When it comes to great writing, practice will only get you half of the way. To really gain an understanding of how language currently works (and how it fails), we must read often.
That’s admittedly hard for many people. One in four of you reading this didn’t read a single book last year, according to Pew Research. And the 75% who did only reported reading “at least” one book in the last 12 months, so it’s unclear what the average number of read books per year is.
In my own life, I have friends that read over 100 books a year. And I have friends that read no books. I like both kinds, but I know the former are better writers (and often communicators) than the latter. Personally, I read a dozen books per year, in addition to a similar number of long-form articles each week (via Longreads and Digg).
Wherever you are, sometimes we forget the impact that regular reading has on effective writing. This is your reminder. As we head into the holidays and new year, I challenge each of you to read more often. If you need a recommendation, read my recently reviewed books, my own two books, and/or subscribe to the above. Not only will this make you smarter, it will make you a better writer.
Need help writing anything next year? If so, I know a really good guy. Thanks for reading.
I was recently asked which three books changed my life. This is what I said:
A Short History of Nearly Everything. How did we get to where we are today? Bill Bryson spent three years asking dozens of experts that very question to produce this awe-filled masterpiece of everything we know and don’t know about the world. Unlike other “science” books, Bryson turns astronomical numbers into metaphors you can not only understand, but gain inspiration from.
Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting. I’m biased because I wrote it, but the explanations, principles, and lessons contained therein changed my life and can for anyone else who struggles with digital obsessions. At just over a 100 pages, the helpful advice can be read over a weekend, if not a few hours.
Honorable mentions: Thinking Fast and Slow—a tad dense a times, but also the most empowering research on how to use your brain more wisely. The Book of Mormon—also dense at times, but waaaaay better than the Bible if you want to understand the doctrine of Christ, which also changed my life.
Take these. If you’re interested in journalism, the art of war, Star Wars, business, and/or are “white,” I think you’ll enjoy them:
Access denied. In light of waning press access because celebrities, politicians, newsmakers, and producers now take their scoops and audiences directly to social media (instead of publications), we must “build a new independent media on a bedrock of explaining and celebration and condemnation,” writes John Herrman. Explainers, for instance, “assert authority without invoking expertise; they mimic the language of their audience; they offer closure and satisfaction in an endless stream.”
The first-world problem of being white. “What my son was expressing — that he wants the comfort of what he has but that he is uncomfortable with how he came to have it — is one conundrum of whiteness,” writes Eula Biss.
Sneaky ways businesses trick consumers. Why that restaurant you used to love is no longer good among other things by Daniele Kline (i.e. cheaper ingredients slowly make their way into popular products).
Star Wars strikes back. By Brian Hiatt. “The phrase that I used in front of, like, 5,000 Star Wars fans pumped to the gills, ready to see the trailer, was ‘It’s only a movie,'” Hamil says. “I was trying to appeal to the rational, sane people who know movies don’t really change your life, and if you really think we can make you feel like you’re 10 years old at 38, you know what’s gonna happen. So just don’t think that and you’ll be fine!”
“It is remarkable how much long term advantage is gained by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” — Charlie Munger
“Read every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, not many will.” — Warren Buffett
“To better avoid errors, you should talk to people who disagree with you and you should talk to people who are not in the same emotional situation you are.” — Daniel Kahneman (more of his thoughts here)
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguishable from the truth.” — Daniel Kahneman
“Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.” — Charlie Munger
At my daughter’s request, I read James Rumford’s Don’t Touch My Hat(a family favorite) to her kindergarten class.
I tell ya: I felt som’n fierce having 15 pairs of innocent eyes look up to me from a cozy reading rug while showing and telling the story. As I read, there was a sanctity and innocence in the room I haven’t felt in a very long time—maybe not since leaving grade school.
Admittedly, I’ve done a lot of satisfying things this year. I’ve even managed a few professional coups. But this is unexpectedly near the top of my “most gratifying” list for not only this year, but previous years as an adult and father.
More than anything, I’m humbled and honored that my daughter invited me. Magic is soaking my spine. And Rumford is dead on: It’s your heart that counts, not your hat.
PS — Vampire Weekend, you have no idea. The kids do stand a chance. I’ve seen it in their eyes.
After a seven month hiatus (having only read 4-5 books last year), I caught the reading bug again. To stay the course, here are a dozen classics I’d like to read in 2009:
Anna Karenina 1984
War and Peace
The Adventures of Huck Finn
In Search of Lost Time
The Stories of Anton Chekhov
Moby Dick The Catcher in the Rye
For Whom the Bell Tolls
I’m currently reading Out of Africa and plan to re-read the following: Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, and To Kill a Mockingbird (I remember liking them in high school). Off a recommendation from a well-read friend, I’m also excited to read Water for Elephants and The Kite Runner. And for cheap thrills, I’m going to read The Firm and The Rainmaker, two Grisham novels I missed.
Anything I should add?
UPDATE: Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, Of Mice and Men, Measure for Measure, the complete Jane Austen collection, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Though I’m embarrassed to say it, especially given that my livelihood (read: writing) depends on it, I’ve seemingly broken up with nutritious reading this year. Without noticing, I’ve gone more than seven months without reading a single book (okay, maybe one). I’m not even sure why.
I still read junk literature on a daily basis (i.e. online articles), but those don’t count. I need more Hemmingway, Austen, and Potok in my diet. Unfortunately, I have no desire to open a book, due to a prolonged state of atrophy and laziness. I want to fall in love again and admire my wife and colleagues who remain passionate about the medium.
Have you ever broken up with books? If so, how did you rekindle the fire?