(11/19/20) how i read a lot of books

Plus some book recommendations for the holiday season

What’s up people,

I’m just some random guy on the Internet. But I often get asked for book recommendations. I also get asked how I read so much.

I’ve got a few really interesting reads that swerve pretty hard from the typical coastal elite bookshelf. And “How I read so much” is a secret. Just kidding. My answer to that might be a bit disappointing, though.

What else is new?

I’m in the early stages of noodling on a side project. If you have anything you could teach me that’s hard to bottle up into a syllabus, please hit me up.

How I Read Books

Prior to December 2012, I did not read books for pleasure. Reading books represented a realm of intelligence and sophistication that would forever be inaccessible to me.

I tried reading Hemingway and got bored. I flipped through the yellowing pages of some Penguin Press Classic and saw an interminable wall of ink. Technical textbooks were even worse.

And then something happened in December 2012. I completed my last college class.

(Side note: I took an extra semester to graduate because I didn’t do so well in school my first couple years.)

I had six free months prior to our graduation ceremony. So I stuck around campus, took on two part-time jobs, and hung out at the school bookstore.

For the first time since I was 10 years old, I had psychologically free time.

Until this moment, the achievement treadmill dragged my ass wherever it pleased. Study hard in class, go to soccer practice, music lessons after school, send in college applications, plan for a bright and high-status future, blow off some steam periodically from the accumulated stress.

I was always in a state of low-key anxiety about what was next and how I couldn’t fuck it up. And now I was sitting at the school bookstore, sipping on an iced coffee (they didn’t have “cold brew” back then), doing whatever came to mind.

In these six months, I started writing regularly. A friend and I collaborated on some music that actually turned out pretty decent! I spent time as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school. I camped out at Coachella with two close friends. I sometimes sat in on interesting lectures while I ate lunch. A professor whose class I was never formally enrolled in ended up becoming a mentor to me.

I gave myself permission to follow my curiosity.

One of these curiosities became those damned books at the bookstore.

Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile sat on display near where they sold the college-branded sweatshirts.

I read the description on the back. It seemed interesting. So I told myself I’d read it and see how far I get. If I got bored, I’d just put it back.

I finished it in one sitting. Whoa.

From there on, I read over 250 books in 7 years. Some of them were meh, most of them were pretty interesting, and a few of them changed my life. And this doesn’t include books that I have abandoned because I got bored by them.

So yeah, that’s the disappointing secret to how I read so much.

No, I don’t take notes while I read.

No, I don’t have a formal backlog or agenda.

My system is very simple. Here it is.

Ammar’s Super Sophisticated System for Reading Books

  1. If I find an interesting book, I always give myself permission to buy it.

  2. I only read a book if I’m interested in reading it.

  3. I stop reading a book if I’m no longer interested in it.

  4. I don’t only read one book at a time. I read whichever one I’m in the mood to read.

  5. I limit most of my reading to books. I avoid most online articles and such.

  6. Sometimes, for months, I don’t want to read anything at all. So I don’t.

It’s so simple that most people won’t do it. They’ll come up with all sorts of reasons like:

“But I want to be disciplined with my reading.”

“But I don’t want to waste money.”

“But I feel bad if I don’t finish the book.”

“But I don’t have enough room for all these books.”

“But I don’t have enough time to read.”

As the Brits say, bollocks. Find a book that you’re interested in. Start reading it. If you get bored, stop reading and find another book. Or go outside and get some fresh air. Get a Kindle if you have problem with space. Download the audiobook or PDF if you wish. Whatever works.

Slava Akhmechet has a more rigorous version of “How I Read” that I recommend checking out. (Trivia for the geeks: Slava was the founder of the sneakily good RethinkDB.)

Book Recommendations

The first book I recommend is René Girard’s Things Hidden Si—

Just kidding. The Silicon Valley + New York tech set loves giving book recs like the one above. Most never actually read these books themselves. Most don’t even finish the books. And sometimes even if they finish, they don’t even comprehend what the book was about.

So I’ll spare you the popular recommendations and share a few that might open your mind or might offend you. Up to you to put the book away or keep reading!

Bullshit Jobs, A Theory - David Graeber

While labor has gotten more productive (we can do more in less time), the amount of substantive work to be done has not increased similarly. But since we are stuck with 9-to-5 Puritanical views around work, a new class of jobs dominates — the Bullshit Job. These are largely managerial, administrative, and paper-pushing jobs that don't really accomplish much or can be done without requiring 8 hours a day in the office.

Catalytic Coaching & The End of the Performance Review

A very methodical and rigorous takedown of performance reviews. While citing a wide review of the existing literature, Garold Markle explains why they don't work in the realm of knowledge work. And then he lays out an alternative framework.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism - Chogyam Trungpa

Trungpa discusses the various ways our ego tricks us into thinking we are gaining understanding. We confuse sitting in a lotus position for meditation. We confuse a calm demeanor for peace. We confuse piety and kindness for compassion.

The Undiscovered Self - Carl Jung

The most important challenge of our times is the disappearance of the Individual in the era of Mass Organizations. 1 is greater than 000000000.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium - Italo Calvino

Calvino died before he could finish the sixth memo. This collection of talks discusses the necessities of art in a rapidly industrializing world. Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity.

Bronze Age Mindset - Bronze Age Pervert

There's a lot here I deeply disagree with. But the basic premise is hard to get out of your head: We as a species are designed for adventure, and in no other time was this on better display than the Bronze Age, the age of warriors, conquest, and interesting people doing absurd things that today we would consider insane. The author implores us to live more adventurously, embrace risk and danger more readily, not conceal from ourselves the fact that one day we will die and be forgotten.

The South Asian Health Solution - Ronesh Shah

On average, South Asians are physiologically less dense in tissue mass. As a result, they are predisposed to diabetes, sensitive to carbohydrates, and take longer to recover from intense physical activity. In the modern world they require a vastly different approach to health and fitness.

That’s all for this week! Let me know if you end up reading any of these. Would love to hear your thoughts. Many thanks to those of you who recommended the books to me in the first place.