An important difference between different genres of books

Last year, I read more books cover-to-cover than I ever did before. This year, my goal is to read even more than before, and I’ve signed up for a reading challenge pledging 80 books in 2015. I’m making good progress so far. I’m at a phase where I want to consume as much information as possible, and synthesize valuable content out of it. In my pursuit of bettering myself professionally and intellectually, I’ve therefore really been doubling down on reading books, and I’ve been utilizing DRM-free PDF books (technical books, in particular related to programming/ computers, purchased from sites such as OReilly, Manning, and the Pragmatic Bookshelf), books purchased through Apple (iBooks on the iPad), and Kindle books, apart from old fashioned printed books. Most of the books I’ve been trying to read are technical books related to my profession, but many are also the latest bestsellers in non-fiction, biographies and memoirs, and occasionally novels – anything that happens to catch my attention when I’m on a book-buying spree (or whatever the ‘algorithm’ recommends).

Out of all this, I’ve noticed a trend. It seems to me that while there is a lot of technical detail in books on programming, and while there are a lot of plot twists in most novels, and while there’s a lot to the story of an individual in a biography/ autobiography/ memoir, when it comes to nonfiction books, for instance those on psychology or business, it seems to me that it’s possible to summarize the entire content from those books in ten minutes or so. Not that these books in the latter category are less voluminous than their technical/ fictional/ biographical counterparts. On the contrary, these books tend to be filled with studies, research, anecdotes, and such. Yet somehow it seems that the anecdotes don’t really add to the meat of the topic, and are dispensable in a way. Only the principal claims need to be remembered/ noted for posterity. Given this observation, and given that my objective is to maximize learning new things and not necessarily reading as many pages as possible, is it really worth investing time in the nonfiction/ business/ psychology genre at all?

For me, I think at least for the time being, going forward my focus is going to be almost exclusively on technical/ professional books. My bias might be influenced by the fact that gaining as much expertise as possible in the profession of software development/ production of technical artifacts is the most beneficial to my career in the future, as opposed to learning all the nuances of every research ever conducted to corroborate a claim in the realm of human psychology or the world of business. Yet I can’t shake off the feeling that it’s difficult to summarize content from a certain kind of books versus content from another kind of books, because in certain areas, the details are important, and in other areas, while the details might be used to support claims, they are not as important as the principal claims and might easily be forgotten with impunity.

Happy reading!

The Power of Focus Applied to Reading

“The power of focus is that it works”, emphasizes Dave Ramsey in his famous book, The Total Money Makeover. He is talking about focusing on small steps, and on doing one thing at a time, in order to make steady progress on the path to personal financial betterment. I agree, of course. Without focus our efforts are all scattered in multiple directions, and to use a math analogy, they act like vectors in opposite directions that cancel each other out rather than adding up to produce something of greater magnitude.

The power of focus works also in other facets of life. Take for instance reading. I read a lot. Always have, always will. When I was younger the majority of my reading used to be fiction. As I’ve grown older my primary focus has shifted to non-fiction and technology books. I am a computer programmer and scientist by trade, so basically, as widespread wisdom indicates these days, I’ve signed up for a lifetime of learning and improving. It is important in any trade to stay marketable and employable. I used to think this is more true in technology jobs, where the landscape keeps changing and things keep evolving, and in order to stay on top of things one has to keep ‘sharpening the saw’, to use a phrase from late Dr Steven Covey. Given this bias of thought, I was surprised when I learned of LeUyen Pham, an artist featured in the mini book What the Most Successful People do at Work by Laura Vanderkam. Pham continuously learns new skills in her trade of illustration! I never thought about that possibility. I knew all kinds of musicians and artists practice their craft a lot, but learning something new was not their characteristic or disposition, at least not according to me. Pham’s justification is simple; if you always ever do the same thing of the same type over and over again, you might get bored and sick of it, and/ or your style of work might go out of fashion. Keeping yourself a nimble student of your craft of choice keeps you interested, productive, happy, and marketable at the same time.

How true! Now I believe a lifetime of saw-sharpening, learning, and getting better at what we do is something people of all disciplines can follow. Besides, an investment in yourself is one of the best investments you can make. Why? Because it is one of the few things in life you have full control over, and because it will enable you to be better and more useful to people that depend on you and those that you love and care about.

But I digress. This article is about focus, remember? Let’s get back to the agenda, then 🙂

How do the two major topics discussed so far, namely focus and reading, correlate? The entrepreneur Dan Shipper blogged a long a time ago about his love of reading a ton, and his secret to reading a lot of books. His secret formula? Fast reading? Not necessarily. People who read a lot also tend to summarize what they read, which automatically reduces their reading speed a little bit. Dan claims that he limits his reading to one book a time. That ensures a steady, consistent progress. Otherwise, things tend to get scattered and disorganized. And I realized that it was what was happening to me! 50 pages into one book, 30 into another, I discovered that I was ‘in’ about a dozen books and not finished with any of them, and it was taking away from the feeling of accomplishment that you get when checking things off a todo list.

Ergo, I’ve decided to introduce a little more structure to my saw sharpening. I still do plenty of things in a day, which involves a full time job, cooking, working out and other fitness pursuits, side projects, checking out the latest tech scene on Twitter and the Web in general, and finally reading. I want to do it all. Maybe it has to do with me being a Gemini, I don’t really know. I also don’t want to over-invest or under-invest in any area, something that I attempt to preclude by tracking my time and looking at how much time each activity is taking up within the time frame of a week. I cannot make myself do just one thing and forget about the rest, and at this stage in my life, I don’t want to.

Coming back to focus though, there is some prioritization and concentration I can introduce. There are some areas where I cannot just focus on one book at a time. The idea doesn’t work in every case. Take for instance work – you don’t know what you might need to look up when you are struggling with making JavaScript behave in a certain way in your huge MVC UI application, right? The same is true if I am doing a course, e.g. on Coursera. Or when I want/ need to learn some math concept or brush up on a new algorithm. If I read one algorithm text book cover to cover at a time while everything else were waiting, well that’d be a heck of waiting time. However, for now I’ve strictly enforced a one non-technical book at a time and one technical book at a time rule in the reading hours of my day, where I primarily focus on shorter books more focused on a single technology (examples, books from the Manning and OReilly publishers) or a single major thesis/ topic (for instance whatever makes the NY Times Bestseller List), and keep at them until I am done with them before I move on to the next book in my reading pile. And so far, I am pretty happy with the results. Slow progress is still progress and I feel like that part of my day is something that is constantly in forward motion. Given the activities that I have listed earlier, it might take me aeons to finish a non-fiction and a technical book this way, but that outcome is still better than frolicking around with several books at a time and not feeling any progress happening at all.