The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

What I learned by reading 100 books in a year

The Bookworm, 1850, by Carl Spitzweg.

Mark Twain said, “there comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” As the youngest brother of a large family, I have an aversion to physical digging akin to that of Joe Hamilton[1], but the instinct remains, and I harness it by digging into books.

Last year I set out on a hair-brained excavating project: I decided to read 100 books in 365 days. Like any young whippersnapper, I like to test my limits. The 100 book challenge seemed like a way to do so while glimpsing cultures, eras, and parts of the world I hadn’t experienced first-hand, and possibly filling some gaps in my meandering education.

What follows is a report from my digging. It’s partly an exhibition of my shovel collection, partly a campfire yarn about the old coins and pottery shards I’ve dug up, and partly a half-finished treasure map. In other words, it’s a chance to brag share what I learned.

Beggars Can’t be Choosy

I had grand plans for a carefully groomed reading list of cultured and intelligent books designed for maximum mental fattening, but it didn’t happen.

100 Book Challenge Cartoon

Instead, I followed random whims, or I read what I had on hand because I’d found it cheap in some used bookstore or ordered it from the library for some reason I couldn’t remember. I ended up having about 10 books checked out from the library at a time, and about 50 on hold. To supplement that, I read a large number of eBooks, most of which I got for free on Project Gutenberg.

The books that I knew would be worth reading I bought straight out. The problem was, I ended up travelling for four months, and I didn’t have room to pack 40 books, so I left them on my shelf and read eBooks instead. This skewed the list even further, since the books that I didn’t have room for were the ones I’d specifically bought to make me look intelligent. Oops.

Most of my so-called “educational” reading I do on the Internet: I do research for specific projects, binge-read Wikipedia, and follow various moderately intelligent blogs. My fragrantly-blossoming career as a writer gives me an excuse to read a lot of books in the name of Research, but other than that, when I read books, I usually read them for my own enjoyment and to get a better picture of the world.

You may notice my reading list is mostly devoid of contemporary fiction. There are two reasons for that. First, I have a low opinion of contemporary best-sellers. Second, I can get the bestsellers of yore for free on Project Gutenberg. Better yet, these free books are robustly curated: nobody spends hours digitizing and proofreading worthless books[2]. By the time both the author and 50 years have passed, at which point a work becomes public domain in Canada, the chaff has already composted into the ground.

An Ideological Centrifuge

One of my goals was to expose myself to diverse and challenging ideas. To that aim, I tried to avoid only reading books I naturally agree with.

My list was biased both by choice and happenstance, but I did read books from a wide variety of genres and ideologies: I read The God Delusion, and I read Genesis; I read Thich Nhat Hanh and E. O. Wilson; I read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince; Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life and Heller’s Catch-22. And I’m glad I did.

Wise authors of a given worldview or religion often seem to have more in common with the brightest adherents of wildly divergent worldviews than they do with the dogmatists and fear-mongers of their own creed or ideology. Thus, books from the wise authors of opposing philosophies topped my best of the year list, while other books from each school of thought huddled together at the bottom.

Guiltless Pleasures

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. For a pleasure to be guilty, it means that you know it’s against your better judgment, but your poor judgment prevails and you read and enjoy it anyway. I refuse to admit to such a degree of psychological dichotomy — but I must say I read a lot of George Bernard Shaw plays.

George Bernard Shaw
“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.” — George Bernard Shaw

My unwillingness to admit to guilty pleasures doesn’t rule out literary vacations. When I’m tired, I read science fiction and comedies of manners. For whatever reason, I find it much easier to read and get value from a philosophically dense but engaging play or novel, than to read and get value from a book that has smaller ideas but more difficult prose. Sometimes, I was too tired to grapple with a thick and dry book, but still had the brain power to appreciate Wodehouse’s priceless sense of humour or deliriously ponder the existential questions posed by a Phillip K. Dick novel. When my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders, the call of the Wilde gave me a chance to procrastinate on reading On the Shortness of Life or escape from the Heart of Darkness. My five go-to authors were P.G. Wodehouse (7 books), Phillip K. Dick (6 books), Orson Scott Card (5 books), Oscar Wilde (4 books), and George Bernard Shaw (4 books)

Escaping reality isn’t always a bad thing. For example, according to Adam Grant’s TED talk, when you start a project, put it aside for a while and do something else — like procrastinators do all the time — and then come back to it later and finish it, the project often benefits: while you were seemingly distracted with other things, your subconscious was still mulling the project over and generating new ideas.

“The people who wait until the last minute are so busy goofing off that they don't have any new ideas. And on the flip side, the people who race in are in such a frenzy of anxiety that they don't have original thoughts either.” — Adam Grant

The point is, while it’s obvious that some “escapist” fiction is a distraction at best and an addiction at worst, other books that draw you into a different world can be benign or even beneficial. While I’m engrossed in a book by Wodehouse or Wilde (and reaping all the physiological benefits of frequent laughing-fits), I can feel like I’m resting, but the ideas that I’ve been wrestling with from a previous book or a different project will be bubbling along in my subconscious; or I can dive into a science fiction novel, and forget about everything else, but find, when I finish, that all kinds of metaphysical questions have remained behind.

A Digression on Speed-reading

I’m not one of the famous speed-readers — including a disproportionate number of American presidents — who could read thousands of words per minute. I’ve never studied speed reading, but I do read quickly — faster than most college professors, according to the tests I’ve taken.

The average reading speeds for different groups are approximately as follows:

Demographic group
Average Reading Speed
Third-grade students 150wpm
Eighth-grade students 250wpm
Average college student 450wpm
Average “high level exec” 575wpm
Average college professor 675wpm
Speed readers 1,500wpm
World speed reading champion 4,700wpm

I was exposed to good books from a young age, without any pressure to learn to read early, or to read any particular book or genre. Because I could read what I wanted when I wanted, reading was fun. The result: I ended up a bibliophile. And over time, by reading a lot, and reading faster, I have raised the threshold of reading-difficulty at which books are enjoyable, and gradually expanded my taste in books beyond 1950s science fiction and chemistry manuals.

I don’t know why I read as fast as I do, but I suspect it’s because I do a lot of it. Reading is an unnatural cognitive process[3]. Reading more makes for more effective reading: the job description of a college professors has a lot to do with reading things, and college professors have the highest-averaging natural reading speed of any group. In any case, it’s not too surprising that reading 7.9 million words made my brain get a little faster at doing it: if I flipped that many burgers I’d probably be able to turn them like greased lightning.

You can spot a speed-reader by the slight but unmistakably smug curvature of the mouth.

At the start of the year, my reading speed, according to this test, was 628 WPM at 82% comprehension, which isn’t that great. Sometime in the middle of the year, I took Staples’ little test, which said I could read 718wpm at 100% comprehension. By Nov 2015, I could read 950wpm at 100% comprehension. Now, when I take the staples test I get about 860wpm at 100% comprehension.

These scores make me feel quite good about myself, of course — but I think they’re mostly irrelevant, for two reasons.

First, you can’t speed read literature. Speed reading is of little use when the point of a book is in the experience of reading itself, and in understanding how the author and characters think, and see the world.[4]

Theoretically, I could read To Kill A Mockingbird in 2 hours and 5 minutes, instead of the average of 7 hours and 56 minutes. But what would be the point? The book is lyrical, and if I was going to read it in 2 hours I might as well go read the Wikipedia entry (13 mins) and call it good.

Second, there’s some doubt whether “speed reading” is even possible. Critics[5] claim that speed-reading defies the laws of biology, and that self-proclaimed speed-readers are either lying about how fast they read, or they are just really just good at skimming text and extracting the information they’re looking for without fully reading it.

Though speed-reading has its proponents, I think the more skeptical view of speed-reading critics — who don’t have anything to prove, or any product or course to sell — is likely closer to reality. In any case, reading as fast as I do is extremely handy for reading dumbed-down business books, staying on top of my twitter feed, and adding to my stacks of neat-little-factoids-to-pull-out-in-conversation; but I doubt I read any of the hundred books at above five hundred words per minute.

I may read faster than average, but that doesn’t mean I think faster than average.

The Aftermath: Post-Literary Stress Disorder

Student with books
Has someone been posting secretly drawn caricatures of me reading to the Open Clip Art library?

Reading 100 books in 365 days wasn’t as hard as I expected.[6] Most of the time, it didn’t seem like I was reading much more than I usually do; therefore, most of the time, it didn’t seem like work. Of course, occasionally I fell far behind my quota, and didn’t know if it was still within reach. For a few days, as I scrabbled to catch up, I’d have to stay up reading until my eyes were watery and bloodshot[7] — but overall it wasn’t a problem.

It was a lot of reading. When January 2016 rolled around, I only finished one book. One. Single. Book. And it was a puny little Marx Brothers biography. I was exhausted.

I didn’t cheat: I didn’t quit any books half-way through or skim over the boring chapters, and the books I didn’t manage to finish I didn’t put on the list. And I actually read 122 books, not 100. At the beginning of the year I did some rather loose math (my favourite kind) and decided to set my monthly quota to ten books (rather than 8.33) to provide a slight buffer if I fell behind. It also made it easier to remember: even though I knew it would put me twenty books over my goal, the “ten books per month” figure stuck in my head, so I ended up reading 122 books.

Thanks to my clever little subconscious, as each month progressed, the books I picked got smaller and smaller until I was practically reading pamphlets. Then, to make up for it, I would start the next month with some long and boring intellectual book that would push the rest of the month’s reading into the last half of the month — causing the process to repeat ad nauseum.

Next time, I would pick a better selection of books. I am neither proud nor ashamed of the list I happened to read last year as a whole, but some months had a low signal-to-noise ratio. Reading a specific (and barely reachable) number of books in a certain timeframe pushed both my book selection criteria and my approach to reading toward quantity, not quality. I shied away from fat books that I wanted to read because I knew they would make it a stretch to read my full quota for the month. I didn’t slow down and think about some books as much as I should have.

What did I learn? “Reading” a “book” isn’t as black and white as it seems. One book can change my life, while the next just becomes another drop of knowledge in the murky waters of my mind, and unlikely to ever surface again. What I learn from a book, and experience reading it, depends on what I’ve already learned and experienced. The effect of a book is dependent on when, how, and why it’s read — the context is the key.

I remember more of what I read; I used to remember concepts, plots, and characters — but retaining dates, figures, and other details was a lost cause. For better or worse, my memory for names and places and obscure factoids seems much stickier. That said, I didn’t run any tests on memory before the challenge, so this is a purely subjective experience of personal growth, and therefore profoundly suspect.

Books I Enjoyed

You can’t judge books by their covers; sometimes, you can’t even judge them by what’s between the covers. Good books can be like apples and oranges that weigh the same amount, cost the same amount, and taste utterly different. Here are a few of my favourite books from the year:

Reader’s Choice Award: A Guide to the Good life, By William B. Irving

A Guide to the Good Life Cover
If only we could be as Tranquil as a marble statue…

Before my year of books, when asked for a book recommendation, I’d usually suggest David James Duncan’s novel The River Why. When I was asked for a non-fiction recommendation, I’d hem and haw while I fished around in the silty depths of my memory. Now, I recommend A Guide to the Good Life, by William B. Irvine. I recommend it to everyone, and often the title exits my mouth before they’re even finished asking.

A Guide to the Good Life is probably the best book I read in 2015. The author, William B. Irvine, is a Philosophy professor who decided to apply the Stoic philosophy to his life.

Stoicism bears an uncanny similarity to my own operational philosophy. Irvine presents the Stoic ideas with clear prose and occasional humour. This isn’t armchair philosophy, either: it’s simple and direct, and deals specifically with how to apply stoic ideas, and use them as the basis for a sound Philosophy of Life.

Irvine talked about the concept of tranquility, popular with the later Roman stoics, at length. Personally, I don’t find tranquility a compelling state to aim for. Fortunately, Stoicism is one of the more modular philosophies, and stoic techniques are applicable even if you don’t subscribe to the entire stoic ideology.

Though it stands on its own, this book is a great jumping-off point for the works of Greek and Roman stoics. After reading A Guide to the Good Life, I moved on to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life.

Or, you could just read about Stoicism on Wikipedia.

A Guide to the Good Life stood out on the shelf, but it was not the only one. Here are some other books that I found entertaining, elucidating, or otherwise exceptional.

Best non-fiction book: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Not all my reviews are lucid. I didn’t intend to publish them — they are just notes I jotted down in the spreadsheet cell when I added the book to my list, intended to remind me of my general takeaway, and they don’t always reflect well on my cognitive abilities. With that preface, here is what I had to say about The Shallows: “The best kind of science book: neither dumbed down nor fattened on jargon, The Shallows takes on a broad swath of our intellectual history and weaves it into a compelling argument. Long and wide ranging, but sufficiently intelligent to be worthwhile.”

Carr addresses the bifurcation between the scattershot hypertasking made possible, and almost unavoidable, by the internet, and the slower, more linear, and perhaps deeper thinking that is encouraged by books, which brought us to the information age but may soon be lost. This is particularly relevant to me, since I’m in the crossover generation between the two: I use the internet every day, and am no stranger to multithreaded processing, but I also read books and write, which require undistracted linear thought. I’ve experienced the benefits and drawbacks of each method, and it was interesting to read Carr’s perspective. How The Shallows is written makes it clear Carr knows how to think slowly and carefully. Both of us are wary of, but very much caught up in, the intellectual revolution — or apocalypse, as the case may be — that’s unfolding.

Runner up: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl.

Best skeptical book: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. “Articulate, and worth reading even if he’s wrong. Dawkins makes a number of excellent points about religion, and his belligerent, intelligent, and humorous style of rhetoric is persuasive. (Probably partly wrong, at least in his doggedness about it and idolization of how much science knows.)”

In addition to his points about religion, evolution, Occam’s Razor, and so on, I found Dawkins’s almost religious sense of wonder notable. Of course, when you get to the edges of science things do get pretty wondrous. Alan Lightman, a non-crusading atheist, shows a similar sense of wonder at the world in The Accidental Universe, and so do countless other scientists. But I didn’t expect to find it in Dawkins, so it came as a pleasant surprise.

Runner up: The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O. Wilson

Best self-help book: The Art of Communicating, by Thích Nhất Hạnh. Labelling this “self-help” seems like an insult to Thích Nhất Hạnh, but I’ve already used the other categories it would fall under. “I am partial to Hạnh — both his advice on living well, and the straight-talking way in which he imparts it — and, in my opinion, The Art of Communicating, like most of his work, is excellent. Straightforward, actionable, and a joy to read.”

Runner up: How to Eat, by Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Best religious book: The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell). Rumour has it Stephen Mitchell took significant liberties with his translation. I had no other translations to compare it to, and it may be more Stephen Mitchell than Lao Tzu, but it worked for me. “Wise words. The concepts seem like strikingly familiar; it’s as if my songs and essays are intuitive plagiarisms of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting take on religion without God … exactly.”

Runner up: Awareness, by Anthony de Mello.

Best Comedy: Something New, by P.G. Wodehouse. In my mind “entertainment”, “British humour”, and “literary escapism” are synonymous with “the works of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse” (see my section on guiltless pleasures, above). It’s P.G. Wodehouse — what more can be said? P.G. Wodehouse is of the rare breed of British humourists who can make almost always make me laugh aloud in the middle of the night, and Something New shows his skills admirably.”

Runner up: The Importance of Being Ernest, by Oscar Wilde.

Best Reference Book: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. This was my only re-reading. I thought I could use to refresh my memory.[8] While writing this article I read Geoffrey K. Pullum’s raging but lucid denouncement of the Elements of Style, provocatively titled 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. Pullum’s right: Strunk and White is quite black and white, and not even always right. But I know of no replacement for the little book. Despite its dogmatism, it was useful the first time I read it, I do not regret re-reading it, and I have no doubt there’s still more to learn if I decide to read it again. In other words, the very short review I jotted down in a spreadsheet cell remains true: “Concise, useful, and entertaining — the writer’s gruff uncle.”

Runner up: The Art of Public Speaking, by Dale Carnegie and J. Berg Esenwein.

Best Book of Essays: Some Remarks, by Neal Stephenson. I thoroughly enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s brilliantly didactic epic science fiction novel Anathem. Since I didn’t have time to read one of his ~1000 page novels, and already had a lot of science fiction on my list, I was pleased to see Some Remarks on the library shelf, and even more pleased when I read it. “A diverse but well-crafted collection of essays broken in the middle by a 100+ page article, originally published in WIRED, about transatlantic cables. His obvious enthusiasm for the obscure and abstruse is infectious.”

Runner up: Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury.

Best Science Fiction Novel: Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. “Science fiction has been called ‘the literature of ideas’, and Clarke brings it back to its roots: the writing doesn’t get in the way, and the plot explores some vital part of humanity’s (or the universe’s) present and future. Childhood’s End explores ambition, both personal and racial, and the stagnation that results when that ambition is neutered — topics I find fascinating. Why do I want to be what I am, and more? Why do I want humanity to be humanity, and more? When is change the only constant? Why does humanity seem different somehow?”

Runner up: either Xenocide or Children of the Mind, by Orson Scott Card.

Best Novel: The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. I neglected to write a review of this book, but I clearly recall that it was a sprawling work of beautiful, broken, and absolutely uproarious genius.

Books that Annoyed Me

I didn’t expect to agree with everything I read, nor to enjoy the prose of every author I picked up. And I didn’t. But a handful of books struck me as rotten in all eleven dimensions. Tastes vary, so you can take these with a grain of salt and come to your own conclusions about the cultivation of my palate. These four aren’t the worst books I read in 2015, but they’re the ones I wrote the worst reviews of.

  • Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. “[…] This bottomless Bollywood-noir novel chronicles the descent of a morally-numb escaped-convict as he crawls back into the gutter in Bombay, with the help of a Mafia Don whose foolosophy is neatly tailored to allow the clinically depraved to see themselves as heroes. The prose sounds like it has taken as many beatings as the protagoonist; it’s amazing it can move at all given how purple it is. […]”
  1. The Giver, by Lois Lowry. “Fascinating concept; frustrating execution: The prose isn’t painful, but it’s about as deep as a tide pool, and Lowry builds her clever premise into a mountain of … snow.”

  2. Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich. “A largely inchoate attempt to instruct the reader in the art of dialogue and story, using examples that range from woodpecker food to dialogue so juicy and sentimental you’d need a mop to clean it up. A few useful tips about listening, but for the most part irritating and self-indulgent. Did not resonate.”

  3. The Essence of Buddhism, by E. Haldeman-Julius. I have nothing against Buddhism, and other Buddhist writings are among my favourite volumes. This one is not. “An incoherent and hypocritical little collection of Buddhist scraps and quotations. Unsatisfactory.”

Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out. ― J.K. Rowling

The Census Bureau

I read 122 books in 2015. Some of them were small — right on the edge of what counts as a book — and some of them were large: The average length was 262 pages (65,500 words). Since I read 122, I could remove the 22 shortest books and have a more respectable list. If I had read the same number of pages, but only 100 books, the books would have averaged a more satisfactory 319.64 pages.

According to the somewhat dubious[9] statistics crunched by my library management app, I read a total about 31,964 pages of text, or 7,991,000 words.

Chart of Books per Month, with fiction/non-fiction percentage
Charting the total number of books, number of non-fiction books, and number of fiction books I read each month of the year. Looks like I was feeling serious in August and October, and frivolous in July and December[^6]. As you can see I made a push to finish a lot of books that I had been reading slowly in November, so I would have finished them within the year.

The Big List

Title Author Rating Date Read
Something NewP.G. Wodehouse52014-01-04
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Philip K. Dick42015-01-21
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeRobert Louis Stevenson32015-01-24
XenocideOrson Scott Card62015-01-28
The Importance of Being ErnestOscar Wilde62015-01-30
Proust and the SquidMarian Wolf32015-01-05
Not Always SoShunryu Suzuki32014-01-11
Driving Mr. AlbertMichael Paterniti42014-01-13
The Last LectureRandy Pauche42014-01-15
The World as I See ItEinstein42015-01-18
A Modest ProposalJonathan Swift22015-01-22
The AlchemistPaulo Coelho32015-02-05
Children of the MindOrson Scott Card62015-02-12
Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and Three StoriesTruman Capote42015-02-22
Laughing GasP.G. Wodehouse52015-02-23
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional UniverseCharles Yu42015-02-25
The Writer’s GymEliza Clark32015-02-03
Some RemarksNeal Stephenson52015-02-10
David and GoliathMalcolm Gladwell52015-02-16
Zen in the Art of WritingRay Bradbury62015-02-20
The Art of the Very Short StoryCharlie Close12015-02-27
Meetings with Remarkable MenG.I. Gurdjieff32015-03-06
The Art of CommunicationThich Nhat Hanh62015-03-09
The Elements of StyleWilliam Strunk Jr., E.B. White62015-03-23
A Primate’s MemoirRobert M. Sapolsky52015-03-27
What Every Body is SayingJoe Navarro32015-03-28
The Brothers KDavid James Duncan62015-03-13
Childhood’s EndArthur C. Clarke52015-03-16
Lord of the FliesWilliam Golding22015-03-20
Nine StoriesJ.D. Salinger42015-03-29
The Man Upstairs, and other storiesP.G. Wodehouse62015-03-30
A Reading DiaryAlberto Manguel32015-04-03
AwarenessAnthony de Mello72015-04-12
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla NasrudinIdries Shah52015-04-14
A City of WordsAlberto Manguel42015-04-19
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyWilliam B. Irvine72015-04-25
The Girl on the BoatP.G. Wodehouse52015-04-06
A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki42015-04-16
The Illustrated ManRay Bradbury52015-04-23
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An IntroductionJ.D. Salinger52015-04-25
Flow My Tears, The Policeman SaidPhilip K. Dick52015-04-29
Writing Down the BonesNatalie Goldberg32015-05-19
My Story as Told By WaterDavid James Duncan52015-05-30
Becoming a WriterDorothea Brande42015-05-31
ContextCory Doctorow52015-05-29
Catch-22Joseph Heller52015-05-12
A Damsel in DistressP.G. Wodehouse42015-05-18
Oryx and CrakeMargaret Atwood22015-05-22
The Year of the FloodMargaret Atwood22015-05-29
Downward to the EarthRobert Silverberg32015-06-01
The Adventures of SallyP.G. Wodehouse32015-06-06
Madd AddamMargaret Atwood32015-06-10
UbikPhilip K. Dick52015-06-26
SpinClaire Burge32015-06-30
On the Move: A LifeOliver Sacks42015-06-12
Spunk and BiteArthur Plotnik42015-06-14
Irrationally YoursDan Ariely32015-06-16
A Moveable FeastErnest Hemingway32015-06-19
Bird by BirdAnne Lamont32015-06-26
Man and SupermanGeorge Bernard Shaw52015-07-06
Arcadian Adventures with the Idle RichStephen Leacock52015-07-19
Three for TomorrowRobert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke (Forward)32015-07-22
PygmalionGeorge Bernard Shaw52015-07-25
The GondoliersW. S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan32015-07-29
Writing ToolsRoy Peter Clarke52015-07-11
The Meaning of Human ExistenceEdward O. Wilson52015-07-13
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying UpMarie Kondo32015-07-22
Further Fables for our TimeJames Thurber32015-07-29
MikeP.G. Wodehouse32015-08-11
To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee52015-08-17
The Da Vinci CodeDan Brown42015-08-19
Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E. Frankl52015-08-02
The God DelusionRichard Dawkins42015-08-11
Face: A Time CodeRuth L. Ozeki32015-08-24
How to RapPaul Edwards32015-08-26
Zen Flesh, Zen BonesPaul Reps, Nyogen Senzaki32015-08-29
How to EatThich Nhat Hanh52015-08-31
The Tao Te ChingLao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell72015-08-31
Juno and the PaycockSean O’Casey12015-09-01
The SimulacraPhilip K. Dick32015-09-03
A Good YearPeter Mayle42015-09-15
A Stranger in a Strange LandRobert A. Heinlein42015-09-28
Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad22015-09-28
Amish ProverbsSuzanne Woods Fisher52015-09-10
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsNicholas Carr62015-09-11
The Naked ApeDesmond Morris52015-09-13
Be Free Where You AreThich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Kh"ng"52015-09-18
The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood32015-10-07
Ender’s ShadowOrson Scott Card42015-10-26
I Hope I Shall Arrive SoonPhilip K. Dick52015-10-28
The GiverLois Lowry32015-10-29
The Book of GenesisAnonymous2015-10-11
Outlines of Mormon philosophyLycurgus Arnold Wilson42015-10-12
How to Speak and Write CorrectlyJoseph Devlin42015-10-20
The PrinceNiccolò Machiavelli32015-10-30
ReworkJason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson42015-10-31
Fiction Writer’s WorkshopJosip Novakovich22015-11-01
The Essence of BuddhismE. Haldeman-Julius22015-11-03
The Story of My LifeHelen Keller52015-11-10
Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Written by himself.Frederick Douglass42015-11-17
The Problems of PhilosophyBertrand Russell72015-11-21
A Room of One’s OwnVirginia Woolf62015-11-22
Arms and the ManGeorge Bernard Shaw42015-11-27
The Stars My DestinationAlfred Bester42015-11-28
Lady Windermere’s FanOscar Wilde42015-11-28
Now Wait for Last YearPhilip K. Dick42015-11-04
The Martian ChroniclesRay Bradbury22015-11-11
The Happy Prince, and other StoriesOscar Wilde52015-11-11
An Ideal HusbandOscar Wilde52015-11-13
Starship TroopersRobert A. Heinlein42015-11-18
Shadow of HegemonOrson Scott Card32015-12-07
Shadow PuppetsOrson Scott Card32015-12-08
ShantaramGregory David Roberts12015-12-15
The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald52015-12-16
You Never Can TellGeorge Bernard Shaw32015-12-18
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManJames Joyce52015-12-25
The OdysseyHomer32015-12-23
FaustJohann Wolfgang von Goethe42015-12-31
The Autobiography of Benjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin52015-12-08
On the Shortness of LifeSeneca62015-12-19
The Art of Public SpeakingDale Carnegie, J. Berg Esenwein72015-12-20


Boy reading a big book
An Aristottler

What’s next? This year, I’m reading just one large or difficult book a month. 2016 is my Year of Tomes. If I stick to my list — which I doubt I will — the year’s tomes will be a fairly even mix of classics, big history, scripture, and philosophy. The roster consists of works feared, worshipped, or both.

This should let me take my time, take notes, and ensure that how deeply I think about what I read is limited by lack, not of time, but of mental faculty. Of course, I’m not going to limit myself to 12 books, but I plan to spend the bulk of my reading time tackling a few voluminous volumes, rather than frittering it away on whims and fancies.

A book is like a little rip in space-time that lets me peer through into another time, another place, another mind. If the author has mastered the craft, I can step through the portal for a few hours and explore the wonders the strange land has in store, wonders that cannot be found when I step out of my door. Travel, as Flaubert said out, lets you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. This is remains true for the journeys I take without moving my feet.

In any case, I consider my 100 books experiment a success. Illusory though it may be, I get the impression that I learned more about the world — and, in the process, myself — in the last year than I would have if I hadn’t embarked on a year of books. In any case, I’ve successfully reinforced the stereotype that autodidacts are bookish nerds with large ears and small social lives[10].

Congratulations: You made it through 6,000-odd words about how many words I read last year! If you have any questions, wisecracks, or pedantic comments, send an email or tweet in my direction, or leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Foot-in-mouth notes:

  1. “He early discovered that a smiling helplessness was his best protection from work. His brothers were tough workers, all of them. It was easier to do Joe's work than to make him do it. His mother and father thought him a poet because he wasn't good at anything else. And they so impressed him with this that he wrote glib verses to prove it.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden. ↩︎

  2. Some exceptions apply, of course. The Development of the Digestive Canal of the American Alligator, by A. M. Reese, comes to mind. ↩︎

  3. Basically, because written language is a fairly recent invention, it isn’t a skill we’re pre-wired for. We have to cobble together a bunch of different skills. We don’t even have any dedicated hardware (or wetware) for reading: compared to vision and speech, which have sections of the brain dedicated to them, and are mostly localized to their little area, reading and written language are homeless. Because we aren’t built for it, and it uses a bunch of resource-intensive cognitive processes spread out over almost all of the brain (including the areas used for visual processing and spoken language), reading is slower to learn and less automatic than other complicated things we do, like walking, running, and talking.


  4. Earlier I touched on the mind altering properties of good science fiction, but I think almost all good literature alters the mind. I think this is why we read literature, whether or not we’ve consciously considered the effect it has. We’re unlikely to learn any practical skills by reading literature: we don’t learn how to drive a team of huskies by reading about it in Jack London, or how to grow beans by reading Walden. It’s doubtful if we even learn mushy social or psychological skills from reading literature. But that doesn’t mean we learn nothing.

    My worldview, speech, writing, and ideas are shaped by what I’m exposed to. Friends and books are two of the principle influences on my mental landscape.

    A man’s bookcase will tell you everything you'll ever need to know about him.” — Walter Mosley

    Since books have such an influence on my thinking, I think it’s worth thinking about how they influence me.

    A book can affect my state in a several of ways. The texture of the prose itself has an effect. By texture, I’m referring the feel of the prose, not the shape of the story — word choice, syntax, and a hundred other little details make up the overall feel of a piece of text. This feel, or texture, is entirely separate from the text’s meaning, though ideally it complements and reinforces the message. Books by a given author can have different textures, though they will likely also have similarities. How does this so-called texture — at first glance but a stylistic façade, divorced from the content itself — affect me? It rubs off, and affects how I think. If I read a lot of Victorian novels, I start to think in the language of a Victorian novel. If I read Hemingway, my speech, my writing, and even my thoughts start to sound like Papa.

    The characterization in a book is also important: the characters, and how they think, affect my character, and how I think. If I identify with a character, and most authors try to make it so readers will be able to identify with one or more of the characters in a book, I can get into the character’s headspace. When I identify with a character, I’ll start to internalize the character’s dialogue and internal monologue — I’ll start to think, or even act, like the character.

    Finally, I’ll tend to take on the spin a book gives to its subject, the shade of the author’s opinion, even if I consciously fight it — the assumptions embedded in the plot and the prose can slip into my own thought and writing unnoticed. Christian values are embedded in much of the classic literature of the occident, because so many of the authors of the western canon were steeped in Christianity, or steeped in the work of previous generations, who were Christian, and wove Christianity into their work deliberately or unconsciously. I think the same is true of literature from other times, from other cultures: the religion, philosophy, or worldview that has achieved cultural dominance will form the foundation of the literary canon, and it will also creep into the works of the heterodoxy, because even if they reject it later on, they will have been steeped in its assumptions growing up. It applies to the web, too: the articles from different corners of the internet will have wildly different assumptions built into them. But the nuances of intellectual inheritance deserve their own essay, and this footnote has gotten too big for its shoes.

    So, why can’t I speed read literature? Speed reading is like compressing an image: you might be able to tell that it’s a cat, and that it’s a Tabby — but can you tell if it’s smirking, or what texture its fur is? When I speed read, I’m extracting things from a text rather than immersing myself in it. I’m searching for meaning, for facts, for ideas. I can usually grasp the plot and concepts, and feel at least the coarse texture of the words, but the subtleties of meaning — the niceties of word choice and style, the less stubbornly persistent allusions, and, hence, much of the emotional content — are lost. These details are too fine-grained, and they fail to push through the threshold of conscious awareness when I’m reading at speed.


  5. Scott H. Young, who previously endorsed speed-reading, wrote an article called I Was Wrong About Speed Reading, which brings a good dose of disillusioned realism to the topic. The Atlantic, Lifehacker, and WIRED have also published reasonably well-thought-out pieces criticizing the myths and marketing that surround speed-reading. ↩︎

  6. In the process of writing this post, I discovered that all kinds of people have done all kinds of versions of this challenge and I’m just the last tenderfoot on a well-blazed trail. Maybe I should become a lorite. ↩︎

  7. My state was not unlike poor Quixote: “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote. (Another translation renders the quote: “In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits.”) ↩︎

  8. I red it first wen I was like thirteen or somthing and anyways I dont think I relly under stood it’s meening the 1st time but I defiantly got lots more out off it this time round. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) ↩︎

  9. ReaDB gets the page-count for a given book by querying the Google Book API and using the page count for the best match. Rare books, books that have the title or author misspelled, or have the wrong ISBN, can have the wrong page count, so the statistics can be inaccurate, especially if the user hasn’t looked through their library to make sure that the metadata is correct and matches the books they read. ↩︎

  10. On the other hand, if “books are the quietest and most constant of friends,” as Charles W. Eliot avows, my social life must be blooming. ↩︎