A Tribute to Books in These Un-Book-Friendly Times

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”

Vera Nazarian

It’s not easy to read an actual book these days.

Picture this: Wake up in the morning. Open book. Receive e-mail notification. Close book. Read e-mail. Respond. Open laptop. The work day starts. Break for lunch. Glance at book. Too tired. Open Instagram. Browse. Open Facebook. Browse. Work day continues. Finish work. Meetings/exercise/chores/family. Dinner. Exhausted. Open book. Another notification. Close book. Respond. Open book. Struggle to read. Fall asleep.

Even for someone like me who has always loved reading, the modern world is a difficult place to seek the solace of a book in. That endless stream of pings, the allure of images and videos coming at you from every conceivable genre, the 24/7 demands of the workplace, the ever shorter and shorter attention span: where do I find the time, the energy, the focus to finish a book?

But reading books is not much different from other habits with huge pay-offs (e.g. going to the gym, eating healthy, keeping a journal). The time, energy, and focus can be found, but it starts with some forceful willpower. You have to sit down and do the work.

These days, I tend to read for a few minutes right after waking up, then for an hour or less before sleeping. I also squeeze in time during lunch breaks, lazy weekend afternoons, or over a commute/travel trip. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Many times it’s still all too easy to stretch my arm out and grab that smartphone instead. It’s a work in progress.

Why I Read

But is reading still actually worth it?

For me, yes, yes, and yes.

Armed with the decision to keep reading (and ignoring all other stimuli for as long as I can), I’d get a few pages in and start feeling a special kind of solace. The outside world starts quieting down.

With an opened fiction or non-fiction in my hand, I can feel myself learning bit by bit, absorbing something new. I’m following the story. I’m imagining scenes. I’m asking myself questions. Minutes go by and I can feel my mind getting sharper, my focus getting stronger, and my restlessness calming down. Less than an hour in, I’m in flow.

As a result, I feel my mind open up. Even while reading, I get ideas about work that I quickly jot down – some related to the topic/theme of the book, some unrelated. I get mental lightbulbs on things I want to write/research on/explore. I’m in a deep think mode that helps me see pieces to solve problems I have in my daily life. I’m inspired and can feel my creative juices flowing. It truly is exercise for the brain.

For as far as I can remember, books to me have been a critical source of learning, inspiration, excitement, and wonder. It was much easier to devour pocket books in the smartphone-free, 100% offline days of my childhood, but now that it isn’t so easy, I still know I’ll thank myself with every book I’ll finish. 

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My favorite reading spot? A quiet cafe.

A Necessity

Though it’s getting harder to read a book these days, that may also mean it’s a necessity now more than ever. 

Search “benefits of reading books” on Google Scholar and you’ll see these findings backed by research journals with a quick browse. I laid three of them side by side with certain trends I’m sure most of us are familiar with:

  • Reading helps those who suffer from depression [1] and it can be incredibly useful in a world plagued by rising numbers of patients who suffer from depression [2]
  • Reading literary fiction helps us understand the beliefs and desires of others – especially those different from us – [3] and this could help in combatting a reported ‘decline in human empathy’ [4]
  • Reading can significantly reduce stress [5] and that’s good news with stress in many aspects of our modern lives – particularly, the workplace – on the rise [6]

I’m sure benefits such as these – vis-a-vis the challenges they address – can easily stretch to a long list, and I hope to explore more of these benefits with future blog posts.

But for now, here are some compromises I’m willing to make in my relationship with reading.

Alternatives

I’m a sucker for physical books.

I love their smooth, lovely, embossed covers; the feel of each crisp page as you turn it; the type set cleanly on paper; the way the spine fits snugly in my hand; the stacks of books of different colors and shapes I lined up neatly in my room (come to think of it, this set of books I’ve kept seem to be my only prized material possession). Spending PHP 300 – PHP 800 on a book is also a way I’ve told myself that the item is an investment, and that I have to squeeze as much out of it as I can to get a good “return”.

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Prized possessions. The stacks that line my room’s shelves sit beside a childhood photo – a snapshot from a time when it was much easier to read undisturbed.

But even then, drastic times call for drastic measures, and in lieu of physical books (and the cost, space consumed, weight, and time demand that comes with them), I’ve learned that the following reading options also help me attain that quiet, productive headspace I so badly need:

  • E-Books – I read e-books of books I can’t find from shelves. I read e-books when I can find free ones that I like. I read e-books when the physical versions are too expensive. The downside is that the additional screen time isn’t good for my eyes (I don’t have a Kindle), but they’re more portable, affordable, and easier to find.
  • Podcasts – There’s a podcast for virtually every topic under the sun, but the ones I like the most delve into philosophy, psychology, business, and economics. Here are two I’d happily recommend: The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish and Philosophy Bites.
  • Long Online Articles – Reading a well-written online article for 30 minutes to 1 hour is, to me, immersive and informative enough for when I don’t have a lot of time. For this, I love sites like Aeon. I also browse and save interesting articles on my Pocket app to read later (I don’t read online fiction, but that could be something to explore as well).

A Year in Books

I don’t need to look far to see how reading books has made me a better person. In the past year alone, books have taken me for a wild ride, and I’ve felt a little more inspired, a little bit more enchanted, and a little bit less scared to take on life with every chapter.

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2019’s top reads. These are the the most compelling books I read last year. Not in photo: Shoe Dog, which I read via e-book.

In 2019, I witnessed the success of Nike founder Phil Knight as he rose from zero to $33.5 billion when I read Shoe Dog. “You are remembered for the rules you break” was a quote he often cited (and that his life was a testament to), and this I plastered on a post-it on my desktop for most of last year to force me to take more risks.

Stephen King saved a table for me, nudged me to sit, and told me to write, write, write when I read On Writing. The book was a practical exploration of what makes good writing straight from the master himself. Indeed, as he wrote, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

I let one of my favorite thinkers, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, teach me the nuances of real-world risk and probability, pain and growth, and putting your skin in the game with two books: Antifragile (which I wrote a whole blog post about) and Skin in the Game. Taleb is a voracious reader too. He writes, “…there is something central in following one’s own direction in the selection of readings: what I was given to study in school I have forgotten; what I decided to read on my own, I still remember.”

Lastly, I joined Joan Didion in her heart-wrenching journey through marriage and motherhood, grief and death, love and life. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she shares, “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”

These are five books that stood out of the few I read last year, but even just this handful was enough to ask me to see things in this world more clearly, to have courage in the face of difficulty, to be truer to myself.

Critical Reading

One can read a book per day but still retain very little. When it comes to reading, I always have to remind myself that quality should win over quantity, and depth should win over speed. I’ve often reread books that mean a lot to me; stopped reading books if I find myself forcing my interest a bit too much (or find succeeding chapters repetitive); or painstakingly take my time reading a book – marking passages, making notes, looking up footnotes – just to get as much as I can out of it.

But, beyond that, I’ve come across a term in the first book I read this 2020 that is now the prime standard I have when it comes to reading: critical reading.

“Teachers and writers often say that reading books gives us life tools, which is true – but those tools mean nothing without readers stepping up to the task of what those tools actually ask of us. Critical reading is a civic act; it’s the kind of reading that asks you to be both sharp and vulnerable to both the world of the book and the world the book emerges from; the kind of reading that asks you to bear witness to the things in a book that speak low and deep to some low and deep part of you, which might not always say easy or comforting things. Critical reading returns you to your life with renewed eyes; it deepens the world for you, inasmuch as it deepens you for the world. And it’s the things we do with the tools that reading gives to us that have not just world-building, but what we might call world-remaking force.”

Elaine Castillo, Foreword to Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart

Happy reading!

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