you engage with it, is like reading one monologue from a Shakespearian play. That monologue might be fantastic, you might even decide to memorize it, but it’s going to lose something if you don’t understand the rest of the play. As an example you might completely misinterpret Polonius’ advice to Laertes, not realizing how much dramatic irony it contains, if you only focus on the advice and not on the plot of Hamlet in its entirety. Reading a lot of books is one of the few ways I’m aware of to understand the whole play.
It keeps you from deeply engaging with really good books: Closely related to the previous point, and perhaps the objection I see the most often, is the idea that you should be focused on deeply engaging with truly great books. That since quality is so important you should spend all of your time on books of the highest quality. I don’t disagree that people should prefer high quality books, and that they should read them in preference to low-quality books, but how does one know which books these are? Obviously you can seek out the opinions of experts, but it’s not as if this will provide you with a list of 10 books that everyone agrees on, rather such an endeavor will provide you with a list of more books than you could possibly read in a lifetime, even at a rate of 100 books a year. Which is to illustrate two things: first the category of “really good books” is huge and ill-defined, and second that it’s something that varies widely from person to person. What this boils down to is that you’re going to be forced to come up with your own list of really good books, and you do that by reading lots of books, and allowing those books to point you at other books. And yes experts can help, but they’re most helpful when you’ve read enough to have some foundation for judging their recommendations.
III. Having Routed All of the Objections What Should One Know About the Art of Listening at 3x?
None of what I’ve said so far should be taken as a claim that listening to books really fast is without any downsides. First off, It’s something you need to work up to. I first started listening to audiobooks in probably 2007, so 15 years ago. In the beginning I was a little bit wary, in particular I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get through a really long audiobook. So the first book I listened to was Atlas Shrugged, and I did all 52 hours at 1x. After this “proof of concept” I stayed at normal speed for quite awhile. But eventually I started moving the dial up. I remember that I plateaued at 1.5x for a couple of years, and based on anecdotal evidence this is where a lot of people end up. My memory is that I didn’t make it to 3x until about 2017, so ten years of gradually turning the dial up. All of which is to say that it’s like any skill, it takes practice and in this case, probably a certain amount of brain rewiring. As an aside, did you know that congenitally blind people can listen to books at 7x? Presumably this is because their brain has been rewired to be exceptionally good at processing sound.
I would assume that someone could do it far faster than the 10 years it took me. I didn’t have any kind of goal or plan, just a vague desire to get more reading done in a given amount of time, and over the years that meant the speed gradually drifted upward to 3x. The natural next question is whether I think I will go even higher. On average, probably not, in fact these days I’m more likely to dial it down a few notches than to dial it up. Audible will go as high as 3.5 but it’s pretty rare that I’ll take advantage of that. At this point it mostly depends on the book and the narrator. As an example, I remember that when I listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals the narrator talked so slowly that I felt like I could have gotten away with listening at 4x.
So the first hack is just to train yourself to be able to listen at a faster speed. But the far more important hack is to get in the habit of taking notes, particularly if you’re reading for knowledge and not enjoyment. If you’re not driving you can take notes on your phone. Which is why, to combine these two points, I will often listen to fiction in the car and non-fiction while I walk. And speaking of walking, with particularly meaty books, in addition to buying the audio version I will also buy a physical copy to carry around on my walks. I can save my place with a pen and when I hear something that seems noteworthy, quickly open the book and use the pen to mark that spot. Then when I get home I can quickly skim through the section I just listened to, and translate the marked sections into notes on my computer. (I personally use Roam Research.)
To repeat, it is certainly possible to “do 3x” very badly. Certainly if you didn’t retain anything then you’re just being stupid. But on the other side of things a lot of its critics just don’t don’t do the math. How much of the book do you think gets missed when listening at 3x versus listening at 1x? Particularly if you’ve actually worked up to it rather than just jumping into the deep end? From my experience listening at 3x provides about 90% of the comprehension that you get from listening at 1x. And honestly that’s being pretty conservative, it might be closer to 95%. As in I am distracted, or mishear, or can’t parse 1 in 20 sentences. (And I should mention, since I have plenty of time in hand at that speed, if the sentence seems at all pivotal I’ll rewind.) But let’s use the 90%. So this would mean I get 9/10 of the benefit/knowledge/important stuff from a book in ⅓ the time. Meaning that for every unit of time I spend I get 2.7 times as much benefit out of my reading.
Now of course these calculations are exactly the sort of thing the critics complain about, a relentless quest for efficiency which tears the soul out of reading, rendering it sterile and without value. Instead they insist that we should be deeply engaging with great books, perhaps reading them over and over again until we’ve sucked out the deep marrow of meaning. But as I’ve been trying to point out, listening at 3x is not mutually exclusive with doing any of this. In fact, it arguably gives you more time to do it, and a greater selection of books it might be good to do it with! How do you know if a book is worth revisiting if you never get around to visiting it the first time? At 3x you visit a lot of books.
As one final point, I would argue that the world needs more generalists. But given the explosion of information this is increasingly difficult to do, and depending on your definition of generalist it might even be impossible. But as breadth of knowledge becomes rarer, that only makes it more valuable. I don’t scream through books at 3x because I want to brag, or because it’s some kind of status marker. I do it because I’m desperate. I’m hoping that somewhere out there, scattered among all the books, and only if someone makes the connection, is the knowledge that might eventually save us.
I suspect asking for donations is another thing I’m supposedly doing all wrong. All the cool kids have substacks with paid and free posts, while everything I post is free. I guess that’s another sign of my desperation. I’m desperate to give whatever crumbs of knowledge I gather to the widest possible audience. If you’d like to help me do that while simultaneously showing me that I do some things right, consider donating.