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Skimming More and Reading Less

I’m used to reading a fair amount. Back in grade school, I carried these giant fantasy novels around the house, and re-read the series on a regular basis. When my family got AOL, I was regularly lurking on a number of the forums, across any number of topics spanning video games and religion and (surprisingly) sports. I still manually go through the 600 or so items in my RSS feeds daily, and Pocket tells me I’m the Top 1% of their readership in 2014 even though I switched back to Instapaper in September.

My point is, I read a lot of blogs and articles and books, and I think I should be reading less.

A part of the thinking is simply acknowledging that society has been producing literature[1] at a maddening pace, which has only accelerated with the advent of free and open speech on the internet. Of course, we’ve long passed the point of being able to read every book published within a lifetime, but even in scoping ourselves to specific, narrow fields, reading most of the worthwhile writing within that context is impossible. Our best tools at the moment to separate signal from noise are really, some combination of search rankings, manual curation, and social affirmation.

Even if there is a way to reduce the “things worth reading” to a finite set, I’m finding myself not remembering what I’ve read. In fact, in starting to jot down book reviews on this blog, I’m partially reminding myself of what I’ve read, but also forcing myself to remember their content and truly digest the writing. Though admittedly, it may be overly dogmatic to be considering and measuring the value of a silly novel by how much it sticks in its readers’ minds afterward.

And finally, we all face the constraints of time. Books, long form articles, epic debate forum threads; they take time to consume, and that’s time taken away from any other leisure or professional or family activity. I still enjoy reading, but realizing and even quantifying the opportunity costs has unveiled how expensive it is to continue reading disagreeable writing. The tough part is to avoid falling into the trap of simply reinforcing existing biases.

My solution so far has been to: skim faster, bail on stuff I’m not finding interesting relatively quickly, get to better things without feeling guilty that I didn’t finish what I started. It’s merely recognizing and running away from the sunk cost fallacy, applied to the simple act of reading[2].

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Defined very loosely as text published publicly, written for a broad audience beyond individual conversations.
  2. And if you’ve read all the way to the end of this short blog post and agree with some of its premises, you should really sit down and decide whether the writing here is good enough to warrant your continued readership. Go ahead…I don’t mind at all.
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