Selection: Some Thoughts on Deciding What to Read

I get asked about what I read fairly often and usually by people who encounter my reading habits in the context of higher education. This is unsurprising given that my reading strategy very intentionally is designed to give me an edge in a classroom, but I always have mixed feelings about suggesting that others read the way I do. That isn’t to say I don’t think people should read, its more so that I read with very particular goals in mind and for people with different goals or resources my way of organizing my reading would not be the best use of their time. I spend a great deal of my free time reading with the primary goal being breadth of knowledge. I want to know as much as I can across a wide range of subjects which pays off for me in an academic setting. I can walk into most arts and humanities classes and be able to discuss ideas intelligently not only by drawing on facts from things I have read but by making connections across diverse subjects. This is the motivation behind how I read, and I find it very rewarding, but this is a successful strategy because of the environment I inhabit and the amount of time I spend reading. All of this to say that I don’t think everyone should read like this, but for those with similar goals, I think my reading strategy is effective (also I’m pretty sure some people like to hear about it because they think it’s a little bit nuts).

It starts with good planning, you don’t want to be making choices about what to read next every time you finish a book because depending on how you read that is going to be pretty often. I set out the next 5-10 books in my agenda and then read through that whole stack before having another selection session to gather the next set. It means that its easy to keep momentum rather than being distracted by the internet or Netflix as well as ensuring that I can meet my breadth goals because I am always looking at the larger picture rather than the discreet event of the next singular book.

I alternate between fiction and non-fiction. I have a whole host of reasons why I think its important to read both but that is a different argument. The practice of alternating is one that I think it beneficial because it spreads out the ideas and helps keep them straight. Non-fiction books are often fact or detail heavy that require a different kind of processing power than fiction so I find it harder to keep a high retention rate if I am reading too many back to back. Fiction is hard in a different way because rather than being presented with a pile of information to remember the challenge is more in trying to connect what the author is saying to meaningful ideas about the ‘real world’.

Within the categories of fiction and non-fiction I also try to create range and distance between similar books. Although speculative fiction is my favourite genre I make an effort to also work through classics, contemporary writing and place an emphasis on diverse perspectives. Reading anything, especially fiction, is an opportunity to learn something that your personal lived experience is likely not going to teach you so getting the range is important. To stop fiction stories from blending together or getting authors mixed up I avoid having a succession of my fiction books be all fantasy, or all by Canadian authors, or all classics. The principle applies to non-fiction, I don’t read a chain of memoirs, or a bunch of medieval history books. Contrast helps to make things memorable and when reading a high volume that is important.

In terms of the specific book I am reading at any given moment there probably isn’t a rational as to why this book at this time. I read things that look or sound interesting, within the parameters set out above. I also don’t set any restrictions on academic articles I may be reading, even when out of school I tend to be researching some random topic through journals (currently its why entrepreneurs seem to be so into transcendental meditation).  In this time of pandemic I am very luck to be an avid collector of any and all books so I have the ability to construct a reading plan out of the collection that I own but haven’t read the vast majority of. If you are interested in the particulars of what I am reading I have included a link to my Goodreads shelf for Summer 2020 where you can see what I have been reading recently.

If your goal is to be a bit of a know it all, or to be able to show off in conversation even outside of formal academics, reading like this might serve you well. However, if you don’t have the time to be reading such a high volume or the desire to slog through books that are far from compelling don’t force yourself to. Reading things that are interesting, or within a favorite genre are completely valid choices and realistically result in a deeper understanding of that topic. I’m not sure that I will always read the way I do now, I imagine my goals will be different once I leave school and enter the ‘real world’ but for the time being breadth and volume are principles that serve me well.


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