Plan a Process
Peak performers come in all milieus, not just sports. All peak performers have a process — a series of steps, a scaffolding to execute in their chosen endeavor.
Twyla Tharp, the celebrated dancer and choreographer, is a peak performer plus author of several books. She often talks and writes about the importance of physical activity and its connection to better cognitive function — now universally supported by neuroscience research.
In her 80s, Tharp is still creating, beginning with a morning workout routine known to be legendary. But Tharp is more than an advocate for physical activity. She is also a big reader.
In her 2003 book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, co-written with Mark Reiter, Tharp talks about ‘scratching.’ Scratching is her term for a process of searching for inspiration and creative ideas.
“There are many ways to scratch for ideas as there are ideas. The most common is reading. If you’re like me, reading is your first line of defense against an empty head.
… It’s how you keep your mind disciplined. If you monitor your reading assiduously, it’s even how you grade your brain’s conditioning, like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel.
… reading generates ideas because you’re literally filling your head with ideas and letting your imagination filter them for something useful.
But, Tharp cautions, it’s not helpful to just scratch — you need to be mindful of where you scratch. She encourages us to ‘scratch among the masters.’
Image: The Philosophical Hall of The Strahov Library that is part of the Strahov Monastary in Prague. The Strahov Library is a treasure trove of more than 200,000 volumes, many irreplaceable books hundreds of years old written mostly in Latin on religion, medicine, mathematics, law, philosophy, astronomy, and geography.
So how does one scratch out a process of reading?
Might I suggest four basic questions to ask yourself to improve your reading process:
❶ Why Am I Reading This Book?
❷ Where’s The Best Place to Read?
❸ When’s The Best Time and How Do I Plan My Read?
❹ What Reading Tools Can I Leverage?
❶ Why Am I Reading This Book?
Or is it simply a book to read for pleasure — as good as any reason to read, Virginia Woolf avowed.
For Virginia Woolf reading for pleasure was a good enough reason. “One must own that there are certain books which can be read without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.”
(The Common Reader)
Image: Virginia Woolf 1927 gifted in 1983 by Frederick R. Koch to the Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University
For Twyla Tharp, ‘scratching’ among your books should be done more carefully. It’s not just useful to scratch. It would be best if you were mindful of where you scratch. Read good writers.
Image: Twyla Tharp, 2004 National Medal of Arts Recipient. Author unknown.
If you don’t have a good reason the read or the book isn’t speaking to you — you might consider the following:
Look for Adjacent Books
For many years, I’ve been an advocate of reading books in combination. I call it the BookBundle Method.
Tharp recommends a similar (but not the same) expedition through the shelves. She calls it ‘reading archeologically.’
She explains her process;
“I tend to read archeologically. Meaning I read backwards in time. I’ll start with a contemporary book and then move on to a text that predates that book, and so on until I’m reading the most ancient texts and the more primitive ideas.”
Let your books bump into each other.
Reread — An Underutilized Process!
The entrepreneur and Angel List investor Naval Ravikant argues for the rereading of great books. He’s often said and tweeted, “I would rather read the best 100 books over and over again until I absorb them rather than read all the books.”
On The Knowledge Project Podcast with Shane Parrish, Naval explained;
‘So there’s always a book to capture the imagination… I just love to read…
Whenever I’m bored, and I have time, I just do it, and thanks to the iPhone and the Kindle and the iPad, you know, they make it really easy. … as we’re talking, I’m flipping through [my phone] and looking — The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley — one of my favorite authors. Read everything of his; then reread everything.’
Keep a BTRR List
(Books to ReRead)
❷ Where’s The Best Place to Read?
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) had a tower
In 1571, when Montaigne retired from public life to his estate on the borders of the Bordeaux area and the Perigord, he renovated and decorated the 14th century Tower on the premises. He turned the tower into a library and study where he spent ‘most of his days’ — reading and writing, notably les Essaiss.
He hired artisans who painted Greek and Latin sayings on the ceiling’s oak jousts — presumably for inspiration when his gaze rose heavenward. They can still be seen today reminding us:
One lives but a little, shelter yourself from evil.
I do not understand. I stop. I examine.
To not think at all is the softest life,
Because not thinking is the most painless evil.
For Montaigne, there was no pleasure like the pleasure of reading a book. He writes;
“It [a book] goes side by side with me in my whole course, and everywhere is assisting me: it comforts me in old age and solitude; it eases me of a troublesome weight of idleness, and delivers me at all hours from company that I dislike: it blunts the point of griefs, if they are not extreme, and have not got an entire possession of my soul. To divert myself from a troublesome fancy, ‘tis but to run to my books; they presently fix me to them and drive the other out of my thoughts, and do not mutiny at seeing that I have only recourse to them for want of other more real, natural, and lively commodities; they [books] always receive me with the same kindness.”
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) had a very Victorian libraryOscar was passionate about his books. They were objects that came alive not just because of their prose but also because of their feel. For Wilde, these inanimate objects had opinions and feelings. In his unusual biography, Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, Thomas Wright explains;
One of the twelve extra limited editions produced on Japanese vellum of The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, was sold in 2001 by Christie’s for $70,500.
Obviously, this book was on speaking terms with someone!
A large piece of old oriental embroidery hung on one of the walls, and a black sheepskin rug lay in front of the fire. An antique sofa covered in moreen probably faced the fireplace;
In July 2020, 600+ sq. feet of no. 34 (formerly no. 16) Tite Street was up for sale with a price tag of £1,695,000.
Since Wilde’s departure, the building was turned into multiple residences. This particular piece of real estate is a ground-floor apartment with a kitchen, living area, bedroom, bath, and outdoor garden. The bedroom of this property was Oscar Wilde’s old library.
(Sometimes, I wish the world didn’t change!)
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) had a bedroom library
Virginia Woolf constantly read — and widely. She was not allowed to get a formal education as her brothers and stepbrothers did at Cambridge. But she was permitted, from an early age, access to her father’s voluminous library.
Books were always an important — perhaps the most essential part — of her life. One might argue, books made her life possible.
On January 30, 1926, Woolf gave a talk to the Hayes Court Common School for Girls, later published as an essay, How Should One Read a Book. Available here for free, thanks to The Yale Review.
Virginia had several places to read. One was a bedroom/library in Monk’s House, a property in East Sussex that she and her husband Leonard purchased in 1919 and used as a country residence when they weren’t living in London.
Image: Virginia Woolf’s Bedroom Monk’s House from BritainExpress.com
And we have to remind ourselves that it is necessary to approach every writer differently in order to get from him all he can give us.
…books are of very different types, and that to read them rightly, we have to bend our imaginations powerfully, first one way, then another—it is clear that reading is one of the most arduous and exhausting of occupations.
William F. Buckley (1925-2008) had a library office — two, in fact!
Image: William F. Buckley Jr., Publicity handout photo. Author unknown. Source: The Art of Fiction No. 146 in The Paris Review. (public domain)
Whether you agree with his politics or not, one must admire Buckley and his love, use, and proficiency with the English language. Presumably, it took a great deal of thinking and reading — and required the right space to find The Right Word.
This conservative political commentator had a library office cluttered with pictures, papers, paintings, and books. Actually, this doyen of New York society had two library offices — one in his Stamford, CT home and one in his maisonette on Park Avenue.
Buckley was a big reader — and an equally prolific writer of journalism and books, with over 75 volumes in a myriad of genres
He wrote political and cultural commentary, travel books, eleven Blackford Oakes spy novels, and a Blackford Oakes Companion Reader.
The novels were based upon his years in military and government service, including his work at the CIA. They are still in print.
Image: Buckley in his library study in Stamford CT home 2005 by Suzy Allman for The New York Times
I wonder what he was reading.
For these people from different centuries who read widely and wrote prolifically, it was important to craft a special space — a room of their own — to think and read their books. Perhaps that’s why they were so productive.
What does your reading space look like?
❸ When’s The Best Time and How Do I Plan My Read?
High performers give their activity — be it basketball or ballet — a primary position in their schedule. Unfortunately, many of us save reading for the end of the day when there’s little cognitive rope — then wonder why we can’t remember what we read!
Figuring out the best time to read will require some investment in tracking and experimentation. In the end, there are no secrets and no hacks. Good reading, like a good workout, requires making choices — then just doing it.
Most advice is to set up a reading plan focused on time increments or page counts; for example, schedule 45 minutes for reading or read ten pages a day. If you’re into reading for pleasure, these are good metrics.
If, however, you’re trying to get more off the page, may I propose another process — focus on planning chapter by chapter reading.
Reading complete chapters in one sitting will help your retention and comprehension.
In a 2014 article for The New Yorker, Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities Nicholas Dames of Columbia University, explained the history of the chapter and why it makes sense to read in chapter segments. Text material was not always arranged in chapters. Early authors just went on and on.
Professor Dames explains;
Image: Nicholas Dames courtesy Columbia University
Today authors and editors carefully plan their text in chapter segments to help readers leverage their retention and make it easier to knit the book together as a whole.
But, you ask, if I read chapter by chapter, how long will it take?
The answer depends on your reading speed, the number of words on the page, and the kind of reading content. Technical or deep reading on a new topic may take longer. Dialogue may go faster.
However, you can estimate reading times for any book chapter.
Here’s a formula:
- Estimate the number of words on the page by counting the number of words on one line, then multiply by the number of lines on the page to give you the number of words per page.
- Multiply the estimated words per page by the number of pages in your chapter to give you the estimated total number of words in that chapter.
- Take the total number of words in that chapter and divide by the number of words per minute that you read — the average reader manages about 200-250 words per minute.
This formula may seem a bit cumbersome at first, particularly for the first chapter of a new book, but once you get used to the formula, it will give you better retention and understanding. Give it a try.
❹ What Reading Tools Can I Leverage?
Where were you in 1997?
That’s the year a guy named Don Katz gave us a device called Audible Player that contained around 4 megabytes of on-board flash storage — translated that means it held about two hours of audio content, and you didn’t need to use a cassette. It was the beginning of Audible!
The audio market had begun in 1979 with music — you probably had a Sony Walkman. But with creatives like Don Katz, the market expanded its idea of audio content and developed technology that would do away with pesky tape cassettes.
Today, Audible (they dropped the word Player when they did away with the device) is the big kahuna in the audio market, dumping thousands of hours of content of all kinds direct to our smartphones — for a small fee, of course.
In 2008, Audible was acquired by Amazon for $300 million — a fire sale looking through today’s lens. According to Statista, Audible published more than 71,000 titles in 2020 and a 2017 New York Times article claims Audible is the largest employer of actors in New York City.
If you want to learn more about the history of Audible, have a listen to Don Katz, co-founder as he explains the journey on NPR’s How I Built This with Guy Raz.
I must confess, when audiobooks first became available, I snorted, ‘I will not listen to books on a device; that’s cheating. Real readers read.”
I’ve since changed my tune and am a huge fan of Audible.
I completely forgot that Charles Dickens was more famous for his reading ‘entertainments’ than for his books by the end of his life. He entertained hundreds — maybe thousands — got people to read and made more money with his reading tours than his book writing.
Dickens was Audible before Audible
Dickens was more than an amateur thespian. Not just famous for his family drawing room soirees, he became known as a semi-professional stage manager and actor in what we’d probably call ‘community productions.’
It’s how he met the Ternans, mother and two daughters, and began his decades-long affair with the family — especially the youngest, Ellen. She was 18. He was 45. Their ‘friendship’ lasted till his death, but that’s another story.
In 1853 Dickens began giving public readings of his novels. It would be Dickens alone on stage — a podium and a book as a prop — reading from his novels. Oral interpretations, we call them today.
Image: Charles Dickens circa 1860s held by Heritage Auction, Author Unknown
Dickens was Audible before Audible — Profitable
Initially, Dickens’ shows were ‘entertainments’ for charity. As their popularity became apparent a few years later, he was urged by his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of advisors to do his readings for profit. They proved more lucrative than book writing.
His 5-month reading tour of America in 1867/68 when he was seriously ill with heart disease and other ailments, is estimated to have netted him about £2.2 million or $3.1 million in today’s currency.
Image: Ticket for Dickens Reading 1869 held by Charles Dickens Museum
Dickens was Audible before Audible — Entertaining
In his epic 1,083 page biography Dickens, Peter Ackroyd writes of Dickens’ first stop in Boston,
“And already, days before his arrival, the queues for tickets for his “readings” were enormous; the attraction consisted not only in his own fame and genius but also in the novelty of the enterprise, since no one in America had ever seen pubic readings of the kind which he proposed. On the first morning the tickets were on sale the queue was over half a mile long, and many people had arrived the night before with straw mattresses, food, and tobacco.”
Our entertainments have little changed.
There’s more to say about the process of good reading in other blog posts.
In the meantime, here’s a quiz from the legendary writer and reader Vladimir Nabokov to ascertain your reading abilities.
It’s said that Nabokov, who taught at Cornell University (1948-1959), gave his students a one-question quiz to ascertain how good they were as readers:
From the list of ten sentences below, select four that best answer the question: What should a reader be to be a good reader?
- The reader should belong to a book club.
- The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
- The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
- The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
- The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
- The reader should be a budding author.
- The reader should have imagination.
- The reader should have memory.
- The reader should have a dictionary.
- The reader should have some artistic sense.
You’re reading this blog, so I’m sure you got it right —
A good reader should have:
7. … imagination
8. … memory
9. … a dictionary
10. … some artistic sense