Episode 124 of The Informed Life podcast features a return visit by my friend Karl Fast. Karl is is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author (with Stephen Anderson) of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding. Karl is one of the most avid readers I know, and in this conversation, we compare our reading practices. We discussed this subject in preparation for the Build a Personal Knowledge Management workshop we’ll teach in November.
Our reading practices have differences and a few similarities. To begin with, Karl reads more than I do: a typical year has him going through 60-70 books. For me, it’s usually between 40-50. He also primarily reads paper books, whereas I read ebooks. We both annotate our books, but Karl uses sticky note flags and I highlight and make marginal notes using the Kindle app.
Karl’s reading habit is primarily place-based: he likes to read in his office, a context that supports his preferred approach to annotation. An apt analogy is mise en place: how chefs prepare ingredients and tools in advance of meal preparation. In contrast, I often read ad hoc, pulling out my iPad (or iPhone,) one of which is with me everywhere — including in walks, where I listen to audiobooks.
One similarity between our approaches: when we’re finished with a book, we both process what we readto extract knowledge — to gain what Karl called “epistemic benefit” — from books. The means by which we capture this knowledge is slightly different, but the idea is the same: you’re not “done” once you’ve read the book; you should also reflect on what you’ve read. Karl spoke of spending an hour or two of additional time with each book.
But he also acknowledged that many people can feel guilt over not reading enough or taking disciplined notes from books:
I also have a large backlog of books where I have read the book, I’ve got a bunch of these sticky flags, I’ve just never gotten around to processing the book. I think that’s something important for people to recognize: I feel like there’s a lot of guilt about reading with many people. “I should be reading more. I should be reading better books or more sophisticated books.”
And when it comes to notes, I think a lot of us… I know I have, it took me a while to get over feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got this big backlog, not just of books I want to read,” but notes of books that I have read, but notes I have not taken on that book. And I’ve just sort of gotten to the point where I’m like, “You know, I’m just, that, that might happen at some point, but maybe not. Maybe not ever.” It’ll just sit there for a while.
This guilty feeling highlights a similarity with another area of personal development that came up repeatedly during our conversation: exercise. Many people know that exercise is good for them, and that they should work out more. But many have a hard time making the time to exercise. The same happens with reading.
And yet, both exercise and reading can greatly improve your life. From personal experience, both require mindful habit-building. It helps to hear (or read) about how other people do it – which is why I hope you check out this conversation.