Frequency asked questions and information about this personal project
I created this page to answer some more questions about the reading list that come up more frequently. If you look above this text and towards the top of the page, there is a clickable, horizontal menu that can be used for quick access.
From time to time, friends and colleagues will as for clarification about aspects of the reading list, and when that happens, I will periodically update this page with more info.
The other purpose of this page is to collect information. I’m highly curious about how others read, and would love to use this page to learn more from about others about their reading processes.
Why I will only "count" a book if it is read cover to cover.
Since I’ve started this project, I’ve developed a habit — a bit of a superstition, I admit — of reading every book word for word. There are a combination of practical and personal reasons for this.
On a practical level, I’ve begun to realize the immense value of context. Yes, many books have their “calling card” sections — Foucault’s “Panopticon” or Nietzsche/Hegel’s “God is Dead” — but holistically understanding the meaning and implications of these passages requires committing to a lot more than just the SparkNotes. At times, even finishing the full book still leaves me with questions of interpretation, and I’ll endeavor to research the book’s author and the work’s critical reception as well.
It is true that some books could be successfully criticized as egregiously long. In an odd way, though, I’ve become intrigued by the reasons why this is. It’s become a bit of a masochistic hobby to slog through the more obscure sections of longer books to investigate what I can find, and there is often a good deal of residual value.
A majority of the time, it is an issue with me rather than the book. Committing myself to reading each work page by page helps me identify the many areas of weakness in my knowledge of the world. I’ve always struggled with chemistry, and as a student I usually abandoned attempting to actual learn the subject in service of memorizing the necessary facts for a test.
Taking that path of least resistance can work for a passing grade in academia, but it has consistently failed to give me an actionable understanding of the field. Immersion, however painful, has been only way for me to work towards conquering this. The reward, though, is quite valuable. As I’ve built the habit of pushing through topics in which I’m deficient, I’ve developed a feeling of joy and satisfaction from finishing each book which motivates me to take the next one on.
On a personal level, I admit I have my own ego, humbug, and discipline to grapple with.
As a student, even if I read enough of a book to achieve “critical mass,” I would be left with a feeling of falsity — that I had somehow cheated — if I didn’t finish the entire work. When citing an unfinished book in conversation or debate, I was distracted with questions to myself. Do I truly know what I’m talking about? Did I miss something in the part of the book I skipped? In these conversations, I was, in reality, debating both myself and the other person at the same time.
I regret that I never truly did anything about this. I continued reading in bits and pieces for years, ignoring that something felt off. Part of my decision to slow down and read cover-to-cover may be an over-correction to remedy this infructuous period of time, but if so, let’s let it be my indulgence.
Cultivating a sense of intellectual self-discipline is my other motivator. I am not immune to the shorter and shorter attention spans that plague my generation. I am also not immune to the addictive effects of social media, compressed news cycles, instantaneous communication and the like. Simply the experience of commiting to something, anything, for more than an hour at a time is of value. Ideas worth grappling with requite time. Problems worth solving require time. And the more I am able to counteract the forces of distraction through reading, the better I become at operationalizing my time towards things that matter.
In addition to the book list, there are a few other readings that I seek to commit to each week. Right now, I have only successfully settled on one — The Economist — that I have consistently finished each week for over a year. I’m on the hunt for a second magazine, newspaper, or other sources to add, and would welcome any advice.
The Economist: Sam is responsible for getting me into this habit (he has been reading the Economist since he was in his early teens). I would highly recommend working up to reading each issue front to back each week, for innumerable reasons. The Economist will reliably cover most of the world’s events and movements in domestic and geopolitics, finance, economics, science and technology each week, and it will do so from a generally centrist and objective aperture. It also covers region-specific developments with remarkable detail, allowing you to stay abreast of current global affairs far more than were you to do your own curation. I will try to download the issue each Thursday when it publishes, and finish it by that night or by Friday night.
How I’m Sourcing and Choosing Books
Sourcing the Books:
I jump-started the project by creating an empty spreadsheet and reaching out to colleagues, friends, and Helena members about which books were most influential in their lives.
This resulted in a first “batch” of 259 books, which I manually added to a tab called “To Read.” In each entry, I included: book title, author, edition, year published, the book’s field, who suggested the book, whether I already own the book or will need to purchase it, whether I’ve started the book, and a notes section for further information. Since this first batch, I’ve added about 10-15 books a week to the “To Read” tab, stemming from meetings at work, my own research, book reviews, and other happenstances.
I opened a second tab in the spreadsheet called “Completed Books.” Once I select a book from the “To Read” tab and complete it from cover to cover, I will note it there, with more in-depth information including: tags, page count, and a short review.
Choosing what to read from the list:
Creating a process for this was harder than I originally thought.
Like anyone else, there are some genres that I naturally gravitate more towards and some genres that I struggle with. Because of this, I have to fight my urge to pick books that are in my comfort zone, but also create a rhythm that motivates me to build the right habits.
What has worked best for me is a mixture of cycling book length with book genre. If I am finishing up a longer book on philosophy or political science, I’ll choose a set of shorter science or poetry books to read shortly after.
I will also try to fight the urge to prioritize newer or more topical books. In first creating the reading list, so many incredible classic works were recommended to me, and without making a point to favor them, I tend to be motivated to read new books as they come out, since they are top of mind.