Don't Read More Books. Apply More Books.

I recently read two articles that made me think: how many books should we really read in a year?

Introduction

Through the internet, we've all become more interconnected. As a result, we have the ability to access more ideas than ever before. A simple YouTube search can lead to a succinct summary of almost any book. Cha-Ching! Imagine being able to have all that knowledge neatly summarized for consumption. Amazing, right? A quick Google search can show me the top habits of the richest people in the world and guest what: most of them read! People are starting to sing praise about the value of reading and this is a good thing. However, as the saying goes: too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. 

Hypothesis: Wisdom > Knowledge

In order to really get to the bottom of this question, we have to ask ourselves the question: why are we reading books in the first place? If it’s for entertainment, I guess it doesn’t really matter. We can read as many or as little as we want, as long as we’re enjoying it. But, what if the main objective is to improve ourselves? I fear that, in a race to read more books, people will start to pursue KNOWLEDGE over WISDOM. Inspired by Maria Popova (linked above), I think this is an important distinction to make. 

I’d like to provide an example that runs parallel to Maria’s. Let’s say that there’s a book on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). The book itself represents the information. If we read the book and understand it, we have knowledge. If we apply the lessons from the book in order to build an HVAC system and discover all the nuances of building such a system, we gain wisdom. 

Summary

The act of reading a book allows an individual to transfer information into knowledge. Over time and through application, that knowledge is then translated into wisdom. As people begin to consume books at an alarming rate - in order to improve themselves - I believe they will end up gaining a lot of knowledge but lacking wisdom. The concepts that I remember the most, from my days in engineering school, are the ones I rigorously apply over and over through practice problems. You’ve probably heard that it’s a bad idea to cram before an exam. You might learn the information for the exam but you’ll forget it soon after. What you learn quickly, you lose quickly. The same holds true for reading. When you’re reading a book, it’s best to take some time and sit with the ideas. Let them stew in you brain. Try to apply what you’re learning to your life. This internalizes the lesson and will actually impact your life for the long term. Wisdom tends to stay, but knowledge is fleeting. 

Answer to the Question

Read as many books as you can in a year, as long as you can understand and apply the knowledge (if your goal is self-improvement).

Practical Takeaway

Read books that are relevant to your life right now because that promotes the application of the knowledge you gain. For example, Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, and Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin are all excellent books for students. They promote action while you’re in school which is why I recommend them so much. However, maybe you’re succeeding or failing a lot in life, and having a problem with your ego. In that case, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday might be the most resourceful read at the time. If we select books that are relevant to our life at the time, we are far more likely to apply the knowledge and gain wisdom in the process. If we read books based on recommendations, or a forced desire to learn, we’re far more likely to just gain knowledge.