What, Why, and How I Read

This post isn’t strictly about personal finance; instead, it serves to answer a question that a lot of readers have asked me over the past few months. What do I read? How do I read? Why do I read? Instead of having a “Simple Dollar reading week,” I tried to compress all of this information into one entry, answering most of the regular questions on the topic that I get from readers. Don’t worry, there is a bit of personal finance buried in here and there.

Why do I read?
As a general rule of thumb, I read primarily to inform myself and improve my understanding of the world. With a few exceptions, the books I read are nonfiction and what I would describe as “heavy” literature; the magazines are also weighty, as well.

How much do you read?
In a given week, I read about four books and about four magazines cover to cover. I also browse dozens of blogs of all stripes.

That’s a lot! How do you keep up?
I devote a minimum of an hour each day specifically to reading, and it’s often more than that. Plus, I have taught myself to read quite quickly.

What do you read regularly?
The magazines I am currently subscribed to are The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Consumer Reports, and Money, the latter two primarily for The Simple Dollar. My wife subscribes to Discover. We seem to also get Wired and Mother Jones, both of which are apparently gifts of some sort, though neither of us really recall the gift. We’re also hoping to add a subscription to Make in the future. If I had to keep only one, I’d easily choose The New Yorker, as there’s something I truly enjoy in every single issue and it’s a weekly.

Isn’t that expensive?
Not really. Magazine subscriptions are one of my favorite gifts, and so I often get a couple of renewals for Christmas gifts.

How do you read magazines?
I basically have a “last in, first out” stack of magazines beside my bed, as I do most of my magazine reading in the hour or so before sleep. I usually mark things with a pen that are interesting that I want to look at later on. We don’t save them at all, though we do occasionally save articles in electronic form by scanning them, and we would save each issue of Make if we were to subscribe because we see lots of possibilities for parent-child projects in it.

What about books?
I usually devote about an hour per weekday and two-three hours on a weekend day to reading a book. This timeframe enables me to read about four books a week on average. I usually try to do at least some of this where my son can observe me, so he can see that reading is a thing that people do as part of the normal course of a day.

Wow! Four books a week! Isn’t that expensive?
Not really. I have a lot of tools for getting books on the cheap: PaperBackSwap, the library, and a volunteer book exchange program that I’m involved with. I do occasionally buy new books, but not very often and usually only after some extensive research.

What were the last ten books you read?
This is as of April 25, 2007, and gives a pretty good snapshot of what I’m reading right now (and also a preview of some likely future reviews on The Simple Dollar):
The Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
The Random Walk Guide to Investing by Burton G. Malkiel
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
The Truth About Money by Ric Edelman
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

Again, why read so much?
I’ve read at a similar pace for my entire life (actually at a higher pace during my high school and collegiate years), and as a result I have a pretty firm basic understanding of almost any topic. Because of this, I can now go to a dinner party and be involved in one conversation on the changes in music distribution caused by the 1980’s “do it yourself” methodology, then turn around and talk about Milton Friedman’s Chilean Miracle with someone else, then just as quickly be involved in a chat about … well, pretty much anything. More than once, this has proved very useful to me, and here’s an example.

When I interviewed for a job a few years ago, I was asked to wait in a waiting room until the time of the interview, so I pulled out a copy of a book I was reading at the time, Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton. The person who was to interview me noticed this book and we started to discuss it, and from there the discussion branched out into many different areas. By the end of the interview, I had not been asked a single question that was really related to the job, but I got the job anyway. Later, I found out that the person interviewing me was blown away with how well-read I was and how well I could assemble the ideas, and that was enough.

If you choose stuff that makes your mind work, reading is far from a waste of time.

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