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Henry’s Book List: A Brief History

by Henry Elkus

Note 1: July 30, 2018

About 5 months ago, I emailed each member of Helena asking for a book recommendation. The result turned into something invaluable. Starting off very slowly, I’ve taken on each book one by one, in a process that has developed into something much more than just a personal project or hobby.

Although I always valued the process of learning through reading, I confess that I never fully appreciated the relationship it has to every facet of life. Books were habitually a transactional affair to me; I read them for entertainment, to pass the next test, to undertake my job better.

Something about doing this changed that. I’ve found myself experiencing the wonderful feeling of discovery many of you already know, seeking out the “next” book through an internal feeling of motivation. Reading began to organically integrate itself into my daily routine in a surprisingly short amount of time. I created and maintained a reading list of every book that was recommended, and started to read them word by word.

A first iteration of the book list

For my own purposes, I recorded as much as I could about each book as I progressed, from the metadata to longer-form notes. Each time I finished a book, I added it to a bare shelf on my wall and recorded it on a separate spreadsheet, which I’ve now transferred to this site.

As with anything that becomes important to one’s daily routine, I pestered my friends about this new passion. I started gifting and recommending books, started to get into contact with some of the authors of works I enjoyed, and unsuccessfully held back the desire to ask for a recommendation from subject-matter experts I came across.

A growing stack

As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly a riveting hobby for most people to hear about. But as my shelf continued to grow, I began to develop dozens of lines of communication about the book list with Helena members, friends, co-workers, and some complete strangers. Partly as a way to standardize those communications and partly as a way to satiate a bit of my own personal hubris, I thought it would be a decent idea to have a place where I could list the books I’ve fully completed in a more accessible and public way.

I’m writing this as a first “update” on what is certainly a never-ending pursuit of seeking out and understanding ideas of consequence through books, magazines, music, film, and other forms of content. I sincerely hope it is of some use to you.

Note 2: July 30, 2019

I thought it might be worthwhile to check back in with a new update on my experience with the reading list, now that a year has passed. 

Looking back to mid-2018, I remember being curious about how reading would factor into the next 12 months in my life. I was, back then, only 5 months into the process, so the novelty of the experience was itself a motivating factor to read consistently and take on challenging works.

Being realistic with myself, though, 5 months of sustained work in one area is quite short. Whether reading would become legitimately and subconsciously integrated into the routine of my life as a natural habit, rather than as an artificial hobby, was still an unknown.

Quite a lot has happened since then, and it’s a joy to say that most all of it has been positive. Very organically, the process of reading has integrated into my daily life in a manner no longer prescribed, but rather reflexive. Less and less I find myself making a decision to read, and more and more I find myself reading because it feels obvious to do so.

There have been a few areas in which I’ve noticed a distinct difference in my lifestyle (that I feel confident attributing to reading) during the last 12 months. 

An updated wing of the bookshelf (2019)

Reading Frequency

During the last 12 months, I have completed a little over 100 books of varying length (50 – 1,200 pages). The latter 6 months, and especially the most recent few months, have proved more exponential in output than usual, with some weeks yielding 4 or 5 books total. During the first year of reading quite seriously, my output was far lower, mostly due to issues of distraction and attention span, but also due to a lack of ability to curb boredom. 

The self-imposed policy of reading each book front to back, and doing so with patience, was my biggest early impediment. My immediate inclination when hitting a wall was to immediately dart my eyes off the page and into some distraction at the first sign of boredom. There was no cure for this other than persistence and the slow but crescendoing realization of just how valuable the collective knowledge I was consuming actually was over time. 

I’m also improving my ability to take on longer and longer works without needing to significantly intersperse them with other books in parallel. Cristopher Andrews’ The Secret World and of course Tolstoy’s War and Peace are two good examples here. Whereas the process of reading a book like Infinite Jest during my first year of the book list felt painstakingly slow and arduous (and at times demotivating), I’m now starting to develop a certain sense of pride and fluidity in not seeking a distraction from longer and longer material. 

Attention Span

For those of my generation, the best analogy here is that of social media. You’re reading a book, or for that matter attempting to do anything of importance, and within seconds your brain begins to be seduced by the idea of checking your phone. Before you know it, 30 minutes have passed, and you are endlessly scrolling through social media, having made no progress. I regret to admit that I’ve (maybe even more than most) always been a victim of this addiction, and it’s haunted me. It affects mental health, it affects self-worth, and it affects productivity in the most important aspects of one’s life. 

Books are not a magical cure-all for this. But I can tell you that for me, they’ve yielded the largest improvement I’ve experienced yet in focus and attention span. On multiple occasions during the last year, I’ve had the pleasure that so many know of losing hours into a book, rather than on a technological device. Beyond the obvious informational and intellectual benefits of reading, it’s been this physiological outcome that has been most noticeable. In my work and in my personal life, I’ve felt a heightened ability to be in the present and to focus for longer and more sustained periods on what matters.

Time Management

While it may seem counterintuitive, I’ve experienced a net gain in free time, rather than a loss, stemming in part from the last 12 months of frequent reading. A large part of the cause is a greater and more efficient output from work activities, owing to an improved attention span and thinking ability. There is of course also decreased time spent on social media, television, and other less productive causes, which also leads to a lower level of resident anxiety. And, finally, I also notice a more nuanced cause, which is a heightened ability to streamline decision-making, conduct analysis, and limit overthinking, which can all be devilish sappers of time.

Pleasure and Pain

Everyone has a type of book they enjoy reading more than others. I’m no different. Even though I began the reading list in my first year with quite a wide array of interests, there were certainly genres I was less than excited to commit myself to.

Intellectually, I understood why this was even more evidence of the importance of diving into those works, and I did. But it took more than the first year to begin to derive a natural sense of pleasure from reading books about ideas and fields in which I’ve previously had little interest. I’ve now developed some pride over this. I get excited to visit the bookstore and look through sections in which I’m weak, or to receive a recommendation from a friend about a book of which I knew I previously would have ignored. I hope to continue to nurture this side of the process, as it has been the most obviously fruitful.

Deciphering Noise From Signal in the Outside World

Consuming a significant share of one’s daily information from highly curated books and supplementing that information with the contemporary news media of the day has been a far more productive way to live and think. This is dumbfoundingly obvious and unoriginal, but so few today actually practice this. And for good reason; it is easier to consume visual, short-form and sensationalistic content than to commit to long-form, nuanced content. Yet I can’t stress the profound difference I have experienced in my life from being to utilize books as a groundwork of signal upon which to judge the day’s ubiquitous noise. 

Associative Reasoning 

From the very beginning of the reading list, perhaps the most exciting aspect I’ve noticed has been the effect books have had on my associative reasoning, or the ability to form connections from disperse sources (in this case books) to support a generalized assumption or theory. The more I talk to those who read seriously, the more I also notice their heightened ability in this area; their ability to recall and combine seemingly unrelated ideas to form compelling evidence of a new concept. Over the last 12 months, I’ve felt this aspect of my thinking improve, which of course just exposes me to how much further there is to know and learn.

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