Reading More = Reading Better

Issue 8 of my newsletter – subscribe here

It’s hard to shake the feeling you’re having the same thoughts and ideas as everyone else if you just watch and read and listen to the same content – which these days tend to be the most upvoted or retweeted.

This is a problem if your job involves coming up with original ideas. You could find other ways to discover content, like trusting editors to find you the best stuff, but ultimately you end up in the same place.

The best answer I’ve found so far is just to read a lot more. This means you can be less picky and just read whatever interests you, rather than whatever a newspaper or blog or prize name as the top ten or twenty books of the year. So that’s what I’ve been doing this year – instead of reading my usual 30 books in twelve months, I’ve finished 66 books in six months.

I haven’t gotten any better at picking winners than before – the average quality of those books is probably the same as it has ever been. Even so, I’ll read four times as many great books this year as I did last year.

At the same time, I’ve started reading more broadly because it doesn’t matter if I read a few duds. I pay a lot more attention to the books that appear in my local library’s ebook selection, and I’ve discovered a bunch of great books I never would have otherwise.

You’ll enjoy reading more if you read more. It’s as simple as that.

So, how do you read more?

  • Be more impulsive. If a book takes your fancy, read it.
  • Don’t sweat over Goodreads and Amazon ratings. I’ve discovered they barely correspond to the books I like, so I might as well just ignore them.
  • Listen to audiobooks to get started, if that’s your thing.
  • Set time limits on social media apps. I’m not saying you should stop using Twitter or watching TV, but if you want to read more, you should shift some of your low quality reading time for high quality reading time.
  • Read older books. People don’t talk about them as much as newer books, but chances are, they’re a lot better.
  • Let it go. Not every book has to be great. And when you do that, there’s more chance that some will be great.

If you’re looking for a good book to get started, I can recommend The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It’s hard to me to explain why I adore it so much.

I could connect Tom West’s tale of leading a motley team of engineers and ‘microcoders’ to build a new computer to my own experiences as a producer, desperately trying to make something new and worthwhile and original while protecting my own team beneath a “shit umbrella”.

There’s the book’s marvellous grasp of the intricate technical details of how computers work, just as accurate today as it was when the book was published in 1981, and how they’re balanced with Kidder’s equally penetrating observations of what motivated the engineers who crafted those computers. How this is all bound together with a deep understanding of organisational psychology, and yet it’s as gripping as any thriller.

Or there’s the dozens of generous sketches of the engineers, sometimes as short as a few sentences, belying the days and weeks Kidder must have spent with each one to identify that perfect anecdote. A colleague of Carl Alsing, a character in the book, describes it here:

A few years later [after the book was published], in 1986 to be specific, I started a job at an OCR company. My cube was directly across from the office of Carl Alsing, the guy who managed “the microkids”. I didn’t put two and two together at first. Alsing was one of the people who interviewed me for the job, and I got to know him a little bit for a couple months before someone told me about the book connection.

So I went to the library, got the book out, and read it again. When Kidder got to the part where he introduces Alsing, it was amazing. In a paragraph he captured details about Alsing that I hadn’t even realized myself (e.g., his personality projects the image of a smaller man, though he was actually decently tall).

Towards the end, Kidder mulls over the future of computing and employment and, yes, artificial intelligence, in a way that presages our own worries, nearly forty years on.

The book is accessible, but its details are pinpoint accurate, making it that rare book that’s beloved by both expert computer engineers and general readers.

Bonus reading:

Delayed Followup

Simon Carless notes about overpaying mortgages vs. index funds:

One interesting point from a U.S. perspective – our mortgage rates are just under 4% (even for remortgaging things!), and then your mortgage interest is a tax write-off, meaning the effective return to outdo ‘paying down’ your mortgage is a lot higher than the U.K.

Nonetheless, it still makes sense to do index funds instead of mortgage paydowns! Just not such a large differential…

Yup, I forgot just how much the US tax code favours homeowners…

Watching

📺 The Women’s World Cup. Today’s Japan vs. Netherlands match was one of the best so far, if desperately sad for Japan.

Reading

📖 Fall; or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson. Started out mediocre, attained greatness, returned to mediocrity, descended into grinding tedium. I’ve said Interstellar is 2.5 movies long and only one of them is good; well, this is three books long, and once again, only one is good.

📰 China’s Most Advanced Big Brother Experiment Is a Bureaucratic Mess (Bloomberg). Turns out there isn’t just one social credit score in China, but dozens of them, and none work particularly well.

📰 Why Weather Forecasting Keeps Getting Better (New Yorker). Notable for this incredible story:

So, as Blum explains, in 1942 the German government came up with an ingenious solution. With help from the Siemens-Schuckertwerke group (a predecessor of the modern-day Siemens) and others, it developed a series of automated weather stations: these were an intricate array of pressure, temperature, and humidity sensors, encased in storm-resistant metal containers and equipped with batteries and a radio antenna. Some would hitch rides with the Luftwaffe and transmit weather readings from remote locations on the edge of Europe. By 1943, the devices were powerful enough to communicate across the Atlantic. That year, a Nazi submarine sneaked to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, where a team of German soldiers took ten cannisters ashore on two rubber dinghies. For the plan to work, the weather station needed to stay undetected after it had been left in the wilderness, so they labelled the equipment “Canadian Meteor Service” and scattered the site with a host of American cigarette packs. Only in 1981 was the ruse discovered.

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