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Random notes on recovering the lost art of reading

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on Jun 13, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

The single greatest outcome from my basic phone experiment has been to rekindle interest and enjoyment in reading books. Long-form reading is an activity that I'd sort of forgotten, and even though I've reverted to my smartphone, the experiment has taught me to love reading again. In picking up reading books again, I realized that I have many questions about reading, actually. This post is a random list of questions, observations, and other reading-related topics about reading books. I'm sure there's no single way to read, and one strategy might fit another person and scenario more than others.

Queueing up books?

When I began the “Book a Week” challenge at my work, I read a page of tips that said to accrue a pile of books that you plan to read over the year ahead of time. Otherwise, when you finish one book, you might lose your reading momentum for the next one. Also, ordering a hardcover or paperback through the mail might take a couple of weeks to arrive. Now I find that I have two shelves: one with books I’ve read (the top), another with books to read (the bottom):

Queuing up books to read (bottom shelf)
Queuing up books to read (bottom shelf)

The problem is that my interests evolve from book to book. I started out reading with a question about how technology affects our attention span and focus, and I also read books related to the auto industry and driving. But sometimes a book ignites or prompts other questions, which then shift my thinking and interests. For example, I’m not so eager to know how tech impacts our brains now. I feel like I’ve read enough to answer that question (with Shallows, Stolen Focus, Digital Minimalism). I still have a few books queued up on that topic, but I doubt I’ll get to Hooked and Irresistible. Now I’m more interested in quasi-philosophical topics, though I’m not sure exactly what.

Ordering books is a bit of a gamble as well. Some books turn out to be duds. For example, I started Reader, Come Home but found that after the first 15 pages, I wasn’t really interested. Same with The Loop. I really tried to like that book, but after 150 pages, I decided it wasn’t worth slogging through. As such, it’s good to have a few different books to choose from, in case the next one turns out to be a dud. I don’t want to be waiting another two weeks to get into another.

Buy print versions of audiobooks I enjoyed?

Some books on my “To Read” shelf are the print versions of audiobooks that I immensely enjoyed and so ordered the print copy. But now that I finished the audio version, I haven’t been inspired to re-consume it via print. Namely, The Attention Merchants, Digital Minimalism, and Crash Course. I’ve rarely been someone who reads the same book twice (nor one to watch the same show or movie twice). Even so, I want the print version so that I can easily reference some passages, perhaps. Yet so far, after a book ends, I mostly move on to something else. Maybe I just want a visible artifact to remind me of the book?

Returning or borrowing books?

I could always return or resell books that I no longer want, or the ones that turn out to be duds, but there’s a problem there. I like to write notes in the margins of all the books I read. For example:

How I annotate pages in books
How I annotate pages in books

Sometimes my notes are high-level summaries of the author’s main point in that section, which maybe just crystallized in my head. I also note the passages and paragraphs I like. Sometimes I underline the passages, but mostly I just bracket them and put a checkmark in the margins. If it’s a passage I really connect with, I draw a star. Multiple stars if I really like it.

For me, part of the reading experience involves interacting with the book through these annotations. Writing in a book basically destroys it for resale, but I consider that part of the cost of reading.

Can I hate and love the same book?

Even if I like a book, not all of its chapters usually resonate with me. I just finished Matthew Crawford’s Why We Drive (pictured above), and the book had many ups and downs. Sometimes I struggled to follow the author’s point and it seemed like random anecdotes that didn’t support the book’s larger theme of why we drive. Other times, I had stars everywhere and many checkmarks. In other words, it was a rollercoaster of loving and hating the book for the whole 318 pages.

In the end, though, my likes outweighed the dislikes. I love the balance of personal experiences and ideas. Crawford drops enough philosophy to be interesting but peppers it with personal experiences to relay a sense of authenticity and immediacy (it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). When I try reading philosophers who omit the personal, I find the content too dry. (I mean, can anyone enjoy reading Heidegger in the same way you enjoy reading Jack Kerouc?)

Overall, I realized that Crawford’s approach is my favorite style: balancing personal experience with interesting, original thoughts and research.

(BTW, a reader on my blog previously recommended Crawford to me, so thanks!)

Paperback or hardcover?

I prefer hardcover because it travels better. I frequently stuff the books into my bike pannier or other bags as I port them around. Paperbacks can easily get folded or otherwise mangled. And surprisingly, hardcover tends to be cheaper than paperback. I dislike Kindle entirely. Reading from screens is the worst.

Used or new?

I prefer used books. The less expensive, the better. (That way, if the book is a dud, I haven’t blown too much money.) I don’t mind if there’s writing from the previous author — it’s kind of interesting to see what parts resonated with other readers. Seeing the annotations (systematically applied) lets me see how others mark up books. I add my own annotations according to my style anyway, so the different annotations don’t confuse me. Sometimes, it’s clear when readers stopped reading the book.

But in selecting a book’s condition, I avoid water damage or musty smells. I usually choose “good” or “very good.”

Is reading expensive?

Even though I have two cubbies full of recently purchased books, books are relatively cheap. Consider how much it costs to eat at a restaurant or to go to the movies. It cost our family more than $100 to take everyone to see Maverick (Top Gun II) at AMC IMAX. The experience lasted one evening. In contrast, if you spend $100 on used books, you’ve got about two months of reading to enjoy.

Or compare the purchases of books with the cost of a concert ticket or professional sporting event. The same money applied towards used books would yield a whole month of better time spent. I’m encouraging my kids to order books for the summer. I don’t mind if this costs several hundred dollars. (So far, though, my youngest has yet to catch the reading bug, and the two Mary Downing Hahn books we ordered seem to be neglected.)

Reading is cheap when you consider how many hours of recreation the book will yield. For the same cost as a latte or two (consumed in an hour), you might spend 20 hours reading a book. If I were totally broke, I could borrow books from the library and resort to post-it notes as a form of annotation for a completely free experience.

I’m fortunate that both my main hobbies, reading and writing, don’t require much money (just infinite time). It’s not like being a car collector or an RV recreationist.

Is reading passive?

Reading is a bit passive. How do you engage with the ideas in a book? Do you simply drink them in and then continue on about life (slowly forgetting them)? Do you wrestle with the ideas in book reviews and other blog posts? Do you allow the book to naturally shift your world perspective? How do you switch from being a passive reader to a more interactive information consumer?

Writing book reviews seems like a good practice, but book reviews by themselves aren’t that engaging of a format. You can get a book review and snippets of impressions about the book from pretty much anywhere, so what’s the value of posting them on my blog? Wouldn’t readers prefer to read a short paragraph on Amazon’s review section anyway, getting a more balanced view? I do think writing reviews would be a good skill to develop, though.

I also like picking out the author’s larger argument as I read through the book. Sometimes this argument is murky at first and it’s not clear how all the sections connect into a more coherent, holistic argument. But learning to look for this larger argument helps me be a diligent reader and thinker. This is partly why I write more notes and idea summaries in the margins — I’m looking to more clearly grasp the larger idea and reasoning that supports it (no doubt a habit from my erstwhile job as a composition teacher).

But then writing a post that articulates the author’s argument takes a lot of effort. Synthesizing the author’s main argument, assessing their support, and writing a review requires a lot of literary prowess and erudition (to contextualize the author within a larger landscape of similarly themed books). It’s not a genre I’m skilled at (yet).

I also find it hard to keep the book review at around 800 words while also doing justice to the larger ideas of the book, which might have taken the author 300+ pages to make. I’m more inclined to reference and briefly summarize the book in service of some essay or post.

Is writing a conversation the authors are having with what they read?

Much of writing, I’ve noticed, is a conversation the author is having with other sources. I really like thinking of writing as conversation. Writing is the way the author interacts with what he or she is reading, either using the sources to support an argument, or calling them out to refute gaps or other errors of thinking, or connecting them with personal experiences and elaborations, and more.

Reading is a natural precursor, even a requirement, to writing. Almost every good book I’ve read seems to involve the author summarizing and responding to a variety of sources. When the sources are absent, the writing is usually provincial.

That said, I’m a bit overwhelmed by how much writers actually read. From the looks of the sources and books cited, it appears as if writers have read tomes on the subject they’re writing about. Are they sampling only the relevant chapters in these books, or have they devoted multiple years to reading everything in a niche? And how do they keep all the quotations and references so organized?

No doubt tools like Google Scholar help one locate a network of important texts about a subject. Even so, I need to figure out a good system for storing quotations and summaries of books (my method for a commonplace book) so that I can reference the quotations later in posts.

Are book clubs worth joining or starting?

If I don’t write book reviews, what substitute activities might be worth pursuing? Book clubs? I’ve been reading books related to the auto industry as a way to increase my interest and knowledge of the domain I work in at Google (maps in cars). As I’ve discovered some really interesting books (Autonomy, Autonorama, Why We Drive, Ludicrous [Tesla], Crash Course, Mobility 2040, The Geography of Nowhere, and more), I’ve wondered if perhaps I should start a book club at my workplace for this niche. Or maybe just share internal book reviews in newsletters? I can’t quite figure out what to do with the knowledge from books.

In many of the books (particularly the man-versus-machine-themed books), Google frequently surfaces (either as a savior or monster). Wouldn’t these portrayals make for some good internal discussions? And yet, I’m not really the book club type. Nothing is worse than being locked into a recurring conversation with uninteresting people. On the other hand, perhaps a “workplace literary salon” with bright minds would be invigorating and broadening?

How to remember words I look up?

Years of being a technical writer taught me to prefer simple, easily understood words. As a result, I’ve let my vocabulary stagnate. I note unfamiliar or interesting words on a bookmark as I’m reading, along with other random notes:

Writing down interesting or unfamiliar words and other notes
Writing down interesting or unfamiliar words and other notes

Then eventually, as I grow tired of reading, I’ll take an hour or so to look them up. Lately, I’ve decided that if I can pair the definition with a picture I find on the internet (from image search), the chances of the word sticking in my mind increases tenfold. Looking for supporting images is fun, and I do think this picture-definition technique might be much more effective than pictureless definitions.

If language provides the tools for expression, then increasing the number of tools at my disposal might help me be more articulate (as long as my writing doesn’t end up sounding like pretentious).

Real purpose of reading to spur intellectual engines?

Even if I don’t engage with a book by writing about it or discussing it in a book club, does reading along spur more “intellectual vibrations,” as Nicholas Carr described the act? Perhaps reading helps prime and tune my intellectual engine, which then makes me more capable in performing other tasks (even in writing documentation). If this is the case, then reading alone might be a good way to start the day, like a warm-up before practice or a game.

Modular reading versus single-book reading?

Is it better to read modularly/horizontally across authors and sources to follow a theme, such as individual essays or chapters from various sources, or to read a long book from start to finish? Reading modularly, such as chapters from the O’Reilly Books library or standalone journal articles, offers more direct access to a theme, while reading entire books from start to finish allows for more random discovery of ideas and deeper immersion with them. You get to know the author’s way of thinking on a more intimate level. And across the length of a book, I stumble onto themes and ideas that I wasn’t searching for. It’s also more satisfying to make my way through an entire book, and when I’m finished, it feels more gratifying than if I had sampled a theme from many different sources.

However, sometimes books shift focus. For example, in Stolen Focus, the author took the theme from distraction due to technology into distraction due to ADHD, abuse, nutrition, pollution, and other angles. Was it in the service of padding for page count, or was he digging deep? Do books really need 200 to 300 pages to convey their argument and core facts? Could that not be done more efficiently in a single article? And if I’ll need a variety of sources to quote from for any writing project that draws upon my reading, this source variety might be better in the long run. And yet, reading a single article isn’t nearly as enjoyable as an entire book.

Can I skip ahead when bored?

Suppose I’m reading a book but am finding that some chapters bore me. Do I skip ahead, or do I slog my way through them? Skipping ahead might help me continue with the book instead of abandoning it altogether. Too many uninteresting chapters in a row and I’m likely to toss the book aside. But maybe the book slowly comes alive in the chapters that I decided to skip? Or maybe later chapters won’t make sense if I skip the boring chapters? It’s hard to tell. Much like watching TV or a movie — you sort of need to rely on reviews to know whether it’s worth enduring the slow burn.

Also, on a more trivial note, if I skip a few chapters, can I still “count” the book for my Book a Week challenge, even though this is a completely meaningless metric that no one is watching but me?

How to control my saccades?

“Saccades” refer to your eye movements as you track across the lines and sentences while reading (or tracking other things). Our saccades aren’t smooth, sweeping motions from left to right across the page. Instead, our saccades involve little uneven jerks of rapid movement. When I’m searching and assessing information (or consuming information from feeds), my saccades are quick, tracking the F pattern that UX researchers described as I tear through the shape and high-level substance of a page in 15 seconds.

But when I’m reading a book with worthwhile information, I need to slow my saccades way down, almost like I’m in slow motion. Otherwise, the meaning might pass me right on by. Does this make me a “slow reader”? Perhaps. But not all content can be consumed at the same pace. Reading a fast-moving fiction novel requires a much different pace than absorbing philosophical ideas that are complex and hard to digest. Being able to slow down my saccades helps increase my concentration and focus.

What are the forces of tech that disincentive long-form reading?

How did I get out of the practice of reading? As a student, many books I read were assigned, while those that I discovered on my own had more personal reward to me. Even so, at some point in my career, I realized that to get ahead as a technical writer, I needed to expand my technical knowledge (for example, learn Java). Given that I had only so much bandwidth, I tried to confine my selection of books to technical books, to learning programming or other more career-useful information. I told myself that to thrive in a technical career that was growing increasingly specialized year after year, I needed to become more technical. Being technical was the key attribute that would allow me to thrive as a technical writer.

Yet I confess that more technical books on programming and engineering-related related topics never really interested me deeply. I’m much more interested in non-fiction literature, the kind I studied in my graduate MFA program. Crawford’s Why We Drive is the perfect balance of ideas and personal experience, which is the type of content I’ve strived to write myself on this blog over the years. Perhaps I stopped reading because I was mentally trapped in a programming genre that I found somewhat suffocating, and as I branched out into more domains, it was like opening a window and breathing in fresh air. Maybe I started reading in part because I no longer confined myself to strictly technical books.

What value do non-technical books have on a technical career?

What value do non-technical books have for a technical career? Well, about half of the recently acquired books on my shelf are related to the auto industry, so I’m expanding my domain knowledge. I work in geo-related services with cars, so just understanding the auto industry seems relevant, even though the books aren’t technical. The convergence of Silicon Valley with Detroit has surfaced a lot of knowledge gaps about processes, expectations, and other modes of thought within our group.

For example, auto OEMs are accustomed to sending out lengthy requirements docs that suppliers respond to, line by line. In contrast, software organizations develop in a more agile way, with a shorter roadmap focus and continual check-ins with customers. To develop for the auto industry by following a software development methodology (rather than an auto methodology like Toyota’s Lean model) was the cause for a lot of the shakeup from Tesla when it created an EV and entered the market (as described in Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors).

Besides domain knowledge, much of the work of technical writing doesn’t consist of individual study of APIs and code. Much of the work of tech comm involves interviewing engineers and reviewing existing content. Sure, you look at code and need some level of technical proficiency, but there are diminishing returns. To climb up to the level of competency required to understand code independently, you need to almost be a programmer yourself. And the more technical knowledge you immerse yourself in, the more the gaps develop in other areas, such as with methodology, project management, information architecture, and last but not least, the business domain itself.

Also, ironically, I’ve found that as a “tech lead,” my role has evolved to more strategy and planning than actual writing. My job is to identify friction areas, materialize those frictions into concrete and achievable tasks, prioritize the work against partner needs and upcoming releases from product teams, and then often assign the tickets to other writers. There’s much less of a need to know how to read and execute code, unfortunately.

In short, the higher up you climb in job levels, the more your work shifts to content strategy rather than content tactics. You no longer need to be down-in-the-weeds technical. You need to unlock complex information, but reading a book on Java won’t really help. The tasks are more ambiguous rather than technical. I think I might have overestimated the need for deep technical knowledge in my career.

Sponsored content

I realize that accruing a lot of knowledge about the auto industry might not be all that beneficial to me, especially if I decide, after a few years, to switch domains. Shouldn’t I read books about tech comm? Unfortunately, tech comm books tend to be boring, and in some ways, tech comm is meant to support more knowledge-specific domains anyway. There’s a difference between learning about cars versus learning about communication methods. With communication methods, the focus is on decisions and patterns for communicating information, usually about some product (e.g., cars). The study of those communication patterns themselves is interesting, for sure, and has occupied the focus of my blog for most of its duration. But I’ve never been ignited by books on tech comm, for some reason. There are a few exceptions, such as Every Page Is Page One, where the author follows a bold idea with interesting analyses. But it’s kind of more fun to become immersed in a specific knowledge domain. I’m still looking for the equivalent of a tech comm book written following a style like Matthew Crawford’s style in Why We Drive.

Can business leaders still read?

Another idea brewing in the back of my mind is the potential value and secret strength that reading might provide in the workplace. It’s apparent to me that most people in the workplace don’t read long-form content. Last week I was trying to review an eight-page document with about five reviewers. For each of them, I had to commit them to a 30-minute review meeting wherein they would read and comment along as they made their way through the document. None of them seemed capable of reading before the meeting.

Admittedly, I told them they would have time to read and review the content during the meeting, which is the greatest tip I brought over from Amazon. But with so many smart people at Google, I thought more people would be inclined to consume information outside of meetings too. Nope.

During one review, one of the senior approvers seemed to only glance through the content. When we slowed down and asked him to confirm that a particular paragraph was okay, he scrunched his face in a way that seemed to show some struggle in reading, or maybe he needed glasses. I don’t know. I know that most of the business leaders I interact with have schedules full of meetings for the entire week. You have to schedule a small amount of time with these people weeks ahead of time. When do these leaders find time to read? Is their reading limited to product briefs and pitches, strategy documents, slide decks, and requirements documents? And if these decision-makers aren’t immersing themselves in deeper reading, how do they build their business acumen to make the right decisions?

Recognizing that long-form reading has become a rarity in the workplace inspires me to read even more. I am hoping to develop a habit of workplace reading as a form of educational awareness. Perhaps understanding product lines as they extend across the org chart will lead to more cross-pollination of ideas and other connections?

Conclusion

Sorry if you felt subjected to a random compilation of figurative post-it notes in this post. I tried to warn you in the introduction. These are just the observations I’ve had around reading these past few weeks. If you have any thoughts to share that might shape and guide my efforts, please feel free to reach out or add a comment below. And if you have a good book to recommend, please share the title.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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