Every time someone asks me what I'm reading, I panic.
The reaction started back as far as I can remember. Second grade. Mrs. Goodwin said we could pick up extra credit if we completed reading comprehension quizzes once our original assignments in math or science were done. Extra credit meant something somewhat collectible like trading cards, which I was all about even before Pokemon convinced me that I gotta catch 'em all.
I sprinted through the math and science. No problem. Then I rifled through the box of quizzes up for grabs. Each was a thin cardboard sheet - one side a short story, the other a dozen or so questions about the main idea and other details. Simple stuff, right? Well, I was dogshit at it. Even for a second-grader. I purposely set the bar low for myself and grabbed the easy blue-colored ones, knowing full well that orange was a bitch to complete. And I still didn't do well. No collectibles this time around.
There was no reason why I would be so bad. I was always a good student. There wasn't even the Internet around to blame on my eyes' inability to stay focused reading one line at a time, left to right. No. There was one simple story and I could not grasp it. I read it, sure, and I enjoyed it, probably, but ask me for a main idea and my mind went blank. Just extra credit in a void.
And here I am 27 years old, still somewhat unable to carry on a conversation about a story I hold in my hands, fifty pages in, colorful sticky notes hanging out the side.
But I'm learning.
I'll tell you how with an example. I just finished The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday. And when people want to make conversation more than about the weather, they ask for a book when usually the title says plenty. "Whatcha reading?" (They want my thoughts! ) My mind went blank, except for a handful of general undefined and uncoordinated details:
"Well, The Obstacle is The Way is all about how we can use our failures, which are endless and inevitable, to propel us to success if we embrace them as being natural."
Not a bad starting off point if I do say so myself, but then again you could have gathered 95% of that from reading the book jacket. Damn.
"It's written by Ryan Holiday, former Director of Marketing for American Apparel, accomplished author, and he's our age!"
Impressive, definitely. Does it say much to the book? Nope. What does American Apparel and his other books say about this one? Nothing on the surface. Double damn.
"It's a lot about Stoicism, the ancient philosophy."
Um, I don't know about you but Stoicism means nothing much to me either. What is Stoicism? The truth is the weakness remains - after reading the whole book, I'm not quite sure how to define it.
In retrospect, reading is like some kind of intellectual blackout for me. I'm just grabbing for bits and pieces after I flip the last page, hoping for some kind of coherence.
We're taking the time to read some words with our eyeballs and crunch the ideas with our minds, why not make something of it? Devour it. Digest it. And make your own judgments. If someone asks you about the book, saying it's "good" is not good enough. "Good" is boring. "Good" is lazy.
Charlie Munger, business partner of world-famous investor Warren Buffett, boiled down the significance of reading to the success of their habits: "We read a lot. I don't know anyone who's wise who doesn't read a lot. But that's not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things. Most people don't grab the right ideas or don't know what to do with them."
And so how do we do it? The Farnam Street Blog delivered the goods of a scholarly study that said you're better off remembering a book's content in the long run by reading 10 pages and writing out a summary than by reading 10 pages four times in a row and trying to memorize it.
I don't need to give you a summary of The Obstacle is The Way because the important part is that it speaks directly to the heart of the matter. Holiday starts the book with a process for recognizing and replacing perceptions. The biggest perception switch we need is right there in the title. Obstacles are not meant to be avoided or destroyed. It's impossible. Obstacles are opportunities in every circumstance. Reading can be your obstacle, page after page, processing ideas and making them your own. You choose your own opportunity. There is always something to learn.
No one is quizzing you for extra credit any more. You should be reading for a reason. We don't have to become encyclopedias or experts with bullet points and flowcharts just because we took the time to scan words in ink. Hell, we have Google. You could just enjoy the book because it made you feel a certain way. Or it could speak to a certain feeling or a moment in your life. Or it changed your view of the world around you. If anything, it should move you and you should be able to say something about it. Like anything else worth a damn in this life.