Take a Look at a Book

Some like reading more than others. Sadly, some don’t like reading at all. Consider Sam Bankman-Fried, former darling of the techno-currency world that took a start up to a multibillion-dollar enterprise in a couple of years only to see it implode overnight. From hero to zero this many times over billionaire watched his wealth evaporate in November of this year. In an interview in 2020 as FTX was rocketing on to investors’ radars, SBF, as he came to be known in crypto circles, proudly told investment analysts from Sequoia Capital, “I would never read a book. I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you f**cked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” Ouch, that’s someone that not only dislikes reading but disrespects it entirely. This con of crypto may not be who we want to be taking our guidance on reading from.

Neil Postman observed that the printing press demarcated a line between childhood and adulthood. Before, literacy was little for both groups. Adults were simply larger and older children. Their literacy levels weren’t better than those of kids. With the printing press came higher literacy rates. Adults achieved literacy through learning and hard work. Adults became knowledgeable relative to children. Moreover, the process of learning to read became a transition point from simple-minded child to knowledgeable and worldly adult. Unfortunately, literacy is again being left behind. Our ability to concentrate is imploding and our kids are deluged by distractions. Journalist Tasha Kheiriddin in a recent article points out some disturbing US and Canadian statistics. She notes, “According to the US Department of Education, 54 % of adults 16 – 74 years old – 130 million people – read below a sixth-grade level. (In Canada, 48 % of the adult population lacks functional literacy skills).” These numbers are not a percent of the entire population including kids, it’s adults only. That is, one would hope for the percentage of adults being able to read to be pushing 100% and yet North Americans are struggling to get half of us there. Moreover, these trends are moving in the wrong direction. Kheiriddin notes “Fourteen percent of Americans – that’s one in seven – have such poor reading skills they would be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from information printed on the package.” This is not a good thing. Not being able to read isn’t something of which we should be proud. Choosing to not read isn’t a badge of honor.

Even if you’re not much of a reader, do books have value? Here are a few suggestions for why books are important to have even if you’re not reading them. Yes, it may sound odd that the idea of a shelf of books which aren’t being read offers benefits. It may sound like saying a growing number of unread emails in your inbox is pleasant. The ever-expanding unread books, like our mushrooming inbox, may feel more like a burden not a blessing. How many librarians have read every book in the libraries they look after? Of your school, community, and university libraries that you have visited, have you read all the books contained in each? Libraries represent storehouses of information. They are a resource, a place to go to look for answers to big questions. Just like it’s a good idea to have tools in a kitchen drawer, a utility room, or in your garage even though you may not be much of a handyman. The tools represent a solution to a problem. Tools, like books, whether we’re using them or not communicate a number of positive things.

Our personal libraries offer the same opportunity. There’s no shame in having books on your shelf that you haven’t read. Author Nassim Taleb considers it a worthwhile objective to have a bunch of books that you haven’t read in sight. He calls this idea developing an antilibrary. Taleb writes, “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means … allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” To Taleb unread books represent things we don’t yet know. It symbolizes the idea that the universe we don’t know is much larger than the little planet of knowledge we do occupy. It encourages both humility and opportunity.

Books represent the power of ideas and symbolize the value of learning. Seeing your books may remind you of the wisdom Benjamin Franklin offered when he wrote, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Yes, there are many ways to learn, and reading is just one of them. Youtube, teachers, mentors, articles, and more are all perfectly suitable sources of ways to learn. Books may serve a reminder of the value of education. Looking at them may echo the ideas of the Stoic Epictetus who spent much of his life as a slave and observed, “Individuals who are truly educated are entitled to be called free.” Epictetus additionally posed the question, “Isn’t reading a kind of preparation for life?” Looking at your books may serve as an invitation to pause and remind you to heed the words of Marcus Aurelius offered in Meditations, “Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.” Erasmus several thousand years ago reflected the priority of reading in his life noting, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” Books and reading represent an investment in one’s own personal development which offers a reliable rate of return. Having some books on your shelf even if you’re not opening them to read acts as a subtle reminder that learning is important for you. Books teach. They can be textbooks or manuals that provide specific instruction on a subject. They can also teach us from the experience of others.

Books, too, are signals of commitment and dedication. Many authors spend a year or more writing a book. The content for the book has been developed within that author’s life experience over much longer. Books can reflect the efforts of an author’s lifetime. It is their attempt to distill their knowledge and experience over decades into a few hundred pages which you can read and benefit from over a handful of hours. Authors hope that the dedication, commitment, and every drop of sweat endured by them leaks through the pages and into the minds of readers. That people care so much about a subject that they have both devoted their lives to studying it and then take the time to share their thoughts is admirable. Just looking at a book reminds us of the importance of dedication.

As we noted in an earlier article, the titles of some books speak for themselves. A core message that you want to keep close to mind can be captured in a book title. You can benefit from having these on your shelf without ever opening them. Being able to glance easily and frequently at the book titles will remind you of an idea you hold in high regard. Display books that reflect your values.

Unfortunately, since 2004, the number of people who acknowledge reading for pleasure has dropped by thirty percent. Moreover, those that do read, read less today than in past decades. These numbers are painful to those of us that love reading. Worse yet is the decrease in reading when so many other studies show strong positive relationships between reading and the number of books in a home with solid economic results. Families living below the poverty line are far more likely to not spend time reading then those families in the top half of earners. Two thirds of children from the poorest of homes don’t have a single book in their homes. A co-founder of a British charity that encourages reading, Miranda McKearney, considers reading as a “nearly magical thing that can bust you out of poverty.” Her sentiment is supported by the OECD which published a paper suggesting reading as “one of the most effective ways to leverage social change.” Of all the hobbies teenagers have, reading is the one that correlates most positively with current and future academic success as well as with future earnings. Adams writes “Living in a home that possesses a private library, or even the mere presence of books, has profound advantages for children. Researchers looking at statistics from twenty-seven different nations concluded that families that have books at home “give children an enormous advantage in school.” Joseph Addison affirmed the benefits to reading as purposeful pleasure years ago writing, “Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill up its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.”

Whether you’re reading every day or not, having books nearby offers benefits as Arnold Bennett observed over a hundred years ago writing in How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, “I am still walking up and down in front of my books and enjoying them without reading them.” Books can be valuable based on what they represent as much or more so than any wisdom they contain within. Not being a reader or not having time to read aren’t reasons to not have some kind of small space set aside for books in your home. The presence of books may serve to remind you of some or all of these benefits. Additionally, having a space in your business dedicated to storing books is also a way to reflect some or all of these ideas as values your business may seek to support. Though we may not need to read, we do need to continue to learn. Create a symbolic tribute to remind yourself and others of the value of learning by having books in your environment.

Finally, Steven Sample and Warren Bennis point out in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership that “To a greater extent than we realize, and to a far greater extent than we would ever care to admit, we are what we read.” This holiday season consider treating yourself and someone you care about to a book.