How I Read Books Now: A Revision

A few months after my brain surgery in 1992, I told my neurologist that I felt like my brain was on fire and that I was reading a book every couple of days.

I fell in love with reading in 6th grade when Ms. Paolini required me to read Jonathon Livingston Seagull. From there, I went to the public library every week, picking up stacks of books, and in 8th grade found The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. It took me the entire year to read those books.

When I was grounded as a kid, while my physical body was trapped inside, my mind was with Conan the Barbarian or Tarzan or Dr. Calvin. While I was playing music, my reading slowed, even though I was never without a book.

My neurologist listened patiently while I described how I believed that my brain was making new neural connections and how I felt somehow different. When I was done explaining what I was experiencing, he looked at me and said, “There is no evidence that any of that is true. You lost a piece of your brain, and this is most likely a reaction.” While I am not suggesting he was wrong, we now know the brain can—and does—create new neural connections and pathways throughout your life, and things like exercise and meditation help that process. His view was that I was compensating, and he may not have been incorrect.

I read a nonfiction book every week through college, law school, and my executive education. A few years ago, I decided to slow my reading. I changed my intention from simply reading a book to apply my learning. Instead of reading 50 books, I read 10 or 12 books deeply. I read the same book multiple times, often listening to the audio version at the same time. I read much more challenging work with the desire to improve my life as the outcome of my investment. The strategy for reading was only possible because I had read widely enough to know where I wanted to go deep.

After a few years reading the entire works of Ken Wilber and Nassim Taleb a number of times, I am now back to reading widely, just finishing Christian Madsbjerg’s brilliant book Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm (I interviewed Christian for my In the Arena podcast yesterday. It will post soon).

What I have ended up doing without knowing it is reading widely until I find something worth a much greater effort and then going very deep in something that is important, useful, and meaningful. Now I am reading widely, while I search for something that requires me to go deeper.

Without reading widely, you don’t know what’s available to you. Without reading deeply, understanding and applying the work is less likely.

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