The new year and the new decade are upon us, and with them have come the inevitable resolutions to live better in some way or another. One of the most common such resolutions is to read more books–either left with that vague wording or given a specific target like 30 nonfiction books total or 10 books written by women. I’m no exception to this–one of my goals for 2020 is to read 30 books (excluding research deep dives). But fulfilling this goal, without consideration of the what, why, and how, doesn’t really ensure that you’ll be better at the end of the year the way you really want to. I’m going to explore some of the ways reading more books can be beneficial–and some of the ways it can divert valuable attention away from more important things–and finish by going against the grain and suggesting that (maybe) you shouldn’t read more books this year.
Reading often has a reputation for being a more sophisticated pastime than other forms of media consumption like TV or movies, especially when we’re talking about reading books instead of shorter media like magazines or blogs. In order to talk about the relative benefits of reading, though, we have to separate the value of reading as a form of entertainment from the value of reading as a tool for making you better, because reading’s superior reputation relies on providing more of the latter type of value compared to other media. When people establish reading goals for themselves, it’s usually because they believe that reading more books will bring benefits to their life beyond momentary entertainment.
Making the distinction between those two kinds of value is important because it’s easy to implicitly tie them together, especially when reading is our preferred form of entertainment. If we get a lot of enjoyment from reading, or closely identify with “being a reader,” it’s easy to find ourselves looking for reasons to believe that reading books isn’t just a form of entertainment, but something that actually makes us better. While “better” doesn’t necessarily have to imply an immediate, tangible improvement, if there’s nothing to point to besides the feeling that a book gives you, you’re still ultimately just referring to entertainment value. To determine if books truly have anything to benefit you, their reader, beyond entertainment, we’ll need to dig deeper into why reading does (or doesn’t) enrich people. To do that, we’ll first have to distinguish between reading fiction and reading nonfiction.
Does Fiction Really Improve Empathy?
Fiction’s most obvious value is in providing entertainment–romance novels and thrillers routinely outsell other genres for a reason. But reading fiction may also improve your life in a more lasting way according to some research; most commonly, it is claimed that reading fiction can make you more empathetic. A widely-cited 2013 study by Kidd and Castano sought to establish whether literary fiction could lead to increased “theory of mind”–the ability to understand minds other than one’s own. Kidd and Castano defined literary fiction as fiction that, among other things, “engages their readers creatively as writers” and “triggers presupposition… subjectification… and multiple perspectives,” and created a scale to quantify how literary a work of fiction was. To determine subject’s theory of mind, they used the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), a test requiring subjects to “identify facially expressed emotions.”
Kidd and Castano concluded after their research that “reading literary fiction may lead to stable improvements of [Theory of Mind].” This conclusion got repeated over and over again by respectable media outlets like Time, The Guardian and Scientific American. Words of caution could sometimes be found later in the articles, but the headlines, of course, abandoned nuance and suggested that reading fiction made you a better person. An entire mythology seemed to spring up around this idea, and it’s become nigh-unquestionable wisdom among many readers.
But the study, which has been cited over 1,000 times according to Google Scholar, buckled under the increased scrutiny that followed. Panero et al. tempered Kidd and Castano’s conclusions when they attempted a replication and concluded that “the most plausible link between reading fiction and theory of mind is either that individuals with strong theory of mind are drawn to fiction and/or that a lifetime of reading gradually strengthens theory of mind, but other variables, such as verbal ability, may also be at play.” Still optimistic, but cautious. A more serious blow came when the journal Nature published a 2018 paper titled “Evaluating the replicability of social science experiments inNature and Science between 2010 and 2015.” Kidd and Castano’s study, published in Science during that window of time, fared quite poorly; by every metric used by the 2018 paper, the study failed replication.
Research on the connection between empathy and fiction has come from a variety of sources, not just Kidd and Castano, and many researchers have studied other positive effects of reading fiction like narrative reasoning and self-experience. But caution is warranted when research seemingly promotes a simple narrative like “reading fiction = good,” especially when such a narrative supports what you’d like to believe anyway (be honest: did you click the links in the previous sentence hoping to affirm that reading fiction is good? Have you ever looked for evidence to the contrary?). This applies doubly to a field like psychology, which speaks to many people’s deeply-held beliefs about themselves, but has been hit particularly hard by the replication crisis.
The Hidden Costs of Reading
Even if reading fiction brings modest psychological benefits, a key question is whether those benefits are ends or means. For instance, even if you assume that reading fiction improves your ability to empathize, that increase in empathy will do no good unless you apply it. The value of empathy is tied to the practice of interacting with others; increasing empathy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Interaction with others can take many forms–from close personal friendships to more distant business relationships–but without it, it becomes nonsensical to argue that becoming more empathetic has made you better. “Being more empathetic” is meaningless unless you can alternatively express it as “acting more empathetically toward others.”
Now, consider that every action carries an opportunity cost–the lost time you could have spent doing something else. This means that every hour spent reading a novel is an hour not spent doing something else. If you’re reading for entertainment, that’s not a problem. But if you’re reading a novel with the goal of improving yourself, you may want to ask if your life would be more improved by actually doing the activities that reading is supposed to help you with.
A Little Bit of Learning
On the surface, nonfiction is much harder to attack as impractical than fiction is. Nonfiction conveys information about the world around us, the story goes, and we can use that information to guide our actions. But depending on your reading habits, this may not actually be the case the majority of the time–for instance, did the last true crime book you read influence your life in any way besides adding an extra dose of paranoia? Even a more cerebral tome such as Gödel, Escher, Bach or Guns, Germs, and Steel, while offering plenty of mind-blowing insights into the nature of reality, will often be rather short on practical applications.
One upside to vacuuming up as much knowledge as possible is that it can help reduce the impact of unknown unknowns in our lives–the broader you read, the more you expose yourself to fields you otherwise wouldn’t have and remove the possibility of getting blindsided by something you came across in your reading. It can also help you realize just how much you still have to learn about a topic you’ve just started dipping your toes into. From this point of view, voraciously reading from a variety of disciplines is beneficial even if you don’t necessarily know what the benefits will be in the future.
Skimming the surface can backfire, however; not for nothing did Alexander Pope write “A little learning is a dang’rous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain / And drinking largely sobers us again.” The first phase of learning something new is often when our confidence most outweighs our knowledge. If we know literally nothing about a subject, it’s hard to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but if we’re familiar with the basics, it’s easy to inflate our familiarity into expertise in our minds. To use a simple example, it would be hard to form an opinion on why veins appear blue under our skin if you know absolutely nothing about human anatomy. If you’ve started learning some basic facts, however, you might start to think you know the answer to that question–you might learn that hemoglobin is what gives blood its red color, that hemoglobin carries oxygen, and that veins carry deoxygenated blood, and suddenly the common misconception that the blood in your veins is actually blue makes perfect sense. Compounding this particular falsehood is the fact that many anatomy textbooks actually portray veins as blue out of convenience, meaning that the false information in your head has now been “confirmed,” and that “confirmation” may actually make it harder to accept the truth if you encounter later on.
In cases like this, the little bit of knowledge we do have can cause us to fill in the gaps with our imaginations where we previously would have humbly recognized ourselves as ignorant. “A little bit of learning” truly is a dangerous thing–not bad, necessarily, but dangerous. It can expose blind spots, and create them. Reaping its benefits while avoiding its pitfalls requires a sharp eye and a skeptical mind.
Can Acquiring More Knowledge Be a Bad Thing?
Even knowledge that could be a positive influence in theory may not necessarily be so in practice. As with fiction, every hour spent reading nonfiction is an hour that can’t be spent doing something else. While writing this essay, for instance, I’ve pulled from numerous sources to back my case. Learning more about the topic might be good, but not at the expense of actually writing the essay. While it’s good to keep your eyes peeled for new possibilities as you work on a project, chasing those possibilities gets less and less valuable once you’ve already gotten an idea of the big picture. Researching diminishes in importance relative to simply doing.
Not only can reading take time away from productive work, it can turn into a feedback loop that pushes you to actively avoid productive work. Every writer (yours truly included) knows the experience of telling themselves they just need to do a little more research before they have to face the dreaded blank page. Researching thus becomes a form of procrastination; while writing requires creativity, action, and a little bit of guts, researching is comparatively noncommittal and stress-free. You wind up endlessly reading to avoid the hard job of putting one word after another.
Even outside of creative endeavors, more knowledge can lead to worse outcomes. The CIA, for instance, has found that “once an experienced analyst has the minimum information necessary to make an informed judgment, obtaining additional information generally does not improve the accuracy of his or her estimates. Additional information does, however, lead the analyst to become more confident in the judgment, to the point of overconfidence.” In business culture, Lean Startup methodology emphasizes that action and experimentation are the keys to establishing a successful business, not crafting the perfect plan with perfect information. Not all information is true, and not all true information is relevant; sometimes it just decreases the signal-to-noise ratio.
The Decay of Knowledge
Let’s say you’ve found a book with (as far as you can tell) true, relevant, actionable knowledge and need to decide whether it’s worth your time to read it (remember opportunity cost!). The final step to determining whether it will be worthwhile is to compare when you will need this information with how quickly it will decay. “Decay,” in this context, can mean a few different things. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street compares decaying knowledge to radioactive decay, in which well-established facts regularly become irrelevant or proven false with time, and prescribes the pursuit of knowledge with as slow a decay as possible. “Whenever new information is discovered,” he writes, “we can be sure it will break down and be proved wrong at some point. As with a radioactive atom, we don’t know precisely when that will happen, but we know it will occur at some point. If we zoom out and look at a particular body of knowledge, the random decay becomes orderly. Through probabilistic thinking, we can predict the half-life of a group of facts with the same certainty with which we can predict the half-life of a radioactive atom. The problem is that we rarely consider the half-life of information. Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true years or decades later. [emphasis his]”
Parrish also describes a few indicators to help identify expiring information: “Expiring information is sexy but it’s not knowledge. Here are a few telltale signs you’re dealing with expiring information. First, it’s marketed to you. Second, lacking details and nuance, it’s easily digestible. This is why it’s commonly telling you what happened, not why it happened or under what conditions it might happen again. Third, it won’t be relevant in a month or a year.” A cursory glance at the publishing industry reveals that a massive amount of the books published in any given year, including (perhaps especially) the ones that hit the bestseller lists, meet these criteria. The incentives of working in media push writers to spread expiring information at the expense of durable knowledge.
Knowledge can decay in another sense, namely, by forgetting. Memories have been observed to decay in an exponential fashion going as far back as Hermann Ebbinghaus, who first coined the term “forgetting curve” to describe the rapid initial decline of memories and slowly flattening later decline that follows it. The good news is that simply recalling the information you’ve recently learned can help solidify the information better than re-reading, and that each review session allows you space out the interval until your next review session longer than the last one. The bad news is that almost no one does this, either within the education system or when left to study on their own. Most people, no matter how thoroughly they may read a book, are left with nothing but a vague, possibly misremembered impression of the overarching points a year later. The arguments, sources, and practical applications are almost guaranteed to be completely forgotten without maintenance, to say nothing of the fine details. If you want the knowledge you gain from reading to be durable, it’s essential to start your reading with a plan for retaining what you learn after you’re done. This can be done by using a spaced repetition system like Anki, but effectively using such systems requires putting in the time to transfer the knowledge you want to remember, then sticking to a tight review schedule as the system prompts you.
The decay of knowledge means that if you don’t have a plan to remember what you read, you can’t rely on your ability to recall information accurately or productively more than a few months or even weeks into the future. It also means that even if you do remember it, you must account for its half-life and assume that it may be outdated soon, if it isn’t already.
Answer the Damn Question
So is reading more books a good goal? Maybe. Reading has brought much joy and enlightenment to my life. But the main takeaway I want to instill is that reading about life is ultimately inferior to living it. If reading helps you build better relationships, fulfill your ambitions, or change the world around you, then read on! But if there is an ultimate point to life, I’m fairly certain it isn’t to lie on your deathbed looking back at all the books you finished. Consumption of others’ work–even consumption that may be beneficial like reading–fundamentally cannot leave a mark on the world by itself. It takes action to do so.
What and how should we read in light of this? First, it suggests that we should be more selective about the books we read for anything other than entertainment. If we’re reading purely for pleasure, then it ultimately makes little difference what we choose. But we should be more cautious about the books we read not just allowing, but hoping to influence our life. The decay of knowledge, the surprising shakiness of supposedly solid sources, and the opportunity cost of reading itself mean that we must be choosy about the books we spend our time on.
Next, it suggests that we may find unexpected value in two places: a) books that have deeply influenced the course or culture or society, and b) books that offer an underappreciated inside “edge,” though this edge need not be of the competitive variety. Books that fit the former description could include the classics, the canons of major world civilizations, or the major religious texts of the world, or perhaps more recent but timely works of science like The Selfish Gene or The Feynman Lectures on Physics. It may seem strange to say that you’d find “unexpected value” in this category of books, since they by definition have indirectly influenced millions or billions of people. But they also tend to have the strange quality of being read about more than actually read. By engaging with these books directly, you can participate in what philosophers and historians have called “The Great Conversation” of thinkers throughout the ages and get an unfiltered look at how the world as we understand it came to be. These works can also help you avoid the pitfalls of decaying knowledge by existing outside the myopic world of bestseller lists and book clubs. Their long-standing relevance in the past strongly implies continued relevance in the future, a principle known as the Lindy Effect, which Nassim Taleb explained like this:
“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”Antifragile (Taleb, 2012)
Unlike the former source of unexpected value, the latter source (books that offer an inside edge) is by definition tricky to find. If these books were easy to locate, they wouldn’t be underappreciated and they wouldn’t offer an inside edge. The key, then, is to look for information and insights that are relevant to your life that most people overlook. This could mean simply getting reading recommendations from on friends, writers, or organizations that you trust but are less visible to the general public. Slate Star Codex, for instance, while not quite obscure, is totally unknown to most people but is a reliable source of high-quality writing, including plenty of book reviews and analyses. This source could also take the form of cross-disciplinary writing, in which a thinker from one field applies insights from their profession to a totally different field and introduces a massive paradigm shift. These thinkers are usually treated with extreme skepticism by the establishment of their targeted discipline, often with good reason, but their fresh perspectives as outsiders often help them produce profound insights that go undervalued by most people who could stand to benefit from them.
Reading great books means opening yourself to being changed by them. Mortimer Adler, one of the men who coined “The Great Conversation” referred to above, wrote a deceptively useful guide titled How to Read a Book (it was not, unfortunately, preceded by How to Read “How to Read a Book”). Adler used his book to explain his system of “reading for understanding,” his term for reading with an eye for changing the way you think about something instead of simply acquiring information or entertaining yourself. While explaining his position, he also noted that reading this way requires humbling ourselves before the works and people we hope to learn from–that “we can only learn from our ‘betters.'” By this, he meant that in order to read a book for understanding, it has to offer value that you don’t currently have, and that gaining this value from the author necessarily involves stretching past the point of comfort:
“You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn. [emphasis mine] Thus, it becomes of crucial importance for you not only to be able to be able to read well but also to be able to identify those books that make the kinds of demands on you that improvement in reading ability requires…We have said many times that the good reader makes demands on himself when he reads. He reads actively, effortfully. Now we are saying something else. The books that you will want to practice your reading on, particularly your analytical reading, must also make demands on you. They must seem to you to be beyond your capacity.”How to Read a Book (Adler, 1940)
Adler may have been explaining How to Read a Book, but he could not do so without also addressing what to read and why to read it. The how, the what, and the why are all intertwined, and the last of those questions has to be answered for the other two to make sense. To fully answer the question of whether you should read more books this year, you must go several steps back to asking exactly why you believe reading to be “good.” This question, which can only be answered for oneself, may still lead some to read many more books this year. But it may lead others to focus their attention and prune their reading lists to the essential few, and perhaps even lead some to overturn their relationship with reading altogether. Whatever the answer, the question will have accomplished its purpose.