Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
– Francis Bacon,
A professor of mine once remarked on the vast expanse of knowledge contained within a university library and how each of us would hardly make a dent in it despite our best efforts. His point was not to discourage us as students from reading, but rather to acknowledge to sheer scope of what was available to read. The message was to tailor our efforts to reading efficiently to gain a diverse and interdisciplinary appreciation of the corpus of a university library. Scarcity of our time to read requires a strategic and purposeful approach – Bacon’s quote being an apt companion in navigating that path.
But making those choices – to skim or skip books altogether – has always been hard for me to implement in practice. I’ll often read a book cover-to-cover only to walk away with a few salient points to carry forward. Why do I persist in behavior that I fully well know is sub-optimal for making the most of scarce free time? I’m probably the last person to try objectively evaluating my own behavior, but I would guess it has something to do with loss aversion: “the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining, and since people are more willing to take risks to avoid a loss, loss aversion can explain differences in risk-seeking versus aversion. [source]”
Or to put it in terms the average millennial would understand? FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. Could that be why I subscribe to RSS feeds and never let an article go unread (at least the headlines)? Or why I stopped using Twitter for much since I lacked the time to be a Twitter completionist (reading every tweet in my stream). The irony is, of course, that by drenching my mind in the quotidian tech news and tech culture world, I miss out on some of the deeper learning opportunities afforded by books. Books that can, in turn, be skimmed or quickly red-through to allow for more time to read a greater variety of books overall.
I can’t directly change the behavioral tendency toward loss aversion/FOMO that I exhibit, but perhaps at least with an awareness of it I can disarm it of its potency when I stop to think about its effects. So the next time I feel the need to read an entire book I can pretty well guess won’t be jam-packed with insight or even postpone starting to read one that is information-dense, I can think about Bacon’s advice and first bite off just enough to get a good taste of what’s in store from a full course meal to follow.