söndag 2 oktober 2016

On my deplorable book non-reading habits as of lately

I have had extremely regular reading habits ever since I started working at KTH 10+ years ago. As with much else you try to "fix" in your life, my reading habits were a solution to a previously identified problem. Quoting a blog post of mine that I wrote more than five years ago, the problem I had identified was this:

"I don't think I read enough academic literature when I was a ph.d. student. Sure, I read quite some now and then, but the problem, as I identified it later, was that I read quite some now and then, but at other times I didn't read very much at all. So, on average, I'm not sure that that much got read. After having finished my ph.d. I worked in industry for a while, and when I went back to academia, I felt that I needed some new reading habits and I devised a scheme"

That scheme rested on just a few principles and I have upheld them for almost 10 years with very few exceptions (a few summer vacations, important conference deadline and other periods with extreme work peaks):

"- Read 25 pages of non-fiction/scientific books each weekday (for a minimum of 125 pages per week).
- Read 15 pages of fiction each day (for a minimum of 105 pages per week)."

I wrote a blog post about this back in the days (April 2011, "On my nerdiness") and most of what I wrote back then about my reading habits is still valid. Another problem I had identified back in the (ph.d.) days was my habit of buying more academic books that I actually did read during my years as a ph.d. student (one of them - still unread almost 20 years later despite me sending longing glances in its' direction - is Hutchins' "Cognition in the wild"). So I also instituted a rule of buying three new books for every four I read in order to "catch up" with the (at that time) 100+ unread book I had in my bookshelf.

These simples rules made sure that the books got read and everyone can see the results on this blog through the long series of blog posts about "books I've read" that I have written during the past six years (and which can be followed backwards in time like a long daisy chain). Through these simple rules, I have read around 25-35 academic books every year and another 15-20 works of fiction since forever.

The backbone of my reading habit is the fact that I reverently use the 16-minute subway trip to and from my job exclusively for reading academic books and for nothing nothing else whatsoever. Ever. Spending those 30+ minutes (waiting for the train etc.) focused on reading means that I have oftentimes read almost 20 pages of text when I come home and only need to spend an additional 10-30 minutes per day to reach my daily quota (or less often to find the time to read some at my job).

My problem at his moment is that I have had to deal with an extraordinary amount of time-critical work during the month of September and I have, for the first time in more than 10 years, had to put aside these tried-and-tested principles for reading books at an even pace and on a daily basis. First there was the trip abroad to two conferences (returning to Sweden on Sept 7), then there was the Sept 21 deadline for the CHI conference to which I submitted no less than three papers. During the last 10 days it has been a matter of catching up - or keeping pace with - a new set of time-critical tasks; reading the final versions of three master's theses that I have supervised during the last 8 months, "service reading" (reading articles) that needs to have been read yesterday (primarily for the ph.d. course I teach, for an article that is due in two weeks and for the master's level project course that I currently teach (blog posts to appear during the next few weeks).

In short, there just hasn't been time. Another unfortunate coincidence has been the fact that the book I'm supposed to read is very heavy and dense and reading 25 pages in that particular book requires a lot of time and effort, i.e. a task that is nowhere near managed by reserving 30 minutes on the subway each day, but that rather requires another 30 or perhaps even upwards to 60 minutes per day - which is time I haven't had and probably won't have during the coming weeks. It's a hard book to now return to and pick up and start to read due to the sheer daily investment in time required to get through it.

So I'm at an impasse. I want to read books. It's part of my (self-)image to read books. Part of what I see in the mirror each day is someone looking back at me who reads books. But if I'm not that person any longer, then who am I? So how do I become that person again - taking into account that I don't see a lot of time (slack) in my schedule until (hopefully) the middle of October?

By sitting down and writing this blog post, I have at least found an answer to that particular question and it turned out to be very simple. I usually pick 3-5 books that are related in some way and then read them in a batch, one after the other. I put some thought into the order in which I read these books and that whole batch later becomes the topic of a "books I've read" blog post. So the easy way out of this impasse is to break the order and put the heavy-and-dense book aside for the moment. I will instead (tomorrow!) start with the easiest read of the remaining three books in that batch. I will thus put aside "ICT Innovations for Sustainability" and instead read the more popular and easy-to-read book "Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market". My hope is that this "easy read" will put me back on track. And what goes for academic literature also goes for fiction which has also been on a hiatus for a month or so, but that I anyway deem less important.

This blog post specifically treats my reading habits but I have also written a number of blog posts about other aspects of trying to "design" (or "hack") functional habits, for example "On procrastination", "On work habits and on getting things done", "On the many functions of this blog",  and 30-day challenge".

3 kommentarer:

  1. Since you measure reading productivity in pages, I take it you usually read the books cover to cover? Nothing wrong with that of course, but for an interesting alternative approach you might want to check out the one outlined by Paul Edwards: http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf

  2. Yes, I do read the books from cover to cover. It has happened, but it is rare that I don't. I started to look at the Edwards text but will have to print it on paper and read it from beginning to end (ha!) to form an opinion about it.

    But I do notice on the very first page that he assumes a couple of things that aren't true for my reading (both for my *way* of reading and for the *reasons* why I read). The very first sentence is:

    "How can you learn the most from a book — or any other piece of writing — when you're reading for information, rather than for pleasure?"
    --- This perspective - of attempting to maximise the amount of information/understanding per minute of invested time - feels alien to me. I *do* read academic books partly for pleasure, not only for "extracting" info (e.g. the Cliff notes approach to academic texts).

    "unless you’re stuck in prison with nothing else to do, NEVER read a non-fiction book or article from beginning to end."
    --- This is *very* normative. Am I supposed to feel like a chump - the last idiot on earth - for reading books from the beginning to the end?

    "This is how you’ll get the most out of a book in the smallest amount of time"
    --- His perspective in all its cold, hard, instrumental nakedness. Reading not as an end but always as a means. That's not my reading.

    Also, I feel that by reading the book from beginning to end, I read the book the way the author intended the book to be read and that I thereby respect the author's intentions. Not that all authors are always worth that respect - but I would hope that my selective *book-buying* habits (never buy a book I don't intend to read cover to cover) will filter away most non-worthy authors. I hardly ever throw myself over a book that was just printed. I almost always hang back and wait. I might then buy it and it can easily take another year (or two) before that book has made it to the top of the queue...

  3. Those are valid points - I guess it comes down to why you read. From my point of view, I feel that as an academic I have to read instrumentally much of the time. Books are in a very real sense crucial instruments of my work, and to have the time to deploy all the instruments, I need I have to process them faster than I can do when I read at my leisure. To do that I feel Edwards' approach is very helpful. But of course these are not mutually exclusive perspectives - you can read some stuff instrumentally and other stuff as an end in itself.