Reading more

Why I got a Kindle and set a goal to read 24 books in 2017

I'm not much of a reader. Never have been. I never saw the value. The thought of sitting down and reading a book felt as much of a chore as doing laundry or cleaning my stovetop.

I thought my time was better spent hacking on side projects, editing and making photosets (just kidding, that's always worth it), working or watching a movie on one of many services from Hulu and Netflix to Sling and HBO Now.

As 2016 came to a close I reread my almost four year old post Simplify. I wrote it shortly after I began working at Twitter. Having just come off of a five year stint of working on my own startups, I had become a workaholic. I was incessantly stressed out with the infinite to-do list floating around in my head. I always felt guilty if I wasn't working.

While I've since changed some things to take better care of myself and relax more, continually being stressed out is one thing that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. Not great. I needed something to get me to slow down regularly—if you know me you’ll know I eat fast, walk fast and talk a mile a minute—and take my mind off everything causing me stress. I decided that for 2017 I wanted to read more, much more.

I set a goal to read 24 books in 2017. I have already read 3 books in the last 3 weeks.

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.

—W. Somerset Maugham

Why read?

If I could get into the routine of setting aside my laptop and phone for nugget of time each day to slow down, focus on just one thing and read, that would be success in my book (see what I did there?). No more just turning the phone screen on just to see if I happened to have missed a push notification or important email.

Reading forces you to go one step further and not even let your mind wander a bit. If it does, you're punished by having to read the paragraph or page over again to understand what’s happening.

A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much.

Tyrion Lannister

In just the last few weeks of reading regularly, I’ve seen how every reading session calms me down; a feeling similar to that after a short meditation session (another habit I wasn't good at keeping). Calm and relaxed.

One research study found that reading for just six minutes can help reduce stress levels by as much as 68%—more effective than going for a walk, drinking a cup of tea or listening to music. Another research study found the same, but with 30 minute sessions of yoga, reading and humor (watching SNL). Reading was found to consistently reduce blood pressure, heart rate and a Daily Stress Inventory score.

Reading also helps you lose yourself in a fictional character through a process called experience-taking (PDF), "the imaginative process of spontaneously assuming the identity of a character in a narrative and simulating that character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits as if they were one’s own." And it may actually lead to real life changes.

And finally, a related study (PDF) introduced and proved the hypothesis of narrative collective-assimilation: "experiencing a narrative leads one to psychologically become a part of the collective described within the narrative." The study involved participants reading Harry Potter—they actually believed they were wizards too:

The proposed narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis was supported by results for both explicit and implicit measures; participants who read the Harry Potter chapters associated themselves with wizards, whereas those who read the Twilight chapter associated themselves with vampires. Furthermore, for both measures, the effects were moderated by the degree to which participants tended to fulfill their belongingness needs through collectives.

This finding supports our argument that narrative collective assimilation is related to the desire to belong to groups. Also supportive of the link between narrative collective assimilation and belongingness needs is our finding that greater narrative collective assimilation predicted increased life satisfaction and positive affect, two common outcomes of a satiated need to belong.

Of course there are other reasons to read often: learning, expanding your perspectives, vocabulary and imagination. I also have a bit of FOMO: it seems like all of my coworkers read regularly and find ways to apply or correlate what they’ve learned to things at work. It reminds me of how I’ve found that the more I travel, the more I draw parallels between various experiences and memories to daily life. Throughout a normal day I might think “oh this reminds me of Omotesando Koffee in Harajuku" or “oh they also do that in Paris”, et cetera.

You know what? It doesn't actually take that long to read a book. For a “non-reader” like myself, there's a strong sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a chapter, let alone the whole book.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.

— George R.R. Martin

Listen Stammy, that all sounds great in theory, but we all know no one has the time for that stuff.. you sound like someone with no obligations and all the time in the world.

To answer that, I'll just point you to this New York Times article about President Obama’s reading habits. Read it right now, I’ll wait.

To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night — reading that was deep and ecumenical, ranging from contemporary literary fiction (the last novel he read was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”) to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction.”

Such books were a way for the president to shift mental gears from the briefs and policy papers he studied during the day, a way “to get out of my own head,” a way to escape the White House bubble. Some novels helped him to better “imagine what’s going on in the lives of people” across the country — for instance, he found that Marilynne Robinson’s novels connected him emotionally to the people he was meeting in Iowa during the 2008 campaign, and to his own grandparents, who were from the Midwest, and the small town values of hard work and honesty and humility.

Why Kindle?

Armed with my mission to start a regular reading habit, I decided to get an Amazon Kindle.

But Stammy, you know you don’t need another gadget to read a book right? They come printed too.

Of course I know that, but if I’m going to really get into the swing of things and stick with it I need to reduce friction as much as possible. I got a Kindle for a few reasons:

  • Read anywhere, no distractions. With a print book I’d need to find the perfect seat and lighting situation in my house. With an illuminated Kindle, any seat is a good seat. Even slouching halfway upside down on my couch or in bed with the lights off.

    And what about just using the Kindle app on your tablet or phone? Have you tried reading for any long period on your phone, laptop or tablet? It’s a minefield of distractions and eye strain. No other buzzing, notifications or the temptation to just quickly—just for a second—switch apps to see what’s going on Twitter. The Kindle is purpose-built, distraction-free.

  • It’s tiny and great for travel. You can have a near-infinite number of books (when you run out of local storage, they can remain on the Amazon cloud) and have the Kindle keep your place in them. I have no qualms bringing my Kindle along while traveling. There’s no way around it: print books are heavy, require the perfect lighting situation and often require two hands to hold, lest the book always try to close itself on you.

  • Get books in an instant. Hear about a cool book from a friend or colleague? It can be on your Kindle in 15 seconds. No need to wait for the package to arrive. Some Kindle models have a 3G connection so you can buy books wherever you are, even if you are traveling abroad.

  • Instantly define words. Instead of ignoring that word you’re unsure about, or writing it down to look up later, you can just long-tap on it and the Kindle will define it for you. You can also highlight interesting lines and see popular highlights that thousands of other Kindle readers found noteworthy.1

  • Less clutter. And the big one for me: I’m trying to simplify my physical possessions.

    The only print books I have are basically just travel and coffee table books that serve more as decoration. If I read 24+ books a year and have no intention of reading them agan, do I really want those books taking up space? If you really loved a particular book, then by all means purchase a print copy to display on your bookshelf. But not for me. 2

Getting a Kindle is by no means a requirement. In fact, a particular research study found that participants that read a story on a Kindle remembered less about certain aspects of the story compared to those that read the same story printed on paper.

And don’t expect a Kindle to save you a ton of money in the long run. Just because you are now purchasing a digital good instead of a physical object, it’s not going to be an order of magnitude cheaper. New and popular Kindle books are often in the $10-15 range.

While I've hired the Kindle for this job, I will acknowledge the quaint and familiar facets of print books. The smell. The texture and grain of the page as it slips across your finger when turning the page. Being able to pass a book down a generation. The sound of sharp new pages skirmishing against each other. The sentimental value of just seeing that old copy of Alas Babylon you’ve had for two decades; with an instant flashback to your last memory of staying up late reading that book all those years ago. What do you think about when you see your laptop or phone? Eh, nothing really.

The Amazon Kindle Oasis

While I think that any frontlit Kindle 3 like the Voyage or Paperwhite will be up for the challenge, I opted for the much smaller Kindle Oasis. I opted for the Oasis with 3G and no special offers4, which prices it at a hefty $379. I actually ordered it expecting there was a good chance I would just return it.

Then I unboxed it and realized how tiny it is. Like all previous Kindles, if you purchase it with your own Amazon account, it arrives already logged-in so you’re ready to start downloading and reading books immediately.

Pros
  • 6-inch, 300ppi e-ink display with illumination
  • Thin and light. 4.6 oz without the battery cover—lighter than the iPhone 7 or Google Pixel
  • Comes with a nice foldable cover that has a battery in it. Opening and closing the cover turns the Kindle on/off
  • Unlike the Kindle Voyage and its love-it-or-hate-it-but-mostly-hate-it haptic feedback touch buttons, the Oasis next/previous page buttons return to using nice physical buttons.
  • Did I already say it’s tiny?
Cons
  • Cover does not double as an adjustable stand like the highly-rated Kindle Voyage origami case
  • Still uses micro-USB, would have been nice to see USB-C like more and more of my devices have become (external 1TB Samsung SSD, Pixel, MacBook Pro)
  • Highlighting text with the touch screen is a bit of a chore due to the nature of the e-ink’s laggy refresh rate. Always takes me a second try to correctly select some sentences I want to save.
  • Sometimes accidentally hit the page turn buttons while just trying to hold the Oasis with one hand. But now I mostly read with the cover on so it’s easier to hold.
  • Brightness does not auto-adjust

Battery life seems to be the one point of contention among Oasis owners. I feel like it's the longtime Kindle owners, those coming from larger Kindles with fewer bells and whistles got used to 1-2 months of battery, that are annoyed with the Oasis battery life.

I’ll just say this: I was able to read close to 2 books on it over 2 weeks with the medium brightness setting before needing to charge (Amazon claims 8 weeks at 30 minutes a day). As a new Kindle user (well, I did have one in 2010), this surpasses all of my needs.

Hey, if I can read an entire book without needing to plug it in I’m already a satisfied customer.

Kindle Oasis and some Samovar Russian black tea in my favorite Heath mug.

What to read?

Reading apparatus in hand, the real challenge begins—finding something I actually want to read. Something that I will naturally be drawn to completing.

In the past I’d do a cursory browse through the Amazon best sellers list and not really find anything that resonated with my interests. That would be it and months would pass before seeking a book again.

Every once in a while you stumble across a great recommendation randomly on Twitter or directly from a friend or coworker. But that’s not something that scales; that's like trying to increase the likelihood of serendipity.

Occasionally, you run across a decent list of books and book summaries from a blogger that's intriguing. But those are few and far between:

There are also dedicated sites like Good Reads that have a million different lists of popular books and reviews.

And there's another thing making book selection more difficult: the proliferation of book reviews everywhere. I am now actively trying to not take book reviews at face value or read too many. We live in a society where everyone needs to Google the Yelp score of the restaurant or check the RottenTomatoes movie score before approaching any new experience. Everyone has unique tastes. My friends won't even go near a movie with under a 70% Tomatometer movie whereas I may thoroughly enjoy a 15% Tomatometer action movie.

At least I know that I tend to gravitate towards non-fiction books around business, psychology and management. Material around learning how people work, how people build successful businesses and working relationships. I'm constantly motivated by subject matter that I feel like I can start using in my daily life. Not to say that I won't jump into a fiction sci-fi thriller, but it won't be the first thing I touch.

On the other hand, I've also realized that some types of books are absolutely just not going to my thing. Despite how many people rave about it, I’m just not going to be super interested in books like Sapiens or Da Vinci Code and so on. To each his/her own.

I don’t have any real solutions here. Even with various resources, you can still spend half a day browsing and not find a book that you're ecstatic to buy and devour in a sitting. This is a hard one. I guess the only solution here is to constantly ask friends if they’ve read anything good lately.

Creating a habit

Even once you've found a book, there's another challenge around getting into the habit of reading regularly.

I'm not going to espouse some listicle jargon about a bulletproof 10-step plan to nail a reading routine. I've read them and they don't really work for me. Some folks suggest reading multiple books at a time so you can hop between whatever suits your mood at a particular time. Some suggest the world is your oyster and it's totally fine to hop around in a book, skip chapters you don't like, et cetera.

Others evangelize always having a book on hand in case you have a few minutes of downtime to fill throughout your day while waiting for your Blue Bottle cappuccino, on the bus and so on. Sorry, that just doesn't work for me. With a short amount of time I'm only just going to get into the zone and having to end in the middle of some random page just makes it more difficult to pick up next time. Compare that to ending nicely after finishing a chapter or finding a clean topic shift to pause on.

I prefer having a set block of time every evening. Either 15 minutes before going to bed or as a post-dinner replacement for TV, work or socializing where I try to knock out a chapter. Even if it's 2am and I have an early meeting, I can usually still eke out a bit of reading before heading to the land of nod.

But there is one rule of thumb I'll get behind: knowing when to ditch a book. Why slog through something you don't like (well, aside from the fact that you paid $12 for it)? I've come across this "rule of 50" a few times. Just give a book 50 pages and then decide if you want to continue:

I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit. Since that number gets smaller and smaller as we get older and older, our big reward is that when we turn 100, we can judge a book by its cover!

— Nancy Pearl

If you're like me and have never identified as being an avid reader, give all of this a shot and let me know how it goes. Below you'll find some of the books I've read recently, am currently reading and am considering reading next.

Books I just read

Here are some books I just read in the last few weeks. I plan to maintain the momentum and read at least 24 books in 2017.

Let My People Go Surfing The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

by Yvon Chouinard

The founder of Patagonia on his passion for climbing, quality products and building one of the most enviromentally responsible companies. I had no idea Patagonia was so focused on the environment. They give away 1% of their sales to grassroots environmental organizations and they would rather repair your old jacket than sell you a new one.

Never Split the Difference Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

by Chris Voss

A former FBI hostage negotiator talks about his tips for negotiating in daily life. It's half real world examples and half how to guide. Lots of stories of in the field hostage situations keep it interesting. I learned about tactical empathy, strategic umbrage, accusation audits, finding Black Swans and more.

Influence The Psychology of Persuasion

by Robert Cialdini

Recommended by my PM at Twitter, this book overlaps with the last book a bit (in fact an exact same example or two were shared) but tackles the 6 ways to get people to say yes: reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity. Interesting read but felt like it was a bit drawn out; way too many examples to describe simple concepts.

Shoe Dog A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

by Phil Knight

Okay I lied, I'm still reading this one but I saw it mentioned a few times on Twitter and Bill Gates seemed to like it too, calling it "An Honest Tale of What It Takes to Succeed in Business."

Tools of Titans The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers

by Tim Ferriss

Another one that I'm still reading. It's more of a resource/reference kind of book and Tim encourages you to hop around to various chapters as you choose.

Books I’m planning to read next

And here are some books I'm considering reading next. Some of these books are not out yet and will be released later in 2017.

Competing Against Luck The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice

by Clayton M. Christensen

One that I've heard mentioned in the halls at work many times, it discusses the "Jobs to be Done" theory of innovation.

Mastering Civility A Manifesto for the Workplace

by Christine Porath

Another strong recommendation from my PM who's always on the lookout for leadership and management books.

Radical Candor Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

by Kim Scott

I've heard about the "Radical Candor" approach to providing feedback enough times at work that I figured I'd read this when it comes out.

Option B Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy

by Sheryl Sandberg, Adam Grant

I've also been meaning to read Lean In.

Stealing Fire How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work

by Steven Kotler, Jamie Wheal

Thank You for Being Late An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations

by Thomas L. Friedman

I've been hearing about Friedman's work (The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, Crowded) for years. About time I see what the fuss is about.

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

Coming in as a recommendation from a friend, this work was published posthumously after the author, a neurosurgeon, passed away from cancer.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

You can't come across a book list and not see this book. Even though I feel like I've read related psychology material about System 1 and System 2 thinking and decision making, I figured I'd give this one a shot too.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

by Marie Kondo

I'm always looking for ways to declutter my space so this book piqued my interest. I've heard two friends talk about this book, including Om who wrote about it.

And finally, a few books I started reading at some point over the last few years but never actually completed. I plan to finish these:

Moonwalking with Einstein The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

by Joshua Foer

Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

by Ed Catmull

Mindset The New Psychology of Success

by Carol S. Dweck

Began reading this one last year. Another book I've heard a lot about at work, so much so that Twitter bought everyone a copy. Here's the summary from Bill Gates.

Enjoy!

1 I just wish it could keep track of these words when you’re in airplane mode so you can see them later. And highlighting is a bit hard to use due to the nature of the laggy e-ink display.

2 And yes you can lend Kindle books to friends. Amazon Prime members can also borrow Kindle books directly from Amazon (up to one per month) without needing to purchase them.

3 Yup, they do not use backlights. They use a rather ingenious method of front-lighting that reduces eye strain by not beaming the light directly at you. Light is instead passed through a transparent "light guide" where light travels until it reaches and exits through a series of imprinted items on this layer.

4 You can save $20 off the cost of the Kindle if you let Amazon display an ad when the display is off.

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"Reading more" by @Stammy

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