A 30 Day Voracious Reading Trial

Everyone knows candy is okay in moderation, but terrible for you when eaten to excess.

Well, what's true about food is true about our information diets too. If most of your diet consists of bite-sized mental candy, your brain--and attention span--will slowly but surely rot.

I've written elsewhere here at CK about my own personal challenges with fighting the slow atrophy of my attention span in the internet/smartphone era. And about a month ago, I took on the most ambitious attention span strengthening challenge I've ever done: a 30 Day Voracious Reading Trial(TM). My goal was to read "a lot" every single day--for 30 days straight.

How do you define "a lot"? For me, it was an aggressive goal of at least 150 pages of book-reading per day. Thinking through the math, this would work out to, at a minimum, 4,500 pages of reading over just 30 days. That's as many as 15 to 20 books. In a month.

I haven't read like that since my days as an English Lit major. And it turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done, thanks to some unexpected side-benefits:

* It made me change up my daily routine, and it made me recognize that, since I retired from full-time work, my days are too unstructured.
* I slashed my internet use dramatically, leaving my computer off most of the day. To compensate for this, I took notes using a curious invention called "pen and paper."
* I started getting up even earlier than I already do, just so I could get extra reading done before the activities of the day got in the way. I swear, the best part of the day by far is between 5am and 7am.

Most importantly, though, I discovered all kinds of intriguing synergies and cross-fertilizations across books in radically different subject areas. Since this trial, my mind has been exploding with ideas--for new posts here at CK (a few of which you've already read), new investing themes for my investment work, new ideas in personal development and psychology, and more.

And not once did I miss my 150 page minimum, although I'll confess that I had to scramble at the eleventh hour a few times. Over the 30 days, I read 4,700 pages and nineteen books: some good, some bad, some great, but all useful in their own way.

I've listed each book below with one or two sentences of commentary. I've also marked the three best books. See what you think, and if you've read any of the following books and disagree with my views, please say so, I want to hear your thoughts!

Finally, readers, what would you like to change about YOUR information consumption habits? And what have read lately that you'd recommend?

1) Appetite for Profit by Michele Simon
350 fist-shaking and skeptical pages about how the food industry puts profits before people and stops at nothing to make us all fat. A useful, albeit polemic, read. PS: If you've missed it, be sure to read my recent interview with Simon about the latest goings-on in food advocacy.

2) The Food Police by Jayson Lusk
I read this book to exactly balance out the thesis and ideology of Appetite For Profit. Author Jayson Lusk is an ag-ec professor at Oklahoma State University, and he's fast becoming the key anti-elite among the food pundrity. His book offers plenty of common-sense thinking about the food industry, something often sorely lacking in the dreamy prose of the Michael Pollans and Mark Bittmans of the food world.

3) The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O'Brien
A highly intelligent mom with zero scientific training seeks the source of her kids' food allergies. She reads way too many medical studies, then writes a book filled with spurious and innuendo-laced conclusions about our food supply. I have sympathy for this author and her family's dietary struggles, but I have to call it like I see it: this book is unscientific and unrigorous worry porn. Also, see Lincoln: Team of Rivals below.

4) The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets by Kara Newman
A short, intriguing book on the history of food commodity trading. Some really interesting stuff in here. A niche book for people interested in food economics and commodity investing.

[BEST] 5) Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker
The best book on this list, and a deeply challenging read. Read it with an open mind and it will completely reshape your personal paradigms about money, investing and modern consumerism. Note: if my post Extreme Savings made you irrationally angry, do not read this book. You aren't ready for it.

6) Put Options by Jeffrey M. Cohen
This book teaches the basics of "naked put" selling (uh, trust me, it's less exciting than it sounds), and it offers good ideas on how to mitigate some of the enormous risks of this investment technique. There are some math mistakes in the author's return calculations, but otherwise a useful book for intermediate to advanced investors. Beginning investors, start here.

7) The New Depression by Richard Duncan
Pure financial worry porn. On one level, reading this book was a waste of time. On another level, it was an excellent exercise in critical thinking because it forced me to think up contra-examples for everything the author said. This book is further proof of Barry Ritholz's mandate: to be a successful investor you must reduce your intake of "recession porn."

8) The Forever Portfolio: How to Pick Stocks That You Can Hold for the Long Run by James Altucher
While there were some useful ideas in this book--a few that actually helped me clarify some of the longer-term themes among my own stocks--this book was disjointed, not thorough, and mostly disappointing.

9) Cover Your Assets: Lawsuit Protection by Jay Mitton
Useful. I read this book to try to understand whether I really need umbrella liability coverage (readers already know how I feel about many other forms of insurance), and to learn some possible ways to protect myself if Laura and I ever decide to start a business. Some good ideas here.

[BEST] 10) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I technically didn't finish this book during the reading trial (I'd gotten to page 160 on day 30), but I am ecstatically plowing through this excellent history of Lincoln's presidential cabinet. One takeaway from this book: if you think our political environment is polarized now, learn about Congress in the 1850s-1860s. Another takeaway: that era's insane level of human suffering. Infectious diseases were rampant, and it was the rule, not the exception, for women to die in childbirth and children to die in childhood. The Lincolns lost three of their four children, while one of Lincoln's cabinet members, Salmon Chase, lost three wives. This lends much-needed perspective to modern worry porn books like The Unhealthy Truth.

11) Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
Forget all your schoolchild illusions about goofily-dressed pilgrims and native people celebrating peaceful Thanksgivings together. This book explains the real truth of the 50-75 years after European colonists arrived at Plymouth Rock. Striking to see how the various indigenous tribes were at least as Machiavellian as the colonists.

12) The Spirit of Enterprise by George Gilder
Useful discussion of how entrepreneurs shape our economy in surprising and unexpected ways. Part history and part economics. There were several striking entrepreneur stories in this book, but the story of J.R. Simplot stood out above the rest. This guy was not only one of the first farmers to discover that Idaho could be a great place to grow potatoes, he also discovered profitable ways to dry them, powder them, package them, freeze them... and sell them to McDonalds. Then, with the pile of money he made in potatoes, he became a founding investor in Micron Technology, which pioneered the market for DRAM semiconductors. Over the course of his life, this guy produced hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth for others.

13) The Outsider by Jimmy Connors
Entertaining autobiography of Jimmy Connors. Diverting and worth reading, and honest to the point of being disappointing. One example: Connors throws his former girlfriend Chris Evert under the bus by revealing that she terminated a pregnancy they had while together in the 70s. If you're a tennis fan, I'd recommend reading Andre Agassi's incredible memoir Open first--it's far better.

14) Beethoven: His Spiritual Development by J.W.N Sullivan
Skip the first 50 or so pages which is a hard-to-read discussion of the nature of music. The rest of the book is a fascinating exploration of the suffering, genius and personal growth of history's greatest composer.

15) Your Sacred Self by Wayne Dyer
Highly useful discussion of how to learn non-attachment, how to stop reacting to your inner critical voice, and how to stop fighting your reality. I'll confess: I tried to read this book several years ago and couldn't get through it. This time, I read it... and took nineteen pages of notes. I guess I was ready.

16) The Prosperous Coach by Steve Chandler and Rich Litvin
This book helps life coaches get better at building a coaching practice. But it's more than that: it's about attacking your fears, taking chances and figuring out the best way to serve people. Extremely inspiring. Full disclosure: I'm friends with Rich Litvin, a inspiring and deeply sincere man if there ever was one.

17) Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry
Useful book filled with tools for emotional mastery and techniques to better relate to others. An easy, fast read. I recommended this book in a recent Friday Links post.

18) Loving People by John Townsend
Advice on how to open yourself up to being more loving and more loved. This book means well, but it's poorly written, poorly organized and occasionally incoherent. Readers will really have to dig to get insights out of it.

19) EcoMind by Francis Moore Lappe
Another well-meaning book, by the author of Diet For a Small Planet, with an intriguing and valid central thesis: if we would just stop doom-saying and fear-mongering about the environment, the world would more likely accept a pro-environmental message. This book contains some useful ideas, but it lacks logic and intellectual rigor.

[BEST] 20) Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Wow on this book. Virginia Woolf once called Hardy the greatest tragic writer among English novelists, and in this novel you'll see why. A woman's life goes completely off the rails, thanks to a combination of repressive social mores and really, really bad luck. Incredibly well-written. And as with Lincoln above, this book made me feel utterly grateful to be alive in the modern era. PS: As with many post-copyright works available in the public domain, the Kindle version of this book is free. Free!

One again: readers, what have you been reading lately? What would you recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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The Calico Cat said...

Did you read "paper" books of kindle (or similar non-paper) books? Do you think it matters? why/why not? (I think that reading actual paper books matters - at a neurological level. The physical act of holding a book & turning pages...)

Daniel said...

Calico Cat, this is a great question and insight. I read almost exclusively physical books, although I do have a Kindle, and I think it does matter, at least for me.

I think reading on a screen--any kind of screen--gets me into "short attention span mode" and reading a physical book lends itself to longer attention span activity.

Once again, I'm speaking only for myself of course. Really curious to see if others feel the same.


Melissa said...

This is fascinating, Dan, and an interesting exercise in discipline of a different kind. I look forward to seeing what articles and insights come out of this into this blog space. I also need to read more, for much the same reason - to combat the atrophy of my attention span. Kudos to you for doing it.

Couple of things:

"I swear, the best part of the day by far is between 5am and 7am."

Um, yeah. ;)


I find it interesting you used the word "ready" when talking about the Wayne Dyer book. I felt the same way about The Alchemist and also A New Earth. Running with the Mind of Meditation also proved to be a difficult read, but in that same good way. Point being, some books you have to be "ready" to read. Love that you said it that way.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I feel moved to mention a couple of Faulkner quotes (or at least they have been attributed to him)and one add-lib.

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.
Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”

"My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whisky."
--William Faulkner

... and later, when things were going none too well, Faulkner discovered that he also needed a pencil. :)

chacha1 said...

Aw Dan, your almost-all-nonfiction reading diet makes me feel like an underachiever. :-)

I am averaging about 15 books a month this year. Pretty close to an even split between dead-tree books and Kindle.

My purchasing decisions these days - whether I buy "paper" books or ebooks - are based on whether I think I'll want to pass the book on to my mom or sister, or if it's an entry in a long-running series I collect (like the Mary Russell novels by Laurie R. King), in which case I get the paper version.

I can be equally engaged with the Kindle or a paper book. The Kindle is a lifesaver for reading outside the house.

Daniel said...

Melissa, regarding being "ready" for a book: It's funny, for one thing, I really didn't know how else to phrase it. But it happens to me periodically.

And then, usually, if a book bothers me on some emotional level, that means there's something "there" there--there's probably some significant insights in there that I'm blocking or resisting somehow. Those books are almost always worth another try.

Thanks as always for your thoughts and good vibes!


Daniel said...

Chacha, I'd love to be able to *mow* down books at your reading rate. Fiction OR non-fiction. :)


chacha1 said...

I take no credit for my reading speed, it's a freak of nature. ;-)

p.s. I hated, *hated,* HATED "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." To me it was nothing but an even-crueler, 19th-c version of Richardson's "Pamela." Physical, economic, and spiritual rape do not a good story make, IMO.

Daniel said...

Hardy is really interesting to me (aside from his beautiful writing) because if you think about it his subject matter is social injustice. Most of his novels involve people ground down by the machine of English society. In many ways he did as much or more for social and economic justice as Dickens did.

And yeah, I had the same HATEHATEHATE reaction when I read Jude the Obscure. It had the same kind of theme as Tess and I can see how either novel could leave a reader feeling defeated or even hopeless. But it takes a highly skilled author to be able to transmit those powerful kinds of feelings to a reader via a story about made-up people.

If you read, say The Mayor of Casterbridge or Return of the Native (both of which I liked even better than "Tess"), let me know. But yeah, at the end of the day Hardy is an acquired taste for plenty of readers.


chacha1 said...

The writing style of the Victorians is not my favorite (much prefer the Edwardians), and moralistic fiction is my least favorite genre.

Generally speaking, I appreciate the 19th-century writers for their place in literary history (and value their study in that context) but I sure don't pick them up to read for entertainment.