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Books and the Ego

Today at dinner, I was talking with a friend of mine about the books that I had read recently, and the conversation turned to discussing some of the insights that we gained from our most recent reads. We made mention of Seth Godin’s The Dip, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and a few more self-help/productivity realm books. However, as much as we were reading similar books, I noticed some significant differences between my friend and I in the way that we approached, read, and derived value from our reading.

The first point that I found we differed on was just in how we obtained them in the first place. I explained to him how excited I was to get my kindle, and he told me that paper books were still the way to go– and even after spending an obscene amount of money on a Kindle with no ads, I found myself agreeing with him. Not out of politeness or to keep the conversation moving, but in genuine agreement that the physical book is the purest and least diluted package in which entertainment and informational value is realized reading words. I understood though, that with the way that I skip around many many books while looking for specific solutions instead of reading books all the way through, that an increased number of physical books would become impractical to store in my college dorm. I am willing to have my experience diluted for the convenience of an e-reader, and this was the conversation that made me realize that efficiency isn’t the silver bullet it’s sometimes made out to be.

In the process of reading, my friend alternated between one nonfiction and one fiction book, whereas I have had times where I’d just tear through (but to be honest maybe not fully comprehend or realize concepts from) nonfiction, mainstream self help books. He explained that in order to make everything that he had taken note of in his (physical) book actionable, he had to stop, analyze, and process the new knowledge which took a significant amount of time and energy. I likened his explanation to cooling off after an intensive sprint, where you burn (process) a significant amount of calories (information) that drives movement (action), after which you need to stabilize yourself and your ability to get ready for the next sprint (of taking in new information). Intellectually it’s very easy to understand that reading fiction is important too, and that not every action in your life has to be driven by its immediate ability to add value or create content out of. But in the moment, I’ve felt it much cooler” or outwardly more impressive to say I’m reading a book about how waking up early will 20x your productivity (spoiler: it won’t) than to say I’m reading a collection of poetry. I really need to work on not letting ego get in the way of enjoying what is interesting to me in the moment.

Speaking of adding value, there were also differences that I noticed in the way that my friend approached books vs the way I had for the last year or so. Even after showing me an impressively long list of books that he had finished, rated, and properly extracted his own parallel thoughts from, he mentioned that he was still working on building his reading habit, and that it was a meta” or keystone habit that could lead to good things and interesting conversations in the future. Since I’ve started reading for leisure again, I’ve occasionally caught myself blazing through books and tried to make impressions on people by drawing on their hot-button quotes to give unsolicited advice to any unfortunate soul who asked how my day was going. At one point I was definitely reading to impress others instead of enjoy it for my own sake, and this conversation that I had with my friend tonight has made me seriously reconsider how I talk about myself and show what I’m reading about to others. I’ve watched and read so much content online about the books I read that I find it hard to see them as anything other than something to derive content and sometimes ego fodder from. It’s not the books, it’s me.

Even as I remember enthusiastically prompting my friend that he could publish all of this content on the web and that lots of people would find value out of his work, in retrospect, he seemed perfectly contented with what he was getting out of the knowledge that he was gaining in his own meaningful way. Tonight, I went in with plans to have a nice dinner, and came out with a newfound respect for my friend and a an ego problem to confront about my own enjoyment of and relationship to reading.

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