Reading, Actually: The Lost Art of Reading in 21st Century Culture

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” – Mark Twain


We live in the most amazing time in history for knowledge availability. With the advent of the Internet, opportunities for learning have skyrocketed. Many of the most respected universities have made courses available free online. [1] Amazon offers tens of thousands of books for free online just by downloading them to your Kindle or to a Kindle application that runs on almost any platform. The Internet Archive (archive.org) has 2.5 million free books.

You would think that as a society we would be advancing now more than ever in terms of knowledge, creativity and educational excellence. In fact, the opposite is true. We live in perhaps the least educated time in recent history. While many people seem to know high school Math, English, and Science, a basic level knowledge of facts that would have once been considered essential is now scarce. For example, in a recent survey by Newsweek magazine, 29 percent of respondents couldn’t even name the vice president. [2]

The secret is that the solution lies right at our fingertips. It’s not about improving the public school system. While a laudable goal and certainly worth continuing to attempt, it’s been tried repeatedly for generations with marginal results. The decline of people’s intellect is often blamed on the rise of cable television and the Internet, but it began long before that. While as a society we have learned the skill of reading, we have no longer acquired the practice. Sure, people read, but usually as a last resort — on the plane, when you’re sick, “to fall asleep.” Most people abandon all attempts at reading as soon as some alternative media is even remotely available.

Have you met people that seem larger than life? There is something different about them that you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has to do with something that we all have access to. It’s been posited all over the Internet (but I can’t find a source) that the average CEO reads 4-5 books a month. People like Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta Airlines who always asks people in interviews, “what are the last three or four books you’ve read, and what did you enjoy about those?” [3] Consider this then: boosting your career path and changing your own world (and our world) may be as simple as making a commitment to lead a literary life.

The thing about literary people is, their life and perspective is far expanded beyond the small reach of their immediate borders. They see things through others eyes and in other times and places. If you want to go beyond a limited view of the world, your own immediate experiences, your own restrictive cognitive reality, the experiences of your very own last year or two, reading will do this for you. Here are some suggestions:

Read across a wide spectrum: Don’t stick to one subject area, one author, one time period or one genre. Of course you have limited time. But don’t just read tech books or business books. Human endeavor and the practice of it has been recorded faithfully for generations and you have ready access to the real words of these very real people. Have you ever wondered how Benjamin Franklin could be so productive and how he balanced his time between politics, religion, science, writing, diplomacy and music? You can read about it in his own words – the book is free on the Amazon Kindle. [4]

Dig deep: Consider picking a subject area you want to excel in and go for it. Don’t expect instant results. Developing respectable expertise may well take several months. The great thing is there are so many ways to do it. Download, buy, go to book sales, use the library, browse the Internet, follow the “1-3-5” method (below), read articles, listen to podcasts, dig deeply in one focus area and allow your brain, your experience and your unique perspective to be combined into your own special zone of competence.

Write: As Thackeray said “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” As you read, write. This could be your own reflections or simply repeating what you’re reading. If you want your thoughts to coalesce into something more than just repeating trivial tidbits that everyone already says or knows, you will allow your brain to come up with something unique that only you can contribute through writing.

Have a plan: Don’t expect to become literate without effort. Make a plan. Decide When. Choose a place and time to devote to reading. Make it regular. It could mean getting up a half hour earlier before the house wakes up, setting aside your lunch, or staying late at work. Stay devoted to it. Consider it just as critical as your other endeavors. If you’re interrupted, don’t write it off: “well, I was only reading.” Make it a priority. Decide What. If you have a goal for educating yourself on a topic, make a plan and stick to it but be willing to adjust your plan as you discover new sources of knowledge.

The “1-3-5” method: Do these three at the same time and you will get maximum exposure to a subject area. Your cognitive integration of the subject matter will surprise you.

  • Pick 1 respected tome about the subject and absorb every word digging very deeply, write down your thoughts as you go through it, perhaps even rewrite parts of it, write chapter summaries, blog and tweet about it.
  • Pick 3 related shorter books about the same topic and read them cover to cover but as quickly as possible while you’re reading the first book. Don’t pause to reflect, just fire-hose them down.
  • Find 5 other books that are related tangentially and skim them, reading some parts in detail but simply skimming other parts. Your brain’s ability to integrate all of the subject matter in new, fresh and interesting ways will surprise you. Your ability to discuss the subject at hand at close to an expert level will position you as that expert in your colleague’s minds.

Follow the path: If the author you’re reading makes you jump out of your seat in excitement, find out what else that author has written and find out who were the big influences on that author. Don’t blow off footnotes or bibliographies, especially now that much of your reading can be done while online. They are there to help you develop a unique and integrated view of what you’re reading, connecting different subjects and explaining cross-cultural references. If you love Tom Clancy, don’t stop there. With a little digging you will find that Freddie Forsyth was a major influence on him and now you’ll have a whole new world to enjoy.

Use all the tools: Don’t miss out on the tools available to you. For example, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. There are apps to let you read Kindle books on any PC or device or using a browser. This means you can read anywhere. On the bus, at the dentist, waiting in line, at Starbucks, waiting for the wife to try on seventeen outfits, at the symphony, in a boring meeting, at the company quarterly. Skimming through books works especially well during these times.

We live in an age of vast accessibility that even our parents and grandparents could only dream of. Take advantage of it. Now more than ever you can expand your borders beyond the prison of a non-literary life.


[1] “400 Free Online Courses from Top Universities,” Open Culture OpenCulture.org (November 26, 2011), http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses

[2] Andrew Romano, “How Dumb Are We?” Newsweek (March 20, 2011), http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/03/20/how-dumb-are-we.html

[3] Adam Bryant, “He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects”, The New York Times (April 25, 2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/business/26corner.html

[4] Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. [Lexington, Ky.]: SoHo, 2010. Digital.

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About Jeff

Leads Teams to Deliver Enterprise Technology Solutions | Mobile | Cloud | HTML 5 | Big Data | mHealth | Gamification | Realtime Analytics | Augmented Reality
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2 Responses to Reading, Actually: The Lost Art of Reading in 21st Century Culture

  1. Did you ever find the source for “that the average CEO reads 4-5 books a month?” You are correct about it being all over the web without a source. I’m beginning to think it was made up.

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