When I first wrote about reading, I intended to share how I turned it into a daily practice despite time constraints. We all have frenetic schedules, and reading, I have learned, must be scheduled. I have been reading at the break of dawn every day since 2018, a New Year’s resolution that had come to fruition, two years in and counting.
In 2019, I surprised myself. I read 46 books, 16 books more than my Goodreads goal of 30, no small thanks to total, self-imposed isolation from online and offline distractions. I had secretly revised my goal to 50, so I plowed through books like a maniac in the last week of the year. I did not make the new goal but ended up delighted with the results. (And in case you are wondering, I do not get paid to read. I have a day job as a consultant and work nights too as a musician.)
I have finally become a true bibliophile, a once impossible dream.
A good book is an event in my life. — Stendhal
I started the year by hitting four (4) books in a month. That is one book a week which at first glance seems highly doable, especially if you fancy short fiction such as The Great Gatsby, a 218-page tour de force you can finish in under six hours. In reality, four books a month is a quixotic pursuit for many people who are online for close to 7 hours a day. Make that 10 hours a day for countries in perpetual gridlock such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. “Who gives a **** about reading when I cannot even find time to sleep?” That was me in January 2016, a newly appointed assistant VP with a four-hour daily work commute. That was four hours I could have spent reading three-fourths of The Great Gatsby, or its worthy equivalent, in a day. Audiobooks, unfortunately, are not very easy to follow when you are driving. I knew I learned best when reading an actual book, and desperately craved mental nutrition. It did not take long for me to get fired from that job.
My alma mater was books, a good library…. I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity. — Malcolm X
Since then, I committed myself to say no to anything that will take away precious time from reading (and adequate sleep), no matter how much it pays. I knew that to give real value to this world, both my mind and body should be healthy enough to perform at peak levels at all times. No one benefits from a creative brain inert from exhaustion.
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. — Ray Bradbury
But not everybody values their mental and physical health as much as I do. The invisible yet worsening crisis that afflicts me with untrammeled foreboding is the disastrous impact of that growing creative inertia. If everyone is stuck on the road or is at work all the time, will they ever find the time to read books? If they do have idle time, do they read or do they watch Netflix? When unending queues of people wait for their ride, everyone has their heads bowed to their phones. While we cannot say that not one of them is actually enamored by an e-book, it is safe to assume that most of these tired commuters are absorbing the torrent of brainwashing from social media or following a TV series. And why shouldn’t they? They deserve a break from a long hard day’s work that is not even done yet. They still have to endure more traffic. While reading books is a pleasurable activity, it can cause lethargy as opposed to a movie or a game with your phone as the console. Reading is not what the general commuting public does. And on the road, it helps to stay alert, so even if you want to read, you’d rather keep the books in the backburner.
Despite the enormous quantity of books, how few people read! And if one reads profitably, one would realize how much stupid stuff the vulgar herd is content to swallow every day. — Voltaire
We are very likely fomenting a culture of ignorance.
Lucky for me, I guess, I had lost my job, which gave me the energy to finally turn to my “to be read” pile forever towering over me. What initially seemed like a catastrophic paralysis in my finances, worthiness and productivity proved life-changing. It allowed for rest and retreat, to partake of what I had long overlooked: the basic tenets and philosophies for a life worth living from those who had already lived it. That wisdom continues to outlive them in the books that they have painstakingly written.
This is not to say that the blogs, news, and Netflix documentaries that we all consume do not proffer wisdom, which sounds like me shooting myself in the foot, obviously. They most certainly do, in a way that is easy to read but also easy to forget. Digital stimuli that come to us when we pass the time are not designed to lurk in our prefrontal cortex. What stays there longer are discoveries achieved by thinking and thorough analysis and new learnings that influence our personality and behavior.
I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage. — Roald Dahl
What is also long forgotten for me are the contents of the textbooks I was forced to read in school, or worse, literary classics I wanted to forget out of hatred. This is not because I was mortified by the story — they are called classics for a good reason — but more because it seemed impossible to follow the plot. Some of us were forcibly thrust into the torture chamber of academia, the inescapable drudgery that is the language of Shakespearean comedies I had no competence yet to appreciate. Shakespeare, then, became my enemy when all he did was timeless art. And so my teenage self turned to Sweet Valley High and other vessels of amateur literature, which gave me the license to masquerade as a well-read nerd — far better than not reading at all. If perhaps, there had been an opportunity to devour CS Lewis or EB White more, my reading life might have enjoyed an earlier headstart. But no use crying over spilled milk, as Harry Potter hit the shelves in 1997, my senior year in high school, just in time for the next new beginning that was college. That surely got me, and the rest of the world, reading actual books again, as those heavy hardbound tomes were everywhere, and even did time as social status symbols.
At this point, the Internet was already widespread in Southeast Asia, made possible by dial-up connections and that sweet sound of success many a modem makes. The onslaught of information old and new, factual or false, was relentless. I still remember the excitement of searching for anything and everything on a Yahoo! search engine. I had to fall in line to get that chance. This belongs to the annals of history now, but at the time, I was mesmerized by the swirl of data at a click of a button that I once had to extract from an antique shelf. I was instantly assured — college was going to be a breeze.
Ten years later, in 2007, two innovations that would prove life-changing for me were launched: the iPhone and Dropbox. I could not afford the prohibitive cost of an iPhone, but somebody had sent me a Dropbox link chockfull of .mobi and .epub files — digital books by contemporary authors from Vonnegut to Baldacci, and those in the New York Times Bestseller Lists. These could be read on a Mac or PC, and while clearly pirated, a practice that I do not support (I still buy and prefer tangible books), it opened up a world of possibilities for me. It meant access to literature even while traveling. It meant less demand for shelf space. It meant that people in my country who cannot afford books can finally read them. The democratization of knowledge is in full swing, empowering the powerless and proving once again the benefits of a flat, globalized world for all of mankind if you believe that education is the great equalizer.
I couldn’t live a week without a private library — indeed, I’d part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I’d let go of the 1500 or so books I possess. — H.P. Lovecraft
But as the surge in online literature progressed, so did plagiarism, piracy and the rise of other types of content, like three-minute videos powered by social media platforms. For movie companies, news agencies and political parties, the gloves are off. They now have at their fingertips free-for-all media, whether professionally done or otherwise, all competing for the short attention spans of their target audiences. Many of them actually got people reading, but mostly news and status updates, not books that can change the world.
The presence of online readable content compensated for the time and thinking that book reading requires, making the process of converting non-readers into readers extremely challenging. Online reading is better than no reading at all, but if the goal is to learn, and you are already spending hours reading anyway, I would put my money on books any day.
Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. — Albert Einstein
There is so much thought put into writing a book that a non-fiction author is practically serving you years of extensive research in a silver platter. Writers of fiction do not have it easy either. For one, a good work of fiction has to have a good narrator. That alone is difficult to conceive and ensure, and they still have to think about the characters of each character. What triggers their imagination is a plethora of exposures and unique experiences, that could then trigger yours. The attempt by the reader to follow and question their thinking is where the learning takes place, from the words the author uses to the way he or she weaves everything together. When you stumble upon a kernel of truth that makes sense to you, it is a beautiful thing. And there are many such truths on the yellow brick road to reading success. This is why despite reading being a task we do alone, it is impossible to ever feel lonely.
It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others — even my nearest and dearest — there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book. — Maureen Corrigan
And here’s a bonus: what widespread technology cannot solve but reading can is the absence or decay of critical thought. How fortunate are we who knew the unwired world, who were once adept at fully functioning without a phone. In high school, I relied on the encyclopedia and the painful ritual of writing by hand information that I needed for my homework. That process of reading, writing and then transcribing aids in the stickiness of ideas recently obtained. Today, because most of the information that we read can be screen-capped, and inevitably mixed with our photo memories, the memory of an “A-ha!” moment slips away. I am sure some can retain information better from a device, but I am certainly an exception.
From my experience, I find ideas that I have read but cannot remember with clarity useless when defending opinions and proposed solutions. I do a lot of online reading, but I still look to books for validation, especially those whose teachings have stood the test of time. Technology can give us the information quickly, but testing our hypothesis, a much more thorough and meticulous process, is necessary to make sure that what we are about to believe as a fact is truly valid and unmistakable.
The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can’t. — Mark Twain
Strangely enough, no matter what I read, no matter how dissonant it is with the daily grind, I could feel my brain harmonizing new ideas with old ones. It is like an internal game of whack-a-mole — you never know what idea you’re going to hit, but you keep reading anyway, ultimately landing in a place of logic. But too much wandering can also be a distraction to reading, so feel free to annotate. Always have a pen and paper on hand so you can take down notes. The last thing you want is for those random thoughts to simply vanish, with no means of retrieving them.
Facts can be found in books, and I find solace in that, much like a scientist finding refuge in the laboratory. The east and west political juggernauts of 2016, namely the elections of Trump and Duterte, seem phantasmal but in fact, have similarities to what had happened before. When I read Sapiens, I learned that religion, politics and most of the things we tend to fear are predominantly man-made. It prodded me to look into other books and ask more questions:
- If man invented religion, did he also invent sin?
- Why was ayahuasca, a controlled substance that helps prevent suicides, banned in the 16th century?
- What was the basis for dividing North and South Korea?
Initially, I was interested in politics, business and self-help books, but when I gradually mixed it up by reading more classical fiction, science fiction, philosophy, behavioral economics and my new favorite genre, creative non-fiction, I discovered that learning can be an art form and that it should be. Why should I relegate my growth to a barrage of news and its limited vocabulary? Why is finishing a really good book like Michael Lewis’ Moneyball or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go giving me an inexplicable high? Google is great for fact-checking, but not so for formulating new ideas. That for me requires deep thinking that only reading books with exceptional use of language can instigate. As I read more, I unexpectedly fell down the rabbit holes of more books cited by the authors as the source of the idea they have shared. I now look up to these writers who did the heavy lifting on my behalf, forever grateful that they passed on to me the wisdom they had inherited. And so I became hungrier for more books, as my online “want to read” pile on Goodreads bears out.
Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all. — Abraham Lincoln
Reader discretion is advised at all times, no matter what your age is, but more so if the reader has yet to learn to distinguish right from wrong. Do not pick up a book at random. Do not be influenced by the testimonials printed on the back cover. Do not be fooled by peer pleasure (i.e. Fifty Shades of Gray). Be careful what you feed your mind! Read a book that helps you solve a problem you have been working on. Read a work of fiction that has been cherished for centuries. Read biographies of leaders, military men, scientists and ordinary people such as Viktor Frankl and Dr. Haing S. Ngor who have gone through extraordinary ordeals and lived to tell the tale. These are the stories of sacrifice, survival, heroism, and hope which are the authors’ way of saying what the world can still become. These are the books that everyone should be reading.
Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers. — Harry Truman
And finally, my favorite takeaway from reading is the chance to pause. Because reading is a slow process, it allows for deep, purposeful thinking. It broadens my horizons. It fosters imagination. Most important of all, it helps me reflect on the meaning of what I had just read in our lives. What is this book teaching me? Who else says the same thing? How do I know it’s true?
Give consistent, intentional and active reading a chance, especially if you are looking for answers. I never found mine at work or on social media. I found them in books, which I believe are the best companions in the long commute of life.
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. — Mortimer J. Adler