Thought Catalog
November 12, 2014

2 Simple Rules That Great Readers Live By (But Never Tell)

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Sebastien Wiertz
Sebastien Wiertz

The two most important traits for a prolific reader to have probably aren’t what you’d expect.

But it is these two attributes which separate the well-read from the “Oh, I wish I could read more” types–and the very different lives that result from those choices.

The first trait is controversial. I know that as soon as I say it, there is going to be a ton of pushback. Before we get into why those objections are easily surmountable, let’s get into it.

Great readers buy the books that look interesting to them. Period.

In other words, they don’t waste time previewing, shopping, waiting for deals or anything like that. They have a stack of books they’re working through on their night stand or in their Kindle. They don’t let money or work or all that great stuff on TV–or anything, frankly–get in the way of the books they want to read. I had a friend recently register for books he wanted for his wedding. C’mon man, if you actually want them, get them yourself. Books are on you!

Now before everyone chimes in with “But what if you can’t afford it?”, let me stop you. I’ve been there too. I remember once in college spending all my money on books and needing to ask my parents if they could send me some money. That’s me–from my position of privilege. There is the Renaissance scholar Erasmus, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Frederick Douglass stole books. Richard Wright forged a note to the library–“Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?”–to get his hands on what he needed.

So libraries are ok too, but having is better, right?

There is a simple reason why people have been willing to do all this to get their hands on books. Because dollar for dollar there is no better investment in the world than a book. A library is like a portfolio in this way. You want to own, not rent and the earlier you start the better. Plenty of smarter, more successful people than me have said it–even Warren Buffet when asked about his best investment…names a book.

What’s a book that saves your life worth? That’s not hyperbole. We all hear constantly about books that changed people’s lives. More directly, I hear from readers and friends about various books that convinced them not to kill themselves, that helped them at their very worst moment in a way that nothing else could. One idea is all it takes.

For $15 (or $.01 used on Amazon) a book can launch a business, improve a relationship, change your worldview, save a client, give you a great idea, teach you about a new place, make an unexpected connection and who knows what else. I’ve personally spent at least $10,000 on books in my short life so far, and if I was to guess, I’d put the ROI at close to 100 to 1–in personal realized gains. For clients and businesses I’ve worked with? The investment has paid off an order of magnitude more.

The second key skill is related to the second. It’s even harder to do for most people because it seems almost sacrilegious.

Great readers learn to quit books that aren’t very good.

An investor has to know how to cut their losses quickly and cleanly. A reader has to be able to do the same. Give it an earnest shot, flip around when you start to have doubts and then make your decision. It’s ok to be wrong, in fact, the more that happens the better–it means you’re taking admirable risks. Think of these books as options rather than assets. You took a shot, it didn’t work out, don’t throw good money (time, opportunity cost) after bad.

The old rule ‘100 pages minus your age’, is a good one here. Life is too short to be stuck in books that aren’t going anywhere, that aren’t adding value to your mind. When you’re young, you have more time, obviously, and you also know less what you need and like. But the costs of dilettantism rise with age.

As you get older, you’ll become a more critical reader–not accepting things just because other people say it is good, or more importantly, not agreeing with an author just because they’ve been published. Authors owe a duty to their reader to marshall their arguments properly, to deliver the goods. If they fail to do this–move on. There are plenty of other writers (historians, thinkers, philosophers, entertainers, leaders, poets, storytellers) willing to step up and take their place.

Maybe Shakespeare is not for you (I hope that he is). Maybe fiction isn’t your thing (it wasn’t for Lincoln for example). Read what keeps you reading, read what makes you better. Only you know the answer–but never, ever let literary pretension bully you into wasting a second of your time.

This is the simple straightforward truth for anyone who wants to become a great reader. When something intrigues your interest, get it. If it doesn’t hold your interests or pass your standards, toss it out (personally, I keep some, sell what I can back to Amazon, and give the rest to Goodwill). That’s it.

Good luck and good reading. Your attitude towards books can unleash a massive power and force of energy in your life. Make the right call. TC mark

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