5 min read

On Reading, and Productivity

On Reading, and Productivity
A blurred image of my Kindle library

With any activity you devote sufficient time to, you get instinctively better at recognizing things that might interest you. If you have hiked for a long time, the length and elevation profile of a trail gives you an idea about how difficult it will be. If you spend enough time reading, the title of a book, an article, or the introduction will be enough to tell if it's something that's worth your time. So the moment I stumbled upon an article called "Reading as a Counter-Practice'', I saved it to my Pocket list. Although there were no new insights presented, the writing hooked me - the choice of words, their arrangement, and the clarity of thought. If somebody were to ask me why I read, or in general, about the value of reading, I would not have been able to put it as clearly as the author did.

To know what you love to do, it helps to imagine what you'd do if you didn't have to worry about making money. Some would say that they would do nothing. But that’s neither as exciting, nor as easy as it sounds. To me, at least two things come to mind, if I had that kind of freedom. I'd spend a good chunk of time reading and a fair amount of time running.

Reading helps me get better at using the language as a tool to articulate my thoughts. It also helps me assign labels to my emotions. It helps me improve my vocabulary, which is a critical component of a writer’s repertoire. It’s liberating to be able to name an emotion, because it’s often the first step towards self-awareness.

My relationship with reading has evolved over time, and for the good. Speaking English is prevalent in India, but speaking well is not. And although you learn English in school from an early age, you only speak it when you join the workforce. Unlike some kids who grow up reading novels, reading wasn't as big in my childhood. My father read the newspaper everyday, but that was about it. Most of what I read until I finished college comprised of academic books. In school, nobody cared if you got an A in English, whereas an A in Science or Math meant something. Looking back, it’s really school that instills the idea in you that soft skills are not as important as the so-called hard ones. It’s no wonder then that I find myself working with software engineers who can write good code, but couldn’t explain their work for the life of them. Not much has changed since school, in that regard. It's only after I got the internet at home, while I was in college, was when I started reading habitually. Outcomes motivated me to read at the time. In other words, reading was a means to an end, not a particularly enjoyable activity in itself. I only started to find joy in reading when reading was all I had, it was all I could do. That’s when I started reading with no particular expectation but for the sheer calmness it brought me to be immersed in the world constructed by two people – the author and myself. I found solace in reading when I felt lonely, upset, or even overwhelmed, which, as an introvert, I get a lot. I found books as helpful companions when I could not share my problems with people around me, or when I felt like I cannot get useful advice from those close to me. It helped, and continues to help, me discover and cultivate new patterns of thinking.

When I come across a clear piece of writing, I often contemplate all the experiences in the author's life that led them to gain such clarity. I think about all the work they must have read to come up with such the exact arrangement of words that made it beautiful. It's a futile exercise, I know, if the outcome was what I was after, but to me pondering over such things is an enjoyable journey in itself.

The author says that the form, or the medium in which you read shapes the experience, and what you get out of it. Reading a physical book, on an e-reader, or listening to the same material in the form of audio might all tickle different parts of your brain and body which in turn defines what the activity does to you. And I agree with that. But I'd go a step further and say that the aesthetics matter too – the font, its size, the background and text colors and so on. In other words, for a given medium, it matters how the content in it is presented. There's a pretty good chance I'll finish something if the format is pleasing to my senses. It's true of other senses too, in addition to the visual. There are podcasts that are brilliant but I can't stand the voices of the host, so I excuse myself. The quietness of the setting, the depth, the passion and the humility with which people speak matters as much to me as the material of the conversation.

Another interesting observation the author makes is the consumption under the regime of technique, as he puts it. It's when you merely care about the outcomes, and the efficiency with which you arrive at them. While he talks about this in the context of reading, where people would rather read a blog post than a book, or a tweet than a blog post, this is something that has been in my mind for quite a while now. In uber-industrialized societies like the US, that observation is true with any activity in life. The idea of hustle culture, of optimizing every bit of your life, and elevating productivity to a pedestal can be seen all over. The whole industry of fast food and drive-throughs are built upon the idea of minimizing the time you spend on cooking and eating food. Not only does it raise questions about the priorities in life, it also shines light on the misguided assumption that the whole purpose of cooking and eating is to fuel the body. There's no thought given to what the act of cooking and eating with your dear ones does to your mental well-being. It has only worsened by the hackers mindset that the people in Silicon Valley brought to the mix. You wanna hack your way to maximize time, health, wealth and life itself. There was a time in my life when I thought accruing experiences is objectively better than craving for material things. If you were to spend money, I thought, it's better to spend it on a trip rather than buying material goods. But it's interesting how Capitalism has taken that too to an extreme where experience maximization has become the goal rather than the means to be happy. It's as if the sheer number of experiences that you gather is more important than what you learn from them. We are like bees that were led to believe that their purpose was to maximize the numbers of flowers they landed on, rather than enjoying the nectar on each of them, while also perpetually flying with the feeling that something was missing. I no longer believe that experiences are objectively, and undeniably better than material possessions. More broadly, I've come to see the goodness of any idea on a continuous spectrum, rather than in distinct states, and in the process, disillusioned by the notions – ideas, values and principles – of the West that I once fancied embodying.