For as long as I can remember, my reading habits have had three main pillars – I choose what I am going to read next randomly, I read one book at a time, and I finish everything I start. This year, I am going to experiment with doing things a bit differently. Here’s how.
From Buckshot to Targeted
When I do my year-end round up I always refer to my reading as a “buckshot affair” and for as long as I can remember, that’s been accurate. Yes, I’ve had some multi-year goals ( read all of Shakespeare (done, by the way); read all of Morrison (not done) but in general, I’ve just let my reading take me where it takes me.
Inspired by the great and powerful Tyler Cowen, I’m going to experiment more with reading in clusters, i.e. reading multiple books in a specific area of interest. I don’t want to over program this, as I hope to still follow my interests down various rabbit holes and have room for new and exciting books coming out, but as it’s shaping up, here’s two “clusters” I hope to read in during the first part of the year.
False Jewish Messiahs
We’re starting with a subject which has long interested me, but whose complexity has kept me away – false Jewish messiahs of the 17th and 18th century, specifically Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Last year, Olga Tokarczuk published “The Books of Jacob” (which my man Hammer loved). I bought it, but failed to read it. Its size and complexity were a bit too intimidating. We’re fixing that this year, and we’re pairing it with the even bigger, and more complex master work of Gershom Sholem on the precursor to Frank, Sabbatai Zevi. Are two books a cluster? For starters, yes.
The big cluster project for the year is a classic of middle age white dad stereotype – Rome. This one we’re starting with a re-listen of Mike Duncan’s excellent History of Rome podcast, pairing that with Mary Beard’s SPQX (which, like the Scholem book has been taunting me for years) and Greg Wolf’s Rome: An Empire’s Story . Also going to re-read Shakespeare’s tragedies set in Rome (Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus). From there, we’ll see. Wolf’s book has a legendary bibliography, so we’ll see where it takes us. Hopefully to some original sources.
To my detriment, I am often a bite off more than I can chew kind of guy, so tempting as it is to say I’m also going to do clusters on the English Civil War, King and the Civil Rights Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and so many more, we’re going to leave it at that for now. I need to leave room for the weird and the random
Variety Leads to Quantity and Quality
I’ve always been a one book at a time kinda guy. The idea being if I don’t push through a single book at a time, I won’t finish any books. I’m going to experiment this year to see if that’s true.
Recently I had dinner with a young and brilliant guy, half my age, but twice as well read, who told me, rightly, that different moods call for different books and if you’re reading only one at a time, you’re probably not reading as much, or as thoughtfully. He used as an example that it’d taken him a long time to read Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, but read it he did. And in between that he’d read so much else. Rather than banging his head again Parfit every night, and likely coming to resent the book and its complexity, he dipped in and out, reading what he wanted, when he wanted, and in the process reading, and comprehending more.
We’re going to give that approach a try this year.
Never Give Up
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Most high volume readers will tell you to give up on books you’re not enjoying. “There’s too many books to waste time!” is the ethos of Cowen and many many others. Me, I’m not built that way, and that’s how it’s going to stay. If I start a book and I make it past the first ten pages, I finish it. Even if I hate it, I finish it. This is the definition of the sunk cost fallacy and a sure sign that at base, below everything else, I’m a pigheaded Irishman. That isn’t going to change.
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