So begins the infamous comedy sketch by hard-smoking, often-profane comedian Bill Hicks as he relays the enquiry made by a waffle-waitress when he dares to read a book while eating in her restaurant.
His retort; “so I don’t have to be a waffle waitress” (I’ve paraphrased out of respect for readers’ sensitivities).
It was a characteristically cutting line from Hicks, but the exchange provides a useful lead-in for considering the merits of reading.
My simple hypothesis (and it’s nothing new or unique) is that the amount we read, and what we read has enormous influence over the path of our life.
Few will doubt the conceptual merits of reading as a skill and practice. It worries me though that the competing demands for attention from our smartphones, social-media and immersive entertainment and gaming technologies will surely limit the time that the average person spends reading. I know that at one point in the not-so-distant past it was the case for me, and I fear it becoming the case for my kids too.
Most of us are fortunate enough to learn to read in school. If we’re lucky, it’s something we enjoy and see as a leisure pursuit as well as something we have to do for our education. If we’re really into it there’s a good chance we’ll read for leisure beyond the point when we become exposed to the lure of tech, tablets and video-games. I’m sad to report though that it seems that books and reading have definitely fallen out of vogue in recent years.
Before this descends into a ‘things aren’t like they used to be’ piece, I’d be better served at this point to reflect solely on my own reading life.
As a child I had my favourite books, read many times during my youth and young-manhood; my preference for comic book literature like Asterix the Gaul and Tin Tin matured as I discovered Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. Eventually I dipped my literary-toe into horror stories by Stephen King, and legal-thrillers of John Grisham and that was about as far as it went. As adulthood beckoned, kids appeared in my life and responsibility and career took over, my reading stopped, almost overnight.
I was a holiday reader at best, and would occasionally pick up a book as a means of passing a train or plane journey but it was as if I had mentally closed off my mind to reading as a leisure activity. More worrying was that I had also seemingly closed my mind to expanding my interests, intellectual growth or exploration by subconsciously rejecting any and all non-fiction reading once it became a compulsory part of university life.
I’d furtively offer the explanation (or excuse) that I was too busy, my life and my mind were too full to find the time to read anything, let alone non-fiction; my head-space, let-alone my motivation for broadening my mind and learning about new ideas, facts and concepts was low.
Nothing much changed for the next few years, in spite of the advent of e-readers and the greater accessibility to all the books in the world via websites like Amazon. Put simply, the motivation and interest weren’t there. If I were to borrow from Bill Hicks’ quote above, I’d ensured sufficient academic growth to avoid a future spent serving waffles in a restaurant, and as such was content that reading had served its part in my life.
The greatest irony is that within this period, during the process of my divorce in 2006 and subsequent years as a single-parent, I wrote and later released my own first book. It seems that my perspective was that books had their place, just not for reading by me.
Fast forward to 2016 and I experienced an epiphany which I credit to my sister. She’d attended some personal development seminars and discovered what most high-achievers seem to know already; that to make it big in any field, regular reading and academic growth, the frequent exercising and enrichment of the brain is of paramount importance to real success.
I was sceptical of this, scathing even for no logical reason. I recall mocking her for investing chunks of money in physical books as a means of eventually achieving wealth; instead she should be saving the cash. I was blind to the role of books as more than a commodity but rather as a portal to a world of knowledge, a source of nourishment and growth for the brain and the soul; a lever for opening the mind to different ideas, concepts and opportunities.
Roll forward a further 18 months and I’ve since read and consumed more literature and learning in that period than I had during the rest of my life to that point (I’m including audio books and long-form podcasts in that count).
In a characteristic show of confirmation bias (that thing we do when we search for evidence from others that backs up our ideas), it seems I’m not alone in appreciating the value of reading and lifelong learning:
- Billionaire investor Warren Buffett famously reads for 5 to 6 hours per day. The same is true for his fellow billionaire Mark Cuban.
- Author, Success Mentor and speed reading guru Dr John DeMartini claims to have read over 10,000 books in his life.
- In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, Bill Gates stated that he reads around 50 books per year, mostly non-fiction on a variety of topics stating that “reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding”.
There is an undeniable correlation between those who read and those who succeed.
Like all foundations for success and achievement, the point isn’t to read merely to increase the chances of success. Reading is one of the constituent and essential ingredients for equipping oneself for success, as well as for servicing the mind as part of a happy, fulfilled and balanced life; it should be done for the benefits it gives in its own right. Its correlation with the success of high-achievers is testament to the side-effects that can be experienced from it.
My reading in the last 18 months hasn’t just been driven by lists of the ‘musts’ compiled by those sharing a formula for achieving riches and success; sure, I’ve read ‘Think and Grow Rich’ and ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ like most wannabe entrepreneurs. However, I’ve learned just as much from the works of Orwell, the analysis of humans by Harari, historical accounts compiled by Beevor and books that unpack the secrets of the human mind by Drs Cialdini and Peters. I’ve also re-read the Adrian Mole books in a throwback to my youth and rekindled my love for crime-thrillers; a pleasure currently reserved for vacations and leisure time.
I mention this list not out of some vague intellectual pomposity or to justify the piece but more as a microscopic snapshot of the wide and varied literature that exists for the curious reader. One of my biggest regrets is simply the time lost in not reading for the many years when I was more concerned with being up-to-date with the latest season of 24 on TV. Jack Bauer has his place, but that’s time that could have been better-spent exploring books.
For myself, and I suspect for many others, reading is more than just a means of passing time or gaining knowledge.
It exposes you to new ideas, facts and theories but it also corroborates and sometimes challenges beliefs already embedded in your mind. It broadens your world-view and your knowledge, not to mention your vocabulary. It opens your mind to principles and happenings that you weren’t aware of and tests prejudices, preconceptions and beliefs previously engrained in your brain.
It has also enhanced my ability to converse and write, with ideas and opinions now flowing freely, expressed with an ease that used to evade me.
I take myself to the gym 4 times per week (diary permitting) to exercise my body; reading and listening to audiobooks and podcasts is the corresponding workout for my mind.
So the answer to the original question; what am I reading for?
Quite simply, and aside from it being something that I enjoy and which I believe improves me as a person, it’s also an integral part of me being the person I want to be and achieving the things I intend to achieve in life.
What are YOU reading for?
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