Peter McGraw likes to say, “Create more than you consume.” However, he also believes that reading is a cheat code to a remarkable life. In this episode, McGraw invites two voracious readers, Sarah Stinson and Paul Shirley, to inspire you and give you some hacks to read more. Note: In this episode, McGraw references a previous episode on writing as “How to Write a Lot” but it is actually called “Write Your Way Out.” That previous episode may be worth revisiting after listening to this one.
Listen to Episode #143 here
How To Read A Lot
As you likely know by now, I like to say create more than you consume. However, I believe that reading is a cheat code to a remarkable life. It’s the one consumption activity that I fully support. This episode is designed to inspire you and give you some new ideas about how to read more often. Note that in this episode, I reference a previous episode on writing titled, How to Write a Lot but it’s titled Write it or Regret it. That episode may be worth revisiting after reading this one.
My first guest is becoming a familiar voice on SOLO. Sarah Stinson grew up in Billings, Montana, and attended the new school in New York, where she received a degree in Film and Media Studies. She’s a marketing professional, and amateur comedian and is working on producing a cartoon called Eat at Ballers.
My second guest is a new friend, a National Merit scholar and Engineering major at Iowa State University. Paul Shirley is a former professional basketball player and the author of three works of nonfiction, Can I Keep My Jersey?, Stories I Tell On dates, and The Process Is The Product. His first novel, Ball Boy, came out in February of 2021. Both guests are smart, creative, and voracious readers. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thanks for having me.
Welcome back, Sarah.
I’m happy to be here, Peter.
How many times does Sarah have under her belt?
This is three.
What’s the record?
It’s eleven or something. This is a long overdue follow-up to an episode with a dear friend of mine, Mary, the title of which is How to Write A Lot. Here we are talking about something that’s complimentary, How to Read a Lot, and it’s shocking the number of people who don’t read. Roughly a quarter of American adults, 23%. They haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the last 2021, whether that be print, electronic or audio format. The laziness. You can’t even listen to a book that’s out there.
That’s a low number. People don’t even want to admit that they don’t read a book because there’s no way that it’s only a quarter.
There’s so much shame around it too, when people are like, “Do you read?” They are like, “No.”
I agree with you. I have seen other statistics that are higher. This is Pew Research Center, so I trust them.
They are only asking smart people.
It is true. I have heard that the number approaches 40% to 50% as someone who’s writing a book now makes me question why you should write a book.
You should make TikToks. People will watch those.
They will buy your book, and then it will sit there.
That’s because it’s like a trophy.
It is. You look smart if you have a lot of books. People don’t ask if you read them all.
That’s why it’s good to have a good cover. The goal is to inspire those people.
People who are definitely reading this episode. You know what I should listen to is a podcast about reading.
We are going to aspire and help. We are going to present some best practices. You two are invited, not just because of your sparkling personalities but because you are both avid readers. What has been your journey as a reader? What made you fall in love with reading?
Loneliness, for me. Reading helped me feel less alone as a kid. I grew up in a small town near Topeka, Kansas. I was in a household that certainly encouraged reading and, in general, thinking and talking, those things but the area that I grew up in was not particularly literate. Our trips to the Topeka Public Library with my mother when I was a little kid were almost like a trip to the amusement park.
We didn’t grow up with a ton of money. The abundance of books was also addicting. That sense of the endlessness of I could read about anything or anyone, and I can spend as much time as I wanted to pick out the right books for me. There’s also not a limit to the number of books that I can get. It was that sense that it was abundant, and also it eased my own suffering around feeling like a weirdo in a small town.
Was these middle school years?
This was early like grade school. I remember falling in love with biographies for some reason, reading a lot about famous baseball players, explorers or whatever it was, and being overwhelmed in a good way by the number of personalities on this bookshelf. The number of people I could read about and learn about, and how then I felt transported out of Meriden, Kansas, to the worlds that these people had inhabited.
As an aside, I did a mushroom trip in a very small mountain town, Grand Lake, and there’s a public library in Grand Lake. While tripping, I wandered into the public library and realized I had not been in a public library for years because there was something that kept us out of public libraries. There was like an end cap about banned books, and there was another end cap about this particular railroad like a tribute to the person who built this railroad, and I started crying in this library. I was overwhelmed by what magical places they are and how they can expose especially young people to a world, ideas, and so on that, you are not getting in Grand Lake, Colorado for example.
I can remember being taken to the stereotypical story time where some matronly woman would sit in front of a bunch of kids and read a story. Pretty amazing, and also good babysitting for my mother.
I thank the librarians on the way out there. They were kind.
Did they ask why you were crying?
No. I tried to be subtle about it. How about you, Sarah?
I would say two things, twofold. For me, the fiction part of it was an escape. I didn’t start getting into reading. I would say, in earnest until I was in college. The other part of it, so I grew up in a small town in Montana before the internet. Most people can’t imagine that before it was so accessible. For me, this first thirst for knowledge and this other perspective that I felt I was not getting in any way. It was twofold. We lived out in the middle of nowhere in Montana, and it was a way to escape, learn, and have a different perspective. That continued into my adult life as a way to continue to expand. Those are two different sides because I often read more nonfiction than fiction.
I was nearsighted as a kid, and it took a while for people to figure that out. Unbeknownst to me, I gravitated towards that close work and the reading. It was also an escape from a chaotic household for me. I started with fiction as a kid, sci-fi, Stephen King, and King Arthur. I remember reading a John Steinbeck novel about King Arthur’s chord and stuff like that. I think it was John Steinbeck. It doesn’t sound right but it’s someone fancy. As an adult, it’s the opposite. It’s all nonfiction. It switched over. It was a place to escape as a kid and then now as an adult’s place to learn.
I have read a lot of Hardy Boys
I used to read those and Nancy Drew.
Also, that sense of abundance came into play there because there were 100 Hardy Boys books that had all been written by different people, as it turns out. The ghostwriter’s name was Franklin W Dixon. I can still see it emblazed in my childhood brain. It turns out that they had been written by a zillion different people, just churned out. As a kid, I remember being like, “This guy must be busy,” which was not true.
It’s funny speaking of libraries. My mom used the library too as babysitting in hindsight now. I recognize that but we used to get lots of books from the Willingboro Public Library. This was suburban living but we didn’t have any money. That was the day when they used to have fines for turning books in late. My mom had no shame at all. We would go and drop the books off in the drop box after hours.
I still have a fine at the Norfolk Public Library in Norfolk, Nebraska. It started at $0.30, and now it’s $100,000.
Let’s talk a little bit more about its value of it. From your own perspective, the value you might have or even more generally. I am particularly partial to books, and so if we can focus on books, it would be nice but it’s fine to talk about reading more generally. There are lots more places to get knowledge, although I do think there’s something special about a book.
Back when I was an Economist subscriber, they did a six-week series on the value and history of books. One of the main points was that as a technology, it’s undefeated for many reasons. One of them is that it’s pretty disposable. If you lose a book, it’s not the end of the world but it’s a way to collect a lot of information that’s highly portable.
It’s very accessible in that you can pick it up and go, which is why the advent of the eReader wasn’t quite the revolution that people thought it was going to be. Think about how quickly, if you pick up a book and you have a bookmark in there, you can be emersed within four seconds. If you are dealing with an iPad or an eReader, it’s like, “Where am I going? What am I doing?” I love the book as this self-contained object as well, and that continues to stand the test of time. When you are on airplanes, you still see people with books, even though we were told that was going to go away. People listen to audiobooks but there’s something so personal and perfect about how a book is built.
Sarah, do you think it’s a coincidence that Paul writes books?
No. That both of you write books.
There’s a higher standard for the ideas in a book versus in other places too.
Information is so coming at us so fast. If you think about a book, to your point, it’s physical. It stands the test of time where if we think about anything else that we are consuming, it’s so fleeting. If you read it, it’s gone, and you don’t ever think about it again. When you say reading versus books, our news or that’s where my head went are articles and things like that. To me, those things are fleeting. I don’t reference back to them with a book. I’m taking notes in the margins. I’m referencing it and going back multiple times and reading it. That also holds a lot of weight for the actual physical book itself.
I have been reading more books in the last few years, specifically because of what we are talking about in that there’s such an onslaught of bad information. I’m not talking about misinformation or fake news. I mean, there’s so much disposable information that it has now meant that I have set the bar a little higher for what I’m willing to consume and how I want to hive off that time in my day for consumption.
Let’s get in, you nerds.
Let’s talk more about some of the value. Remember, we are inspiring people here at 23%.
We are going to convince you to read. That worked well when I was a kid. I remember being a reader. I was such a reader that I would always ride the bus to school quite a distance because I grew up in the country, and I would take my book with me. It was like heaven. I got 40 minutes to read. How amazing is that? I would carry my book around, and when I was done with my work in each class, I would pull it out and start reading.
I remember being made fun of a lot. The teachers loved that I was reading but had this task of trying to get the kids to read, which is, as it turns out, basically impossible. Especially the way that public schools work these days. This is near and dear to my heart because I taught English and creative writing for five years in LA and was able to crack the code of how to do it. It’s not any harder than you might think but we can come back to that.
I would say the value of reading, I touched on this a bit but the widening of perspectives, and you mentioned that as well. It takes me out of my lane, and I feel like it helps me solve problems differently. To your point about our news is so disposable, you could find any lane you wanted, and it would speak your language. You wouldn’t have to widen your perspective at all. For me, what books do is give me perspective from someone else’s story that, helps me think of something differently and helps me solve problems in a better way. That is one of the top values that I get out of reading.
Is this a thing that you seek out or something that you might not agree with? Is this a matter of seeking out something you don’t know about? Is it like you start reading and go, “I’m not sure I agree with this,” instead of setting it aside as a lot of people do in the echo chamber?
It could be all of the above. It’s a lot when you either read about history or read about other people’s experiences of things. It’s a way in which that I would have no other way. I have my lived experience, and that’s it. It immerses you into someone else’s lived experience in a way that is unique to a book and how deep you can go with that. That’s important because it makes you more of an empathetic person. It makes you understand the way in which how other people operate in the world outside of the way in which you operate in the world. That’s so important to understand and widen that perspective.
They say that’s what’s especially true about reading fiction. That’s one of the best ways that you can get people to see multiple angles on a subject or a situation. What I would say for me is that if you told me, “You need to go learn other people’s perspectives,” I would rebel and say, “I’m not going to do that because you told me to.”
Through fiction, when you are presenting it as a story and showing me real characters, the more realistic they are, the better I believe in the story that’s happening, then I’m coming to that naturally, and I will sign up for that. I remember reading that study or whatever of like, “Studies show that people who read fiction are better able to empathize,” and thinking, “That is true but if you had told me that as a reason to read, I wouldn’t have done it.” It feels to schoolmarm me. As I enjoy that experience, I seek it out naturally because then I’m able. What a good novelist will do is present characters that you may not like but force you to empathize with them.
There is so much power in storytelling. People who do that well and the different frames and way you can tell stories, it’s so interesting to dissect that and look into the way in which that people tell stories and how the impact it has and how they frame those things. There’s so much power in that.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about this as someone who doesn’t consume much fiction anymore. If I do, it’s film is that when it’s well done, it sometimes starts to blur the normal hero-villain roles. Villains can sometimes be sympathetic. You can start to understand why they are not good people or the world of anti-heroes, which I’m obsessed with.
These deeply flawed people who manage to do some good along the way are compelling characters. They are interesting, and you get a glimpse into the world of someone who has challenges and flaws but yet might be loyal or might have all these other good qualities with them. At the very least, a good villain is tremendously entertaining when done well.
As it turns out, the only good villains or villains we can empathize with. It’s never interesting when someone is evil incarnate. It is always the case that the best villains are people that we see some of ourselves in. From a writing standpoint, one of the lessons I learned early in writing fiction was that you have to care about all of your characters and find something to empathize with them or they come off like cartoons. That’s true for the bad guys even more than the good guys. Sarah mentioned this idea of different perspectives, and that’s certainly one of my answers. It’s also meditative and trains focus, though I would say that doesn’t sound like a headline of why I would try to convince someone to read a lot.
“I’m ADHD. I’m not going to read.” “This is how you get focused.” “I’m not going to do it.”
There is that knock-on benefit of feeling like you are in that state of flow without having to do something particularly active, which is rare. Most flow states have to do with you doing something but reading because it can be so all-encompassing and focus-driven gives you that same sense of concentration and of losing time, which is only good for our ability to reach that in other situations. It has the benefit of training your brain to be present in lots of situations.
You might even be doing more challenging or creative tasks, for example. It’s interesting that you say this because I do a lot of prep for the show, and sometimes that involves reading someone’s book that I’m going to be interviewing. I often struggle with that because I’m constantly stopping, starting to take notes, working on the questions, and so on. It doesn’t allow me to get enough into that flow state because I’m setting the book aside, writing down, and stuff like that.
There’s also value in divvying up what kind of reading you are doing. Is this recreational reading or is this work reading? It was interesting to hear you say that you started reading more interest in college because I remember that in college, people quitting reading entirely. In part because they were forced to read and had to concentrate on so many other things that they had stopped reading. I was constantly reading in college because it was a great distraction from basketball. It was the antithesis of division one athletics to read John Irving.
I’m going to add one, and it’s along these lines, and that is, reading causes you to think more than a lot of other consumption activities. I have a saying is, “Create more than you consume.” I strive for a 3 to 1 ratio. For every three hours I’m creating, I might consume an hour if you think about not all consumptions are the same. There’s very breezy consumption like listening to music, for example, or then television.
The next level would be podcast because you got to pay a little bit more attention to what’s happening, and then comes reading on top of that. Listening and viewing things versus reading, it slows you down and gets you to reflect a little bit better and get a chance to think. As you consume, then you get to embellish on that yourself in that sense.
I was going to say to both of your points, so how you are talking about it trains you for focus. If we are focusing on how people can read more, if you think of it in a way of when you train like if you are training for a marathon, you don’t go out and run for five hours in the beginning. You need, especially in the way in which our world operates, with everything like 30-second clips is how we run our lives. You should know that it’s going to take time if you are not a reader to train yourself to have that focus because that could be a barrier for entry for people.
To your point where you are like, it’s okay if you don’t get in a flow state. Sometimes taking notes and doing Post-its and taking so long to read a book. As long as I say that I’m good with that rather than expecting myself to get into a flow state, that is my flow state. I feel that it’s so personal to everyone. I wouldn’t expect someone that isn’t a reader to sit down and be able to be like, “I’m going to read this whole book.”
Here we go. Moby Dick, page one. One week. This guy Naval Ravikant is a big proponent of reading. Bold take by him.
His reading is good.
He’s a big proponent of reading but he says, “Read what you like until you like to read.” If that means it’s page six, if it’s us weekly, at least you are getting started. In the same way that if you are going to run a marathon, you don’t go out and run 5 miles on day 1. You go for a hard walk.
If it’s Danielle Steel, you are still reading.
That’s right. It’s working a muscle.
That was the lesson I learned from teaching was like I’m not a trained teacher. My degree is in Engineering, of all things. I was asked to take on this class at a prep school for the police academy in LA. It was an odd situation. Joint program of LAUSD, West LA Community College, and LAPD. The kids I had were not particularly academically inclined but when I let them pick out whatever book they wanted to read, the rate of success was 97%.
Even beyond that, I would go to used book sales and buy books for kids that I thought they would like specifically, and they absolutely love that. I had paid attention to who they were and what I thought they might like. Whereas if you contrast that with what we were trained on, I read more than anybody I know, and I am still not interested in reading William Faulkner. In high school, they are like, “Here’s a little, As I Lay Dying, dig into that.” You can’t even comprehend the first two pages. There’s this very backward attitude toward how we introduce people to reading, especially in an English major, English teacher way. Like, “Here’s Beowulf. Can you understand any of those words?”
Is it any surprise that these school systems are trying to drug up kids?
I would contrast that with what we were talking about, getting people to read and apologizing earlier. This probably isn’t the best practice but one thing I am running into now is that we also need to tell people, “You are a grownup. You are expected to read. I don’t care if you like it or not. You are 35 years old and haven’t read a book in the last five years. I can’t talk to you. You do not deserve a seat at the table of any academic or intellectual discussion.” We also dumbed things down in adulthood. It’s crazy that I will have smart people that fit into that 24%, and yet they purport in their heads that they should be allowed to have opinions on things, and I don’t think that’s the case.
You have to read. There are no two ways about if you want to have intelligent conversations. Therefore, in some ways, I don’t care what the methodology is and that you need to do these things because they are good for you because you are a grownup and not a twelve-year-old. In the same way that you don’t get to eat Lucky Charms, now that’s the deal. “You are a grownup. You have to eat better food or you are going to die, and you have to read books or I can’t talk to you.”
It’s eat well, exercising, and read.
Let’s do some more.
I would say the other huge thing, and we have talked a bit about that. I have been thinking about this about data points and everything I put into my body both on the food and the exercise thing, and that I am a product of everything that I input. That’s the quality of the output that I will have. I haven’t done social media in a few years. Taking that input out of my life made the outputs in my life, my creativity, my writing, and everything so much better.
For me, it’s a very thoughtful way, and healthy way that I can put valuable inputs in, and I have noticed the fruits of that with the output, whether it’s creativity and conversations that I can have with people expanding my mind in so many ways that other mediums that, to your point, when I’m consuming. You and I aligned on that with a create over consume where if I’m consuming garbage, I create garbage.
I have a saying that is, “Writing is exercise, and reading is nutrition.” It’s why I was eager to do this because I realized the big gap between the writing episode and then this reading episode. I have been talking a lot about my mushroom trip but I did one on the day of the presidential election, and the whole theme was about my media diet.
People talk about a media diet and how I needed to adjust that in such a way that it was like you were saying Sara Foster, more creativity and better ideas would be more uplifting and inspirational. Not so much. I know what’s going on in the world but I’m not focused on it. There’s so much to consume. Let’s pick the stuff that’s going to be. In the same way like, when you walk down the cereal aisle, you can choose oatmeal or you can choose Lucky Charms. One might be more fun at the moment but has more dire consequences.
Time is our most precious commodity. It’s how you are going to spend that.
I was going to say one of mine is that reading allows you, and this book is over-referenced at this point but in Steven King’s book on writing, he talks about how it’s like time travel in that you get to have a conversation with somebody. He’s talking about you get to have this conversation with your reader but he also frames it as, “As a reader, I can go on this very deep dive with one person,” even if it’s a novelist.
What people sometimes don’t understand about reading fiction is that you are still getting a window into that smart person’s brain is through a different cloaking device. You may not ever get to sit down with Larry McMurtry but by reading one of his books by osmosis, you get to experience all of the stuff that he’s experienced. It’s a way to download another person’s life and knowledge in a very intimate way, which is different than if we were at a dinner party or whatever else that might be a little less intimate where you get to dig in with this one smart person.
I will add to that. I wrote down that you can travel while not leaving the house. If you are a kid in Montana, Kansas or suburban New Jersey, you get to see and experience a big world out there. Historically, about new ideas in a sense, and you don’t even have to leave the house to get a glimpse into what life might be like in India during a time of war or something like that. That can be compelling.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate on this. People would say, “I can do that with social media. I can do that in little snapshots.” How would you counter someone’s argument that that’s what they could do and that’s what they are getting from social media? I would say social media is the biggest one.
That’s a good job of playing devil’s advocate. That one truth about books is that, as a species, we have almost perfected the art form. Whereas with TV, we have not because it’s so commercialized. There’s this myth of Peak TV but we have gone past that and there are very few shows that are Peak TV. Most TV is too bloated because they know they need to keep you watching forever and ever.
Most movies don’t hold up for very long. If you go back several years and watch most movies, you are like, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They forgot they needed a plot but it was spectacular to look at.” We have done a good job with books when it comes to the way they work on our brains. The length is generally standardized.
Social media conceivably could arrive at that someday but now we are still in a very viral mode of social media and there’s a reason we say the word viral when we attach it to social media. In that, it’s built to be the lowest common denominator, and therefore as an art form, if you want to call it that, we haven’t figured out the good to go along with the frivolity of it, I suppose. Does that make sense at all?
It does. That makes perfect sense.
I don’t have a strong counter to that because you can get some of that via those other things. I think that the story transports a little bit better.
Social media tends to provoke envy, whereas reading provokes empathy.
That’s a good counter.
If people would show the warts of their travel, here’s diarrhea I had in India. It would be more apt to be good for us.
I think about the Instagram story about the heart of darkness. It’s a different story. Let’s get into people who are like, “Stop bludgeoning me with all the value.” I want to tick this percentage up by at least 1%. Let’s talk about some best practices to help people read a lot. Again, books or otherwise light or heavy. Let’s get people going.
I would say the number one for me is to create the habit of doing it at the same time every day. I usually start my day and end my day with other times interspersed there. For me, building that habit is the biggest thing, and I have realized how important it is for me to do that, and it sets my mind in the right place before I start my day.
How long are you doing this? Do you have a special place? Do you have a ritual?
I do. I wake up at 5:00 every day. It’s when I wake up and get my warm beverage, sit on the couch, and cozy up. It feels like I can wake up slowly and have this nice, “I don’t have to do anything else, and I get to sit here and read.” I frame it as this luxury that I get to do. I look forward to it on days that either I can’t do it or I wait for a number of reasons. In the middle of the day, I will feel like something is missing, and I’m yearning for that time to sit there and have that alone time with whatever I’m consuming or reading.
At the end of the day?
I read before I go to bed or sometimes after work because I’m on the computer all day long. I will need to look at a physical book or get outside. I often buy audible books, physical books, and digital books too. If it’s something that I like, I like them all because I like to consume things at different times in different mediums.
I will usually go out for a walk with my dog and listen to it, and then I go home and will read the same chapter, and I feel like then it sinks in. I’m also a big note taker and have my notes app categorizing different sections that I like, quotes, or anything like that so that I can reference back to them.
I’m also a bedtime reader. If you haven’t built that habit of reading before bed that you should turn your attention to helping your kids develop that habit. I love that I read before bed but that’s because I read before bed when I was a kid.
I used to sneak-read. I could go from immersed light off, head on the pillow, and fake asleep in one and a half seconds. All I was worried about was my mom. All she had to do was put her hand on the lamp and feel how hot it was. She wouldn’t do that kind of a thing but that was my only worry because I had that whole open mouth and fake sleeping thing going.
You think about how that specialness also translated over time where it was a treat, so much so that you needed to hide it. What a weird world where you had to hide reading.
My mom wanted me to get enough sleep but I couldn’t sleep. I was so enthralled by these stories.
What I’m driving at is like, “Is it possible if you are 50 years old to start reading before you go to sleep? Is that reasonable as a behavior change?”
I would say start with five minutes. Do five minutes for a week, then do ten minutes. I do feel like it can seem so overwhelming to look at a book and be like, “That’s too much.” Feel pride in, “I got 5 or 10 pages done.” That builds this confidence in this momentum of like, “I’m a reader. I read before bed.” I think it is all about building that habit, and you shouldn’t expect, especially for people who have been doing it like to your point, who would sneak read. There are so many people who cannot even identify with that. They would be like, “I would burn that book.”
I should have excluded one of you and had a non-reader in this thing to present the case for not reading.
I’m trying to present that other side.
I will try to license people with mine. It’s great to read before you go to bed. It has two additional benefits. One is, especially if you do it with a print book, it’s less screen time. I have heard this. I haven’t checked the data on this but some of the evidence for the problem with screens is what people are looking at on the screens and how disturbing and anxiety producing that content can be. Most books that you are reading are a little more evergreen and not about what’s going wrong in the world at the particular moment.
Mine is to find time in some way, shape or form. You can do it in different ways. For example, I do reading retreats, so I get lots of books. I buy them liberally. Sometimes they start to stack up. I started feeling a little bit anxious about it, and then I started looking for an opportunity to do a reading retreat. For me, it looks something like this.
I get a hotel room or Airbnb for a few days but I pack for ten days. I have two bags of clothes and then a bag of books. Something like 15 to 20 books, and then I go off and hunker down, and I’m consuming these books, taking notes, and so on. I get to a certain point where I’m like, “I’m feeling like it’s time to get home,” but I never have to feel like, “I have run out of underwear. I got to get home.” I never leave before the three days are up. It takes a while to get through enough of these books.
On the last day, I take an edible and free write. I put a lot of things together. I get a lot of ideas and so on. It may seem a little strange but that sometimes works for me as a way to do this. The other thing I have done and missed is that I started a two-person book club. The nice thing about a two-person book club is the accountability. There is no social loafing with a two-person book club. That can start to propel a habit in a sense.
Back to your time one, find the time. I took this read-to-lead course once, and what they had you do at the beginning was basically write down what you spent your day doing. Write it. “I did this for this amount of time,” because so many of the excuses are that, “I don’t have time to read.” You are like, “I was on social media for three hours. I was watching this for this,” and it’s like, “Cut one hour there.” That’s also a valuable exercise in understanding what you are spending your time doing because, most likely, you can shave something off of that and find the time.
It would also help people to read more fiction because most nonfiction is terrible. I say that because I have this real pet peeve that most pop fiction, especially around the social psychology world. In the vein of Malcolm Gladwell, every book written by Malcolm Gladwell should be a pamphlet. What people get put off by is the repetitive nature and the filling that goes on in nonfiction most of the time because publishers know people buy nonfiction. Eighty five percent of the books that are published are nonfiction because it’s an easier sell. It’s like, “Here’s how to fix this. Here’s the history of this.”
That means that it’s ubiquitous, and most people think that’s what they should be reading but it’s not any fun to read most of the time. It’s pretty rare that I can get through an entire book of nonfiction because it’s so repetitive. With that said about fiction, you have to find fiction you love and are interested in reading, even if that’s detective novels or whatever. With fiction, there is a momentum that gets built up where you start to want to do it. Also, a lot of the nonfiction that we consume is fragmented, and it becomes difficult to find any through line. It will be like, “Here are the seven ways to do this,” and you get to the end of number two, and you are like, “I don’t know if I want to get to three.” Who cares at this point?
As the nonfiction reader at the table, there’s a way to relax the norms around reading to make it work better. First of all, I’m a multiple book reader, so at any one point in time, there are 5 to 12 books that I’m working on and that I choose based upon my mood, the need, my energy level, and so on but I also am very good at stopping reading.
I’m like, “This is not that good.” It’s hard to walk out of a movie but it’s easy to put down a book. People feel like, “I have some costs. I spent $15 on this.” They feel they ought to get through it, and I’m like, “If you are 1/3 of the way through, trust me, the last third is not going to be better than the first third.” Usually, the first third of a book is the best part of the book. I love the idea of re-reading. If something is good, it’s okay to revisit a book again, in a sense. I do agree with you that most nonfiction books are overwritten and repetitive. They have enhanced PowerPoint presentations.
They are often a calling card. I will tell that to people when I’m talking about writing like, “You should probably write a book so you can send that to people,” but people get spun out because they think it needs to be a certain length and that’s rarely the case.
As someone who’s written a breezy book, I am unaffected.
Like someone who hates short stories.
That’s a call back to when we were talking before the show.
I’m a fan of short nonfiction but not short fiction.
He wants long fiction.
I mentioned this before but multiple mediums are for me works well. I get the audible book, the eBook, and the physical book. Obviously, that’s a big expense. Not that you need all three of those but you need to figure out which medium works best for you. If Audible, if listening to a book works best for you, do that. If that’s the way like your path to reading, take it. The same with if it’s Kindle, do that. Take that path. If it’s a hardcover, do that or if it’s all three. No shame in whatever medium it is. It’s which one does you stick to and which one works the best for you.
No shame in what concurrent behavior you need to employ to accomplish it. I love going to a bar by myself with a book and sitting and having a couple of drinks and reading. I often recommend that to people when they are either wanting to read or write more. Figure out a way to pull yourself into it that ties a behavior you already enjoy with something that you want to do more of.
There was a time this was not reading but I needed to write a couple of thank you cards. I made a point to turn it into a treat. I was going to put on some music that I liked in headphones. I got myself a drink of some kind. I went down to the lounge in my apartment complex and turned it into an event. There’s value in admitting that it’s going to need to be a big deal. It’s a thing that you are going to put some actual effort into instead of hoping and being stalked by the book that’s sitting there on your table and feeling guilty all the time. Deciding like it’s a smaller version of your reading retreat. That idea of, “If I take myself to breakfast, I will also take this book with me or something.”
When I do a reading retreat, I usually go to a place that’s going to be fun, exciting, interesting or new. It has that element too because you can’t read for twelve hours straight. When I leave the house, there’s something interesting to explore and so on.
Framing it to your point as more in the way of, “Look what I get to do,” not, “Look what I have to do.” If you look at things in that way, it frames it in a totally different perspective because you could be doing far worse things than sitting there on a comfy couch listening to music and reading. That doesn’t sound terrible. Look at what I get to do, and this is pretty great.
This also lends to one of the dirty secrets I would say about reading, which is that you then get to brag about it. If your ego will be massaged by getting to say to people, “I’m reading this book,” and then lean into that. Similarly, if you are out in the world reading a book, people will look at you like, “That person got something going on.” It may not be the noblest of causes.
If you want to turn on 1 out of every 4 people.
It’s better than zero. Do the ladies hit you up when you are sitting at the bar with your book?
They do, and sometimes it’s obnoxious because I’m not trying to trick myself into reading. I will be like, “I want to read this book. Please, people, leave me alone.”
This is the best way to get someone to get interested in you. Is it like looking over your shorts, “Does anybody see me doing this?”
I was in San Francisco because I had officiated my brother’s wedding and went up to Sonoma County for three days. It’s not a reading retreat but a debrief from the wedding. On my first night, I was excited about going to the Russian River Brewery. I love their beer, and I had gone to a little bookstore nearby and was excited about it. “I’m going to buy a book and go to this brewery. I’m going to have three beers and then walk back to my hotel or find some food on the way.”
I sat down in a place I thought was going to be a safe space like no one was going to talk to me but sure enough, these two women who both worked at Applebee’s, as it turned out, were like, “What is that book and what’s it about?” I’m like, “I haven’t even started it yet, so I have no idea.” It was interesting because theoretically, you would be happy that someone was interrupting you at the bar but I was actively annoyed because I was like, “I have heard about this beer and I have drunk this beer in other places. I want to sit here, drink this beer, and read this book,” which turned out to be terrible. It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of fiction that sucks.
It sucks for you.
A lot of Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction does suck because they feel obligated to give the prize to certain literature that isn’t fun to read. That would be the current-day version of Faulkner. If you gave that book that I was trying to read to a high school, they would be like, “Reading is awful. I don’t want to do this. This is terrible.” I walked away from that book.
Did you leave it there?
I didn’t get to read any of it at the brewery.
The ladies at Applebee’s have it.
They are passing it around the Applebee’s trying to decipher it.
Speaking of bragging, I like to give books as gifts. I have a few books that I regularly give as gifts. That’s a nice thing to be able like, “I consume this. I enjoyed it, and it would be right for you.” I always say, “I don’t expect you to read it. I’m not going to quiz you on it. I’m not ever going to ask about it. Feel free to re-gift it. I have a hunch that you are going to like this book.”
It is nice to have a stockpile of books that you are willing to give away and never see again. That is fun, even if it’s just, “I haven’t seen you in a while. Here’s a lead to rebuilding our relationship. You should read this book.”
One of my friends randomly sent me a book in the mail. Didn’t put anything like a note. I texted you a picture, Peter, and I asked if you had sent this to me, and I finally figured out who sent it but it was such a surprise to get it, and it was so great. To write from this person on this date. I’m so nostalgic about that stuff. Books are such great gifts.
That’s a great point too because they are comparatively cheap also. It’s not a cost. I don’t know why this bothers me so much but when people are hard on buying things from Amazon, I’m like, “Do you know what Amazon’s done for the book-buying public?” It makes it so easy, and it is, after all, a book company. That was their original MO. The fact that I can have a book shipped anywhere in the world to me that is one of the few great things that we have pulled out of the last several years.
Sarah, I don’t have your address.
If you want books in the future, you have to divulge that.
This is a great segue into our last segment. I like to think that, at the very least accumulative effect of reading. That is a linear effect that the more you read, the better off you are. You learn more, and it expands your horizons. You become more empathic of all the things that we have been talking about. For some people, it is a compounding effect.
There are these slight improvements, and then, at some point, there’s this major run-up that can happen because you start to put things together. You create mental models, and so on. There can also be a step function that is that one book can catapult you to a higher level. In that way, reading is an asymmetric bet. The worst case is you spend $5 to $25, and the book is not very good, and you spend 1 to 8 hours, and the book is not very good but the right book can change your life forever.
It can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It can be priceless in terms of changing a perspective, changing your behavior, and learning something new in that way. The issue is you don’t know which book is going to do it until you read the book because the book the changes your life, Sarah, is different from the one that changes yours, Paul.
I love looking for asymmetric bets. There’s very little downside and an unlimited upside, and I believe that book reading is one of those asymmetric bets. What I asked each of you to do, and you brought it. I took a picture of you to talk about a book that changed your life. One of these asymmetric moments in your life. What is it?
For me, it is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It speaks to a lot of the value.
For someone who’s not familiar with that book, will you say what sort it is?
He was in a concentration camp. It’s his account of being in a concentration camp, and he was also a therapist. He basically analyzes the way in which that all of the prisoners of the concentration camp, the different stages that they go through, what it does to you, and how surviving it and what that looks like, and how you can find meaning and suffering.
If you can find happiness and meaning, even if you are in a concentration camp, it is fair game to have that attitude at any point in your life. For me, and I mentioned this. This is a book that I referenced and read a lot. It helps shift your perspective in so many ways, whether it’s to get out of your own head or to put any suffering and perspective that you have a choice, and that choice is how you are going to respond to it.
You can’t control what’s happening in your environment but you can always control your response to it and have that moment of pause where the stimulus, the response, have that moment of pause and decide how you are going to respond. That pause is to think about that is so powerful and can change your life. It has for me in so many ways, and I reference it and read it a lot because we are good in our world about remembering and forgetting. That’s why for me, it’s all about a practice like you practice yoga and meditation. This is almost like a form of meditation and training my brain to understand that I have that control of how I respond to anything.
It’s in front of you, and you’ve got some Post-it notes in it. You want to open it to one of them and say something about what one might be there.
Let’s tackle that one really quick.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead to think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation but in right action and conduct.”
Mine is not one book but it is an author that I don’t know how I found when I was twelve years old but his name is Lewis Grizzard and he was a Southern humorist. It was the first time I realized that writing could be funny. It was a landmark moment because while I loved reading as a kid, it had generally been serious.
It also was this understanding that the funniest material was written in an accessible way that even a twelve-year-old could understand. Not only informed the way that I write or write but also the way that I tell stories and try to talk to people, which is in a conversational way. That may have been the first moment where I felt like I was having a conversation with the author. It was pretty one-sided because I wasn’t talking back.
People may be more familiar with Dave Barry, who has been a syndicated columnist for a long time. He would have books that were collections of his columns and then books that were also standalone books. There was something about this guy Lewis Grizzard where he was dealing with his own heartbreak and general, getting a kick to the curb through humor.
The title of the book that I brought is They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat. This book happens to be about how he went in for heart surgery but then, at the same time, it’s about heartbreak in general. I remember I read it. I read the first book of his that came to me because I was going to Canada on a Boy Scout trip, and my mom let me pick out a book at a Walmart. It was one of the first times that I got to buy a book of my own as a treat for the drive up to Manitoba.
There was a specialness there of like, “I have picked the right book.” It opened my eyes to this world of adult humor, not adult-like. It’s pornographic but a grown-up being funny but also speaking about universal truths in a humorous way. That’s what eventually led to my own writing style, which was known as humor writing. That ability to make things simple, direct, and clear.
It’s hard to write funny. When someone can do it, you can learn from them. My book is Stories I Tell On Dates by Paul Shirley.
I have to read that one. Can I get a signed copy?
Mine is a work of nonfiction by Thomas Gilovich, who’s a social psychologist at Cornell University. He was at Cornell in 1993 when he published this. He’s still at Cornell. The name of the book is, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. This book is ten years before all the Gladwell, the Danieli, and the Freakonomics stuff was happening that suddenly brought all of this academic knowledge, not to the masses but to smart people. Policymakers, business people, and people who want to understand themselves and others better.
I don’t remember how I got it. I will be honest but I was working in student affairs. I was maybe 24 or 25, at the very latest, and had been trying to get into graduate school. I had already had a failed attempt to get into graduate school, and I was starting again. I was working in student affairs. I was managing a residence hall at UC Santa Barbara. I read this book, and it’s essentially about how we think fallaciously and how our judgments and choices are fallible.
How do we make mistakes? How are we human? We are not these rational actors that economists say that we are. He talks about, “I still remember sitting in my bedroom reading about regular everyday people believe they have ESP. They believe that they can predict the future and why they think that they predict the future.”
What I loved about it was that it felt so smart. I felt smart understanding this, and I was like, “That’s what I want to study.” I set off to study with him and did two more rounds of graduate training. I never got into Cornell. I got waitlisted both times, came down to the final day, and they took the person ahead of me. The person ahead of me accepted the offer. I would have gotten it, and I would have gone. I would skip my way to Upstate New York to freeze my butt off.
I landed on my feet. I ended up studying with my mentor Barb Mellers and her husband, Phil Tetlock, who are big names in the field and incredibly generous people. They were wonderful mentors. I got in on the ground floor of what became behavioral economics. I got to work with Danny Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, because of my connections to them. I frankly wouldn’t be here living the life that I had lived if I hadn’t read that book and was so jazzed about this emerging topic that was there.
That does sound asymmetrical as bets go.
It does. I have told Tom this story but I’m going to send him an email saying thank you because it set me on a completely different course of that otherwise. Very fun. The book holds up now. It’s beautifully written. The last thing I will say about it is that a lot of these books can be a little bit like the, “You are a dummy,” type of thing. I felt like this was very even-handed like it was compassionate. That’s how I recall it. At least that’s there. That’s my thing. This is one of these things that we are not suggesting that you read these books. All I’m suggesting is to read books at least until one changes your life but then what happens is now you are hooked. I don’t know what the next one is going to be.
I’m a terrible golfer but the addicting nature of golf is that occasionally you hit one right, and it keeps you coming back. The same is true for poker. You feel like a good poker player once in a while. That’s so true of books that occasionally, one comes along where you are like, “Why would I do anything else besides read?”
To your point, there are so many bad ones out there that if someone gets a bad one, they are like, “This is a waste of time.” It’s like don’t give up. Set it aside. You start reading, and if you don’t like it, set it aside.
That is the power, and the trap is the same as with dating. In that, most of the people you date are okay but not quite right for you. True love comes along very rarely, and that’s also the case with books. In that, a great book shares a lot of characteristics with a bad book. In that, it’s vulnerable, personal, and specific. If that’s right for you at that right time, it’s going to feel like the best thing in the world but if it’s not right for you, it’s going to be like an electric fence.
That’s the real beauty of books is that they are so personal that there’s a chance that they get right in there and connect in the same way that a love affair will. That’s pretty rare with TV and movies because it costs so much to make TV and movies that they can’t take the chance that it won’t appeal to quite a few people. Sometimes you will get an independent movie where you are like, “That was what I needed,” but that’s going to be pretty rare with TV. They need to swing halfway. I can’t take a big cut like you can with books.
Thank you, Sarah and Paul.
- Sarah Stinson
- Can I Keep My Jersey?
- Stories I Tell On dates
- The Process Is The Product
- Ball Boy
- Paul Shirley
- As I Lay Dying
- Harry Potter
- Fifty Shades Of Grey
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- The Meaning of Life
- They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat
- How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life
About Sarah Stinson
Sarah Stinson grew up in Billings, MT and attended The New School in New York, where she received a degree in film and media studies. She is a marketing professional, amateur comedian, and is currently working on producing a cartoon called “Eat at Ballers.”
About Paul Shirley
A National Merit Scholar and engineering major at Iowa State University, Paul Shirley is a former professional basketball player and the author of three works of nonfiction: Can I Keep My Jersey?, Stories I Tell On Dates, and The Process is the Product. His first novel, Ball Boy, came out in February of 2021.