Swiss author Rolf Dobelli throws down some controversial advice in his book The Art Of The Good Life. It starts as a thought experiment: What if you could only read read fifty books for the rest of your life? Once you pick up a book, you have ten minutes of reading time to decide if you want to a book to take one of your fifty slots. Otherwise, put it back.
“If a book leaves no trace in your brain— because it was a bad book or you read it badly—I’d count that as a waste of time. A book is something qualitatively different from crème brûlée, a scenic flight over the Alps or sex…[t]he effect of reading twice isn’t twice the effect of reading once. It’s much greater—judging by my own experience, I’d put it at a factor of ten. If I retain three percent of the content after one reading, after two readings it’s up to thirty percent.”Rolf Dobelli, The Art of the Good Life
As much as I harp on the quantity brings quality for creative pursuits, I think he’s on to something here. The trick is rereading doesn’t count. In fact, rereading is the whole point. This month I switched up my listening plan in Audible to go back through a handful of books. Parts I immediately remember, as they’re locked in to my brain. But on going through these books again I’m picking up things I missed the first time through.
A handful of books I reread every year, even before reading Dobelli’s book. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto, for example, or the Lord of the Rings. Every January I read back through Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Turning Pro.
At the end of the chapter Rolf Dobelli gives his number; one hundred books in the next ten years, “criminally few for a writer.” He encourages the under-forties to read as much and as wide as possible, then once you’ve established your taste, take a break, read deeply from the few books a year you pick, and relax.
This does tie back to Taleb’s concept of the Anti-library, the books on your shelves that aren’t read, or are only there for quick research. I don’t see myself buying less books, going forward I’m game to try limiting the number of new books with which I spend my time and energy.