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How to read: meticulous selection and much persistence

· 9 min read

It is very rare that I disagree with Morgan Housel — I identify with his ideas about well-being, learning, and money. But this time, I have to.

A few days ago, he wrote (my emphasis):

“A book you’re not into after 10 minutes of attention has little chance of a happy ending. Slam it shut and move on. You’re not a failure if you quit a book after three pages.”

According to Housel (I haven't been able to verify the quote), Charlie Munger once said:

“Most books I don’t read past the first chapter. I’m not burdened by bad books.”

Admittedly, Housel is in good company: other very smart intellectuals that I like and follow seem to agree with this strategy. Tyler Cowen said (NB: seventeen years ago):

I start ten or so books for every one I finish. I don't mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it. I am ruthless in my discards.

Naval Ravikant says:

“I feel no obligation whatsoever to finish the book. If at some point I decide the book is boring […] I just delete it. […] Don’t feel the obligation to finish any book. Don’t treat it like a linear tome or treatise that has to be read in order and the way the author intended beginning to end.”

Well, I disagree with them all!

Photo of a pile of thick books

Many good books require lots of pages to build up something that will be worth exploring later on: a fictional world, an ensemble of characters, a nuanced parable about something much larger than the story at hand, an innovative take on some problem or area of life. Some of the best books one can read are one hundred pages long, or shorter. But for many others, it takes entire chapters to get to the best part. And that's not always just because the author wanted to be long-winded: it often takes more than “10 minutes of attention” to build a meaningful rapport with the artist and with whatever is in their mind (in literature, and in any other creative endeavour). Every time you drop a book after “the first chapter”, you are risking some.

Besides, many books aren't even supposed to be entertaining or “fun”, and that's fine. (I realise I sound like a total square here, but I think Housel and those in his camp would agree.) Sure, there are thrillers, whodunits, and pure comedy; books whose primary (or even sole) aim is to keep you amused and engaged from cover to cover. But I would say those are a minority among the greatest books one can read.

Literature is a form of art, and art can be consumed at two very different levels: as an immediate catalyst for feelings, or as a sophisticated expression of something deeper. On the first level there is that simple electronic hit that always makes you dance; on the second level there's 19th-century German opera. Think a Hello Kitty-themed accessory versus a Kandinsky. Or E. L. James vs. Miguel de Cervantes.

The best art is great at both levels, of course: it makes you like it viscerally, and it's full of ideas and interpretations (The Beatles, Dalí, Stanley Kubrick). But that's not a reason to neglect any of the two levels on its own.

The “problem” with more sophisticated forms of art is that they often require some “work” before we can fully enjoy them. If you want to access deeper meaning, you have to be content with some music that doesn't make you dance upon first hearing, some books that seem arcane and boring and some films that look completely weird. In fact, you have to actively pursue some of those, do a little studying, even sketch a roadmap and stick to it.

Books are part of culture; probably the very epitome of culture. If I recall correctly from my MA in Cultural Studies, culture is the (collective) making of meaning. Meaning is derived from layers of references, the interplay with other ideas and creators, cultural assumptions and preferences, and previous works. Our best artistic creations (the ones we'd share with visiting aliens) are very complex syntheses of lots of cultural artifacts that came earlier: opera, jazz, abstract painting, contemporary visual art, etc.

Another way to look at difficult books is to think of acquired tastes. We all know that there are foods and beverages that take some “training”: nobody likes the taste of alcohol, black coffee, aged cheese, or spicy food (or tobacco) the very first time they try them. (If you think you would like any of that immediately, it's because you were gently introduced to those flavours and textures, and to their standing within your culture, over the course of many years, without you even noticing.) Just imagine Housel & Munger's argument applied to haute cuisine: “a dish you don't like after three bites is a waste of time”, “don't be burdened by beverages you didn't like the first time you tasted them”, etc.

The best art is an acquired taste, and as such it requires several trials, and gradual exposure.

Housel takes his idea beyond books, and I find that beyond alarming:

“This applies to more than reading books. It’s true for all kinds of data, research, conversation, and learning. […] A good reading filter is more art than science. You’ll have to find one that works for you. The bigger point is that the highest odds of finding the right piece of information comes from inundating yourself with information but very quickly being able to say, ‘that ain't it’.”

So much is wrong about this.

Finding a filter that works “for you” (as opposed to an objectively good filter, a professionally-curated list of inputs, a syllabus deliberately designed to be representative and high-quality) is a recipe for complacency, immediate gratification, confirmation bias, and echo chambers. Ingesting “data, research, conversation, and learning” in that way sounds dangerously similar to “doing your own research”.

Very quickly being able to say, “that ain't it” is functionally equivalent to very quickly being able to say, “that is it”. I don't know about you, but the more consequential or controversial the topic, the less confident I feel about “very quickly being able” to identify the valuable resources — quite the contrary.

Imagine your friend holds the wrong view about some non-trivial subject. Lockdown mandates, vaccines, the war in Ukraine, the risks of AI, buying vs renting, GMOs, whatever. You want to educate your friend by sharing with them a book, a public talk or a documentary; or even by inviting them to a long conversation. If your friend himself is applying this heuristic of “10 minutes of attention”, “three pages”, “first chapter” or “very quickly being able to say, ‘that ain't it’”, you have no chance of persuading them.

My last argument in favour of ploughing through heavy dusty books is that the best books there are, by the most objective measures we can devise (eg, a weighted aggregation of 130 lists of the best books) are overwhelmingly old and thick:

Top 10 books (or series)Average page countAverage publication year

Or, the Five Hundred Rule™: if you are reading wisely, you are probably in the middle of something that was published around five hundred years ago and that is around five hundred pages long. /s

Some of the best books will get you hooked on the first two paragraphs, while others will be so hard that they bring along an entire reading list of their own. That's just a fact of life. Quitting books just because you didn't start enjoying them quickly enough seems to me a sign of immaturity.

When I read Housel's post, I thought that maybe my disagreement is a matter of fiction (literature, art) versus non-fiction (essays, self-help). So, maybe he's thinking Rich Dad Poor Dad and Antifragile and I'm thinking War and Peace and Dracula. But, no. To me, the same strategy applies to science and business books, too: the best ones aren't trendy (they're timeless; no pun intended), and many of them won't get you hooked “after three pages”. Besides, if you find yourself starting recently-published non-fiction books and getting bored early on, it's because often those ideas are transmitted with the wrong form factor: they should be blog posts or podcast episodes, not books. (Note that truly original and consequential books such as Heart of Darkness or On the Origin of Species couldn't be successfully distilled into a blog post; that's another hint.) Or, as Housel himself puts it, “the majority of books are […] adequately summarized in the introduction”.

My suspicion, whenever I learn that someone drops lots of books, or recommends doing so (an idea that has become very trendy lately) is: they just aren't picking the best books. So if you find yourself agreeing with me in the abstract, but still shaking your head and thinking: “yeah, I get that… but still, this book I just started is really bad, or is wrong about so many things already, so I have to give it up”, then my advice to you is: just choose better! Ignore whatever is trendy or fresh, don't trust social media, don't even trust recommendations from friends, and stick to books whose author was long dead before you were born. Those books at least have passed the ruthless test of time.

So, paraphrasing Housel, I would say:

The conflict between these two – most books don’t need to be read, but some books can change your life – means you need two things to get a lot out of reading: a meticulous selection and much persistence.