It was not a surprising question.
How many books did you read last year?
Of course I like to read. It is how I learn and it is something I enjoy. Yes, I have kept logs of my reading over the past few years, so I can find a good answer. Still, the question bothered me. Perhaps I would say a number and he or she would express a measure of polite appreciation.
It seems to be missing the point.
In the typical day-to-day of a person dividing their hours between email, Slack, Zoom, in-person interaction and the occasional bouts of deep work, we are very aware of the length of the written text. Brevity is at a premium, as headlines, texts or tweets are easier to accept, though perhaps not stomach.
To that end, longer emails are at times prefixed with apologies and we have invented words like tl;dr (acknowledging and perhaps even sanctioning the reader’s impatience) or longread, to warn the reader about something that will require their attention for perhaps longer than usual.
It is fascinating. Perhaps the person who wants to maximize their number of books finished will opt for shorter books on average?
As if to either get things over with faster or in an attempt to squeeze in more pages in less time, if anything, the conversation is more usually about reading faster, not slower. When we think of speed reading, the discussion generally focuses on fast reading.
Is faster obviously better? When we prioritize the result, the finish, then we generally prefer faster. Of course, slow reading is a possibility, too.
When people discuss, perhaps even highlight, the number of books they read in a given span of time, it is sometimes in the context of a goal, such that they intended to finish a certain number in that time. Meeting that goal is an accomplishment, fewer is falling short. More is usually considered better.
I, too, enjoy the satisfaction and perhaps closure of having reached the last page of a smart novel or an engaging work of non-fiction. As the year goes on and I find myself adding to the year’s reading log, I acknowledge the log’s substance, but also shy away from paying any real attention to the running total.
It is not about the number. Rather, it is about the reading and the learning, the experience. This informed the intention with which I began the year: Not to read more, but to understand better.
In that vein, more books finished may not in fact be better than fewer. It may not matter at all, whether the book is long or short. Speed reading may have utility, but consider reading slowly, cautiously, too.
What does that mean? You sit with it. You discover what questions come up and explore answers. You allow yourself to experience the words, the images that form in your mind, build understanding but also take the time to face your emotions about them. You go further below the surface. For lack of a better characterization, you lean in and engage.
This year’s list will be shorter, but the experience will have been deeper and more rewarding. If I get asked about the number of books finished, I will probably deflect and try to discuss one of these instead:
- What book has moved you the most in the last year?
- What questions did you find yourself pursuing?
- What did you learn that made a difference for you?
- What insights caught you by surprise?
- What was it like to read slowly?
Those seem closer to the point.