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Reading for Wisdom: Going Back to the Basics

Reading for Wisdom: Going Back to the Basics

​​Some years, my goal would be to read a certain number of books by the year’s end. Since I’m motivated (obsessed) with numbers, this target would propel me to read through a variety of materials at a good pace. However, because I’m motivated (obsessed) with numbers, the same target can also drive me a little crazy.

 

For example, if I set a 50-book goal in a year, I’d be calculating the number of books to read per month (4.167), week (0.962), and day (0.137, assuming a non-leap year), and constantly evaluating myself each day/week/month on whether I’m behind, ahead, or on target. It becomes a continual chase where once I get behind, the accumulated numbers (and adjusted daily targets) would haunt me every day.

 

Last year, I started without a book goal and enjoyed a variety of quality books at a leisurely pace. Whoever whispered in my ear that I should start calculating towards the end of the year was a true disruptor. I could hardly resist the temptation to calculate, so I did and discovered that I was consuming books at a pretty good speed. Naturally, what followed was to set a target for the year’s end. Lo and behold, my reading then turned into a bit of a chaos. I noticed I was choosing books less carefully, reading those I otherwise wouldn’t just because they were shorter or easier. You see, if you have a speed-related goal, then reading a long book would be detrimental to that goal. Yet many of the best publications, those with substance that can enhance understanding are lengthy and should be consumed at a slower rate.

 

In “The Paradise of the Library“, James Salter wrote of Jacques Bonnet (writer of Phantoms on the Bookshelves),
One often hears the expression “I couldn’t put it down,” but there are books that you have to put down. Books should be read at the speed they deserve, he properly notes. There are books that can be skimmed and fully grasped and others that only yield themselves, so to speak, on the second or even third reading.
There is much wisdom in this. While I practice a form of variable-speed reading already, this quote insinuates of a much slower pace and of repeat reading that would yield a full grasp of the subject material. I don’t usually do this except for a very select few.

 

Based on that wisdom, I’m abandoning a book goal this year. I want to be free from chasing numbers, to take my time, enjoy, and digest what I read.

 

Instead of a number, my reading goal this year would be of a different focus. It is to internalize the subject material by practicing and incorporating them in real life, and to synthesize knowledge into its larger context. I’d like to work on my mental models; where do books and thinkers align with respect to each other, what is the appropriate context in which the suggested thoughts apply or don’t apply, etc. All of these would require a slower pace of reading and thinking, including re-visitations to the books I’ve read in the past.

 

In short, I want to not only gain knowledge, but also wisdom, the ability to contextualize knowledge and use them in a practical sense.

 

To this effect, my first book in 2016 is How to Read a Book, a classic guide from 1940 by Mortimer Adler that outlines the principles of reading books intelligently. Incidentally, Adler also wrote in the preface,
One constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different–appropriate–speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed… [This book] deals with the problem and proposes variable-speed-reading as the solution, the aim being to read better, always better, but sometimes slower, sometimes faster.
The preface promises a great deal more, the many ways readers can enhance their art of reading books. From reading the first few pages, I can tell the book will deliver. You’ll hear more about this book in future posts, I’m sure.

 

What are your 2016 reading goals? Share and comment below! 

 

 Photo credit: Johnny Loi Photography
Best Reads of 2015: Part 2

Best Reads of 2015: Part 2

This post is a continuation of the Best Reads of 2015 list. See Part 1 here.

 

6. Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan

Eka Kurniawan is an Indonesian author whose two works, Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound, have been recently translated and published in English (and other languages too). All the reviews worldwide have been raving about Eka’s work, which make me so extremely proud.

 

I read this book in Indonesian, my native language, and was not surprised by all the raves. It’s such a stunning novel. From the folksy language he uses, the plot, and the arrangement of the narrative, I can honestly say I have never encountered any literature like this before. From the first words of the book, right to the very end, readers are kept in suspense to what actually happens in the central event of the novel. Breathtaking.

 

7. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book made the Best of 2015 lists everywhere. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, rightly so. Here, Coates reflects on life in a black body, poetically. For me, I felt the impact of this book even more afterwards, when certain phrases and sentences from the book would come to mind unexpectedly during a newscast, for example, that was replete with racial issues last year.

 

 

 

8. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Chilling. Powerful. Mysterious. Beautiful. Like a painting. Beloved is a work of art. And like many pieces of art, there are aspects of it that I don’t understand. I’m not too left-brained, however, to miss the beauty of Morrison’s words and phrases. I would consider this book a must-read if you want to understand humanity, particularly the impact of slavery to the psyche of generations of men, women, and children.

 

 

 

9. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham J. Heschel

This book is a collection of essays and speeches that Heschel made during his life, compiled by his daughter, particularly on the meaning of being a Jew. Heschel was already one of my favorite authors, but this book gave me so much food for thought that sparked many personal reflections in 2015. This book was the source of inspiration to my Why I Love Being an Adventist post, as well as the worldview series I noted in my 2015 in Review post.

 

 

 

10. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss

Tim Ferriss came as a guest speaker when I took an Entrepreneurship class in Princeton. He’s probably one of the people with most unconventional lives in the 21st century. I love how this book (and his philosophy in general) teaches me to view the world and its “constraints” as pliable. We don’t have to succumb to society’s expectations of work and success; we can carve our own lives. The book is filled with very practical advice, and is an important reference for anyone who wants to master the art of living free.

 

Other best books lists

2019: Best Books of 2019 Part 1, Best Books of 2019 Part 2.

2018: Best Books of 2018 Part 1, Best Books of 2018 Part 2.

2017Best Books of 2017 Part 1, Best Books of 2017 Part 2.

2016Best Books of 2016 Part 1Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015Best Books of 2015 Part 1Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

 

*Amazon Product links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that each time you purchase something through those links, I get a small commission without you paying any extra. Of course you don’t have to use them, but if you want to chip-in towards content creation for this blog, I’d really appreciate it!

 

Best Reads of 2015: Part 1

Best Reads of 2015: Part 1

2015 was (is) a good reading year. I was able to return to a decent pace (i.e., pre-wedding planning pace). These are the top 5 of my personal best reads of 2015.

 

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a powerful account of Stevenson’s lifework in the criminal justice system. He represents those on death row, women, children, and the mentally disabled—those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to good defense. It is both a hard criticism to the criminal justice system, as well as a hopeful voice for change, for giving mercy a chance.

 

I’ve written a lot about this book—this one was the most impactful book this year for me.

 

 

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read! And the best one in its genre—psychology and neuroscience—too, I think. Thinking deconstructs how we make judgment and how biases and heuristics influence—sometimes negatively—our decisions. I highly recommend this book for anyone who cares about his/her thoughts being coherent.

 

 

 

 

3. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

Addario works in conflict regions of the world as a war photographer. This book is an impassioned account of her experiences—including 2 kidnappings—that she went through, her commitment to tell nuanced stories of war, and her reflections on the relationship between her work and life. She was a recipient of the “Genius Grant,” the MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

 

Her photographs are absolutely stunning and provoking. Check them out here.

 

 

4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is Gawande’s reflection as a medical professional on mortality, a given fact of human life, and end of life care. His insights on how we do medical training are profound, how it often treats human lives and dying as technical problems instead of human problems. Consequently, doctors, while skillful in prescribing treatments for the elderly or terminally ill, are not as well-versed in talking patients through deeper life questions, such as what matters to them the most at the end of their lives. The most admirable part of the book for me is Gawande’s courage in exposing his own personal experience with his father—his end of life care and death—that encapsulates the essence of the rest of the book. I highly appreciate the message of this book!

 

 

5. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

Nerdy and hilarious! You can’t have a better combination than that. Munroe, ex-NASA roboticist turned cartoonist, is exceptionally skilled at combining absurdity and science. In this book, he answers those ridiculous questions that we used to generate while we were kids—and as adults too—using physics and true principles. The result: something really awesome.

 

What were your best reads of 2015? Would love to hear your recommendations! List them out in the comments below.

 

 

Other best books lists

2019: Best Books of 2019 Part 1, Best Books of 2019 Part 2.

2018: Best Books of 2018 Part 1, Best Books of 2018 Part 2.

2017Best Books of 2017 Part 1, Best Books of 2017 Part 2.

2016Best Books of 2016 Part 1Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015Best Books of 2015 Part 1Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

 

*Amazon Product links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that each time you purchase something through those links, I get a small commission without you paying any extra. Of course you don’t have to use them, but if you want to chip-in towards content creation for this blog, I’d really appreciate it!

 

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