On reading and taking time off

“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, channeling Umberto Eco, in The Black Swan


I subscribe to this statement completely. Those piles of unread books remind me how much I don’t know. It’s good not to read! Yes, that’s what I tell myself.

But in choosing not to read books, there is a bounded gain in intellectual humility and an unbounded loss in potential learning. In other words, I couldn’t be more painfully aware of the mountains of books I wish I’d read. Reading a few of them would teach me a lot but do nothing for the anxiety.

I still have books I purchased as an undergrad that I’ve been saying I “have to read” for the last seven years. I still haven’t read all of them. I’ve finally realized that the pile will never be empty: Books accumulate as I hear about them, as I inquire about new subjects, as I enter a used bookstore (big mistake), as I find them on the sidewalk (which, by the way, is one of the things I love about Cambridge, MA). There’s only one outflow from the stock of books I want to read, which is reading.

Stock and flow diagram describing the flow of books from the world to my unread pile, then to my read pile.

But I’ve also realized that the pile will never stop growing, either. The more I read, the more I discover, and the more I want to know. It’s a runaway loop. The implication is important: Even if I spent every waking hour reading for the rest of my life, I will never read all the things I want to read.

Stock and flow diagram with additional factors: The more I read, the larger my unread pile gets because I discover more. My rate of reading is dependent on time spent reading inside and outside of work.

There are only two things I can do about this situation: Be selective about what I choose to read, and increase my amount of reading.

  1. Be selective about what I choose to read.

I already do this, of course, but it’s important to make it deliberate. In the long run, I can’t read all the books I want, and I can’t even read all the books that will be “good for me”.

I learn more by reading books outside my own disciplines; books that challenge my beliefs; books that stretch my abilities. There is marginal value in reading books that reiterate my existing knowledge and/or confirm my beliefs.

So, I’m sorry, but I won’t be reading the next UX book out on O’Reilly. (I mean, depending on what it is.)

  1. Spend more of my free time reading.

One lever to increase reading is to find more time in my personal life.

There are many competing priorities, but my habits also have a role.

I could also make more free time by sleeping less, dropping commitments, or working less. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

  1. Spend less time on client work in order to spend more time reading.

The other lever is to find a way make a sufficient living in fewer work hours. This is an instance of the more general problem of how can I make enough money to support the passion that doesn’t make money, be it comic-writing or mountain climbing.

For those working in freelance, agency, and consulting contexts, the answer is partly in pricing strategy—namely, the shift from hourly pricing to some form of value pricing.

This line of thought led me to a long brainstorm on weird strategies for value pricing, which I’ll post in a separate article at some future date.

Summer sabbatical

Starting June 1, I’ll be taking some time off from working (ideally, one to three months) to do some full-time reading, research, and possibly some writing as a result.

I have a topic I’ve been wanting to research in depth, but I’d also be happy if I could simply catch up on some of those “have to read” books. A summer isn’t quite enough time for a thesis, so I’ve decided it’s okay if I don’t come out of it with a complete product. But where I can, I’ll write about the research I’m doing.

As a byproduct, I’m also hoping that this will help me establish a more consistent reading and writing habit that will continue after I go back to work.

We’ll see what happens.

Reading list

I’ll be working on some sort of “statement of purpose” for my main topic, which I will discuss in a follow-up.

Meanwhile, here are just a few of the items in my long-standing reading pile:

  • Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
  • Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
  • Christopher Alexander…
  • Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial
  • Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social and We Have Never Been Modern
  • Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City
  • Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner or something else
  • Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes
  • Lucy Suchman, Human-Machine Configurations: Plans and Situated Actions
  • Tony Fry…
  • Erik Stolterman…
  • George Lakoff…
  • Russell Ackoff…
  • Old issues of Design Issues and Design Studies
  • Edit: I almost forgot to mention Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday LifeAlthough it’s coming out next month, I’ve been eagerly waiting since ~2010!
  • Edit 2: And maybe some Eco.

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