🌻 on reading more
tips based on my 2020 in books
For the last few years, I've begun every set of new year's resolutions with next year, i want to read more. This is the first year in a while that I won't need to. I kicked off 2020 with an idyllic eight weeks traversing western Europe, bringing my Kindle to teahouses, train trips, and budget flights; then, my summer internship got slashed to two short weeks, leaving me with two months of sunny nothingness in August and September; and during the fall, the familiar Seattle rain has replaced my afternoon walks with a new hobby of moving from my bedroom to the family room couch to pry my eyes off my laptop screen. That’s all to say, this year, the pandemic gifted me more than enough time to read.
I'm on track to read 66 books this year (I'm in the middle of two). When I started reading again in college, books were a solution to information overload—a nourishing escape from the 24-hour news cycle and the minute-by-minute chaos of Twitter. But information is information, and my brain is still my brain, and at a certain point you really don't need to read more books. Once a stranger sent me an email asking for recommendations, writing I'm trying to read a book every day this year. I almost responded why the hell would you do that but decided against it and sent a booklist instead. But seriously, to that person: why the hell would you do that?
So I don't have any tips for reading more books right now. (I did write some a couple years back, which you can find here.) Instead, here's three things that worked for me for getting more from what I read—plus some 2020 favorites at the end:
1) rediscover old books
I'm obsessed with Readwise, an app that compiles your highlights from Kindle, Pocket, Medium, or the plain old web with a simple right click. In addition to tagging, notes, and global search, they email me three random highlights from my collection daily, which adds a sprinkle of much-needed serendipity to my thinking. I also reference my Readwise collections relentlessly for writing and research, where good highlights serve as a proto-synopsis for the whole book.
It's also worth revisiting your high school reading list to figure out which literary greats were wasted on your half-baked brain. After all, the classics are classics because they stand the test of time, adopting new meaning for every epoch or era.
2) let knowledge accumulate
I read mostly nonfiction, which is all about the instant gratification of injecting information straight from the page into your veins. But feeling smarter doesn't mean getting smarter, especially when I would pick up whatever popular title happened to strike my curiosity at the moment.
When reading for learning—versus for pure pleasure, though they're not mutually exclusive—I've found it‘s helpful to go for depth. Read books on topics that you have some prior knowledge about, whether that’s personal experience, coursework, or just other books. There are two main reasons. First, you'll remember more of what you read when the information anchors to something else in your mind-map instead of floating untethered in cognitive space. Second, it's more rigorous. Rather than uncritically swallowing a book’s entire narrative, you can compare theories and attempt to cohere frameworks from multiple sources. Accumulating knowledge creates increasing returns.
3) join a book club
A lot of people are skeptical of book clubs. Often, the pacing seems off or it feels like homework. I was too, until I joined or hosted seven or eight this year. They ended up being a fantastic excuse to see my friends, and I ended up getting a lot more out of what I read: better retention, differing perspectives, people to temp-check my questionable character judgments.
I think there are a few key things to make a book club work. You need to choose the book first, then the group. Book preferences vary widely, and this prevents attrition when half realize they aren't actually down for six weeks of Austrian economics. Then, you need an engaged leader who's willing to put in a bit of extra effort to introduce everyone and compel attendance, especially at the start. It feels naggy, but it's necessary—if people sense you care, they will too. Finally, I've found that it helps to assign rotating pairs of facilitators for every meeting. Facilitators need only spend an extra 20 minutes to put together an icebreaker and discussion questions, but it's a big way of generating group buy-in.
I also use a Notion page and templates to record agendas/notes (here's an example). I don't think you need one, but it's collaborative and convenient and nice to have a souvenir.
4) some recommendations
on technology and the future...
Read The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, Ken Liu‘s latest collection of sci-fi shorts. He prods the line between human and machine through gorgeous prose, and you don't need to be a hardcore sci-fi fan to appreciate it (full review here).
on identity and creation...
Read Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, a collection of prose that you can tell is written by a poet. She tackles the role of racial consciousness in her pursuit of art (full review here).
on social and political change...
Read Dark Money by Jane Mayer. It's a chilling contrast from the grassroots racial justice movements we've seen this year, but I think we need a candid confrontation with the uglier side of the political machine (full review here).
on the business of culture...
Read No Filter by Sarah Frier, the story of Instagram from seed to behemoth. Frier tells a great story while explaining the human impact of business decisions, and you'll also learn why Instagram's been blasting you with so many notifications (full review here).
P.S. These are chosen for a pretty general audience, but reply to this email and I'm happy to share more personalized favorites (especially books on tech or social movements)!
5) a plug for reboot
I've spent the last eight months running Reboot, a newsletter and event series highlighting books on tech, humanity, and power. We publish book reviews, original essays, and host author events and community programs. For more book thoughts, consider signing up :)