“too many books to know any of them well” – a Reading Challenge for this Age of Information Overload

Read this paragraph, from George F. Kennan (from The Kennan Diaries, highlighted by Fareed Zakaria; via Andrew Sullivan – emphasis added):

“I cannot help but regret that I did not live 50 or 100 years sooner,” he wrote in one of his entries. “Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, . . . too many friends to have any real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them.”

Note this line:

too many books to know any of them well.

Yesterday, I finished reading The Second Machine Age.  I am presenting my synopsis of this terrific book at this Friday’s First Friday Book Synopsis.

I am currently reading one new business book every month, carefully and thoroughly enough to prepare a multi-page handout and then speak/present a synopsis to a live audience.

And, I am reading at least one, frequently two books a month on social justice and poverty for CitySquare’s Urban Engagement Book Club.  I read these books with the same thoroughness that I read the business books I present.  Every month.

That is two, or three, new books every month.  Plus, other books that I read but do not present, and then many other sample pages of additional books downloaded from Amazon for my Kindle App.

Confession time:  the books seem to run together.  I know “I read this somewhere,” but way too frequently it is “I don’t remember which book this story was in.”

And, I finish a book, and instead of pondering it, letting it sink in, thinking about how to implement its lessons and messages, I have to immediately move on to the next book assignment.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love this discipline.  I love learning from books.  But, that phrase from Kennan just jumped out at me:

too many books to know any of them well.

Here’s a startling “holy mackerel” piece of information from The Second Machine Age:

IBM estimates that it would take a human doctor 160 hours of reading each and every week just to keep up with relevant new literature.

Information overload is a huge understatement in this genuinely information overload era.

But/so…  here’s a challenge for you.  Reading a book, carefully, is a very good thing to do.  Reading it slowly enough to ponder it, think about it, ask “what can I learn, and implement from these lessons,” can be an incredibly valuable discipline.

Reading a book is a deeper dive than a few blog posts, or magazine articles on the subject.  And we need some deep dives every now and then.

Oh, sure you should consider exposing yourself to the wisdom of a bunch of books.  But…, what if you chose one book – very carefully – to read slowly, deliberately.  (Maybe one a quarter – four a year).  Carve out chunks of time.  Keep notes on it.  If it is a physical book, argue with it in the margins with your pen in hand as you read.  (Confession – I miss this in my digital book reading experience).  Discuss it with the author as though the author was present as you read.  Four books a year, tackled in depth, to “know them well.”

“Too many books to know any of them well” shouldn’t keep us from trying to know a few of them very well, should it?


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