Sunday, June 25, 2017

How to Read More: Episode 1 of 3 - Understanding the Naive Phase

5 Minute Read

Whatever you're working on right now, whatever problem you're struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error. 

-Ryan Holiday

Ah, the benefits of reading. In addition to objectively making us smarter, habitual reading also has proven to reduce stress, improve memory and analytical thinking, increase vocabulary, and even stave off Alzheimer's. All this with no negative side effects. Put another way, reading makes everything better.

Despite these undeniable benefits, we don't read much. We claim we're too tired, we don't want to spend money on books, and we just don't have the time. Then, we plop down on the couch and watch an average of nearly three hours of television while shopping online. In fact, despite not having time to read a book, 95% of texts are read within three minutes of being sent.

Welcome to a three-part journey (my first miniseries!) where we'll be exploring our peculiar relationship with books (Part I), an audiobooks manifesto of sorts (Part II), and some sort of dramatic conclusion that will make you say, "today begins the new me!" as some sort of musical montage begins in the background.

The Naive Phase

Understanding our relationship with books requires a quick trip to the beginning of our lives and to the dawn of our relationship with the recorded words of others.

In his 2012 book Mastery (which is certain to make my top five books of this year), Robert Greene explains that compared to other animals, we humans enter the world remarkably weak and helpless. While baby birds fly after just a few days and infant giraffes can walk within a half hour and run within a day (!), baby Homo Sapiens are weak, vulnerable, and comparatively helpless for anywhere from 12 to 18 years (give or take) before we can truly function on our own.

This extended phase of dependence serves a vital purpose, Greene asserts, as it gives us time to develop our most powerful weapon--the human brain. This period comes at a peculiar price, however, as our childhoods involve idealizing our parents, teachers, and anyone in an authority role whose strength and reliability we depend on.

We are corralled into classrooms, mandatory books are imposed on us (which is Bad Idea Jeans), and we are instructed to carefully read every page because there might be some irrelevant detail in there that will show up on some bullshit scantron test. Then we're in big trouble, as our grade would be affected and our future employment prospects would certainly suffer. Scare tactics, baby!

As if this weren't torturous enough, anyone who went to elementary school in the 80s and 90s certainly had to deal with the judgement-fest that was popcorn reading. If you want to make a 9 year-old with a speech impediment (me in 1990) hate reading for 25ish years, force him to popcorn read in front of his peers.

Love the movie, but this scene haunts me
As a result of this Stalin-like approach to our literacy, we feel sensitive and vulnerable about our reading abilities.  Books become associated with chores, nerds, and feeling like we don't measure up to some arbitrary ideal, and many of us end up with contempt for books and a bizarre pride in how much we don't read. This is Greene's Naive Perspective to a T, and many of us (including the leader of the free world) never outgrow it.


As we enter adulthood, this naive approach ceases to make sense. There are no tests on our reading anymore, it doesn't matter if we skim or skip a few pages (or chapters), and there's no absolutely no reason to feel any negative emotions whatsoever toward books. 

Considering the availability of the works of the greatest thinkers and leaders in human history (you can access them using the very object you're looking at right now!!), failure to move past this phase has undeniable consequences. As Greene explains, our naivete subtly drains us of curiosity and replaces it with conformity to social norms, pursuit of leisure and immediate pleasures, and a general propensity toward a mechanical, robot-like existence. 


If you're still with me at this point, congratulations! You've recognized that the naive approach is for cowards, and you're ready to change your relationship with reading. Next week, we will explore several techniques to upgrading our approach to books. These include, but are not limited to the following:
  • Audiobooks are not cheating
    • Neuroscience proves the impact on the brain is identical to traditional reading
  • The art of nonfinishing
    • Develop the habit of nonfinishing that which is boring or unproductive
  • You don't have to start at page one
    • It's your book
  • Talk to the text
    • Write notes and make highlights
    • It's your book
Until next week!