Everything I knew About Reading Was Wrong. I realized this about a year ago.
All those rules I took for granted were holding me back.
Once I let go, I rediscovered the joy in reading?—?something I haven’t felt since I was a teenager, skipping classes to read Nietzsche or Albert Camus.
It all started with a podcast. It wasn’t even my insight. It was one of those rare occasions where you take someone’s advice, apply it to your life?—?and the results are instant and overwhelming.
The guest was Naval Ravikant. I’ve listened to this episode multiple times, but this time I was ready to get the message.
Today I want to offer that message to you. This essay is an exploration of Naval’s approach to reading non-fiction.
Defining the Problem
“Everyone I know is stuck on some book. I’m sure you’re stuck on some book right now. It’s page 332, you can’t go on any further but you know you should finish the book, so what do you do? You give up reading books for a while. That for me was a tragedy, because I grew up on books, and then I switched to blogs and then I switched to Twitter and Facebook, and then I realized I wasn’t really learning anything, I was just taking little dopamine snacks all day long.”
— Naval Ravikant
Are you stuck on some book right now?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, you know that feeling because you’ve been there before. We all did.
Sometimes the book isn’t bad?—?you just never feel like reading it. The prevailing wisdom is to power through, but that is terrible advice.
You’re not in school anymore?—?reading should be a joy.
It doesn’t work: relying on willpower is a bad long-term strategy.
So what can we do instead?
Mindshift #1: Give Yourself Permission to Quit
Quitting a book is almost like ending a relationship. The emotions are not as intense, but the process is similar.
We avoid the decision for weeks, accumulate guilt, and hope that things will improve. Deep inside we know that we’re delaying the inevitable.
What makes it so hard?
“we’re taught from a young age that books are something you finish, books are sacred. When you go to school and you’re assigned to read a book, you have to finish the book…”
— Naval Ravikant
And when the book is critically-acclaimed, it’s even harder. I had this experience with “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.
On paper, this book seemed perfect:
? Recommended by trustworthy sources
? Nobel winning author
? Interesting Topic
About a third of the way in I hit a wall. I couldn’t figure out why, but I never felt like reading it. And the most annoying part? The book was actually good.
I gave it a month, then two, then three.
It didn’t help.
Whenever I heard about an interesting book?—?which happens at least once a week?—?I would get excited for a second, but then remind myself that I have to finish “Thinking Fast and Slow”, and my excitement will fade and turn into guilt.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
Sunk costs have an enormous influence on our decisions.
When we’re midway through a book, we’ve invested hours into it. At that point, finishing the book feels like the only way to redeem our investment. It’s as if everything we read up to this point will be wiped from memory if we don’t get to the end.
Let’s think this through.
No one has ever quit a fiction book 80% into it. If you get that far, you want to know the ending. And it’s rational: the last 20% of a fiction book are usually the most intense and thrilling.
Heck, the last 3 pages of “A Farewell to Arms” hit me so hard that I’ll never forget its ending scene, even though I barely remember the rest of the book.
That’s not the case with non-fiction. There is no Deus ex machina, no plot twist at the end. Most non-fiction books follow one of the following patterns:
The value is spread evenly throughout the book. Those are usually the good ones?—?like “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb.
The value is front-loaded. Those are usually not as good. The author lays the premise at the start, and the rest is mostly repetition and anecdotes.
In either case, you get a fair share of what the book has to offer if you quit midway through. You don’t need to get to the last page to redeem the time you’ve put in.
But then there’s the money. We all like getting our money’s worth. We paid for the book, so we want to read all of it. Buying a new book before doing so seems like bad consumer behavior.
What we’re missing is the opportunity cost. It’s not as tangible as the 12$ you paid to Amazon, but it’s real, and it’s huge.
Every day that you spend being stuck or reluctantly reading a mediocre book, is a day you could have spent engaged with fascinating and impactful works.
We are living in a world of information abundance. There’s no room for scarcity mindset, no room for guilt. The opportunity cost of being stuck in your learning is way beyond the price of a new book.
“A really good book costs $10 or $20 and can change your life in a meaningful way. It’s not something I believe in saving money on. This was even back when I was broke and I had no money. I always spent money on books. I never viewed that as an expense. That’s an investment to me. I probably spend 10 times as much money on books as I actually get through. In other words, for every $200 worth of books I buy, I actually end up making it through 10%. I’ll read $20 worth of books, but it’s still absolutely worth it.”
- Naval Ravikant
Quitting is not Forever
two weeks ago I picked up “Thinking Fast and Slow” again, and I’m actually blown away by it.
In hindsight, I was just burned out on the topic of cognitive biases after reading about it extensively at the time. It taught me a valuable lesson:
The right book for the right person is not enough. It needs to be the right book, for the right person at the right time.
sometimes you need to go on a little detour before you’re ready for what the book has to give you.
The nice thing about books?—?they always wait where you leave them.
Mindshift #2: Read more (a lot more) than one book at a time
What struck me the most was when Naval said he’s reading 10 to 20 books at a time.
That number sounded absurd. How can he keep up?
I later realized that I’ve already done something similar back in school. I had about 15 different classes, each with its own textbook, and I never had a problem keeping up. The only issue was I didn’t like most of them because I haven’t picked them myself.
A Book For Every Mood
The key is to have real variety. Books on different subjects, with different page counts and different styles. some more playful and light, others more dense and demanding. I also like having a variety of formats?—?Kindle, physical and Audio.
“I open up my kindle, I look through. Based on my mood, I’ll flip through to whatever book matches my mood…The most important thing that does for me is it lets me read on a regular basis. “
On different days you’ll be interested in different ideas. Even on the same day, your energy fluctuates. Don’t fight it, embrace it.
Having variety means I don’t have to wait for the mood that fits the book I’m reading. I have something for every situation:
I have low energy and can use a walk with a motivating audiobook.
I have lots of energy and want to dive into a complex topic that demands concentration.
I want to ease my mind into sleep with a thick physical copy of a slow-paced biography.
I feel the itch to read on a particular domain, like writing or psychology.
I’m in the mood for something new.
Here’s the list of books I’m going through right now:
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell (Audible)
The Outsiders by William Thorndike (Kindle)
How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams (Kindle)
Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb (Audible?—?Relistening)
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (Audible)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk (Kindle)
Liar’s Poker by Micheal Lewis (Kindle)
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (Physical)
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Kindle)
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (Physical?—?Rereading)
Be a Writing Machine by M.L Ronn (Audible)
The Art of Strategy by Avinash K. Dixit & Barry J. J. Nalebuff (Audible)
Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman (Kindle)
The Fish That Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen (Kindle)
If nothing on this list appeals to me, I know I’m not in the mood for reading, so I do something else.
I’m obsessed with the science of learning.
One of the fundamental practices in effective learning is spaced repetition. The concept is simple: you’ll get much better results by studying one hour a day for ten days, compared to studying ten hours in a one day.
Research is showing that this is especially true when it comes to long-term memory and retention. Since you’re not reading to pass an exam, long-term retention is the ultimate goal.
When you’re reading one book at a time, your learning process looks something like this:
Where if you read multiple books (from multiple disciplines), it will look more like this:
You'll be reading each book over a longer period of time, which allows your brain to create stronger neural connections and wire the ideas into your long-term memory.
Interleaving in the context of learning is the practice of working on different types of problems at the same time. It allows the learner to see connections between different fields and thus deepen his overall learning.
Knowledge is not a linear path where you go from A to B to C. Knowledge is an infinite network, and things are connected in ways that may not be obvious.
Say you’re reading a book about modern history.
A game theory book can help you gain a deeper understanding of the cold war, and a marketing book can reveal how Hitler captivated an entire nation. And it’s not one-way: the history book will deepen your understanding of the two other fields because you’ve analyzed those real-life examples.
Interleaving is effective because we’re more likely to see those connections if we study the topics days apart and not years apart.
The End of Delayed Gratification
What I enjoy most about Naval’s approach is that now, whenever I hear about an interesting book?—?I can start it right away.
No more putting it on my wishlist, buried with 200 other books until I forget why I got excited about it or who recommended it.
When I get fired up about learning anything these days, I leverage my excitement and curiosity and just start.
Mindshift #3: You Don’t Have to Read in Sequential Order
If the book is getting a little boring, I’ll skip ahead. Sometimes I’ll start reading a book in the middle because some paragraph caught my eye and I’ll just continue from there, and I feel no obligation whatsoever to finish the book.
— Naval Rvikant
This mindshift is the hardest to accept, and I expect a lot of people to object it.
Skipping chapters, starting books in the middle?—?these things still make me uncomfortable. It almost feels like cheating.
And there’s the fear of missing out?—?what if we skip a brilliant sentence? Or key information that’s needed later on?
This type of thinking can cost you precious time, something I recently experienced it with “The Power of Neuroplasticity”.
I bought this book as part of my recent deep dive into neuroscience. The beginning was slow, and it seemed more like a light self-help book than a serious book on neuroscience.
As I contemplated quitting, I looked at the table of contents to get a glimpse of what’s coming. Some of the later chapters had promising titles, especially chapter 26: “Meditation, Neuroplasticity, and the Brain”.
I decided to keep going, and it was a poor decision.
Once I suspected the value of the book, I should have skipped to chapter 26, thus giving it a chance to throw its best punch. If it was good, I could decide where to go from there. But if it wasn’t, I would know that it’s time to move on.
When I finally got there, this is what the chapter ended up being:
What a waste of time.
Realizing that I just read through 25 chapters just to comply with unwritten rules about how books should be read…
that part really got to me.
I was finally ready to get rid of the last baggage holding me back?—?my unquestioned faith in sequential reading.
If you read non-fiction, you’ll run into many works like “The Power of Neuroplasticity”?—?low-effort books with a promising title that mostly repeat the same points.
“The problem with books is that, to write a book, to publish a physical, dead tree book, takes a lot of work and effort and money. Sometimes people start wrapping long books around simple ideas. Those are probably my least favorite books. That’s why I avoid the whole business and self-help category because you generally have one good idea and it’s buried in hundreds or thousands of pages and lots of anecdotes.”
— Naval Ravikant
Next time you suspect that a book fits this category, don’t give it the benefit of the doubt. Look at the table of contents, choose a chapter, and let it give you its best shot.
There are many incredible books you haven’t read yet. Reading subpar content is an enormous waste.
a conservative estimate of the number of great books you haven’t read
Books as a Blog Archive
Naval’s approach of non-sequential reading is even more liberal than what I’ve presented so far. Here’s how he thinks about his huge library of books:
“I just view it as a blog archive. A blog might have 300 posts on it and you could read just the two, three, five that you need right now. I think you can think of a book the same way.”
— Naval Ravikant
This reminds me of the concept of “just in time” versus “just in case”, which comes from inventory management but can be applied to learning: read the book you need most right now, not the one that could be useful later.
Naval just took it a step further: read the chapter you need most right now.
No, This is Not Demeaning to Books
Some people will claim that this approach frames books as a commodity to be treated lightly.
While I do think we need to make reading more fluid and loose (it should feel like play), I also believe the vast majority of value will come from a deep study of a few great books, and a great book is the furthest thing from a commodity.
The thing is, you never know what they are in advance. You can’t copy someone else’s list. And this is a great gift because it gives you the joy of discovering for yourself.
Remember: reading is a journey to find the great books for you.
Naval’s approach is about making that journey more engaging and rewarding. Once you do come across a treasure chest, a life-changing book?—?throw all of this out the window. Do whatever you can to absorb it.
Go all in.
“You skim very very quickly to find the ones that grab you, that are important and interesting for you, and then you stick to those and go really deep. There’s exploration, and there’s exploitation. So you explore a lot of books until you decide that there’s something there to exploit.”
Rethink Your Approach to Reading
After following this approach for a year, if I had to distill the benefits into 3 bullet points:
You’ll be reading more because you’ll always have something that you want to read.
You’ll be more engaged with what you read, leading to more enjoyment and better retention.
You’ll get more value per word because you’ll skip the unnecessary fluff and drop mediocre books early.
If you got this far in this essay, you care enough about books that I’m comfortable assuming you plan to read them for the rest of your life.
Give yourself the gift of rethinking your approach.
Let go of the unwritten rules.
Start from scratch, and start now.
You won’t believe how much better reading can be.