Hello, my name is Erik and I am a bibliophile. I have a serious reading problem. I have read countless books, both fiction and nonfiction. I read blogs, news articles, wikipedia entries and comics. I read product reviews on shopping websites. I read the biographies of people I admire or want to emulate. I read about music and on other topics that I desire improved skills. I can easily lose a full day when I run across something new and interesting. I easily spend six hours on any given day reading. I tend to obsess on the same topic for months on end before moving on to a new one.
I’ve read books about self improvement, physics, marketing and leadership. I’ve devoured books on every religion you’ve ever heard of and some you haven’t. I have studied the oil industry, the history of money and trade, and real estate sales strategies. I’ve read books about the history, language and culture of people who speak Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Welsh and English to name a few. And that is only nonfiction.
I spend so much time reading nonfiction that it leaves me with no time for those wonderful escapes into other strange worlds. To make time for fiction, I have taken up listening to audiobooks while in the car or riding a bike at the gym increasing my reading time another two hours a day. I spend a large portion of my time consuming information. You would think that with all of this reading I probably know a lot about many topics. For the most part this isn’t true. I typically have a pretty good grasp of whatever is currently on the top of my obsession list. I usually only retain a general knowledge of past obsessions. I’ve simply read so much that there isn’t room in my head for it all.
I tend to read for the sake of reading. It has literally become an addiction. I engage in the act of reading much like I smoked in the past. I know I overdo it but I enjoy the activity so much that I can’t seem to stop. I think a better example is overeating. Eating is a positive action until it isn’t. The mind, like the body, needs nourishment. We eat to supply fuel to our bodies so that we can perform physical activities. If you continue to supply fuel without using it, you get fat. Once you get past a certain point the extra fuel actually becomes a hindrance until eventually you have a hard time moving at all. Knowledge is similar. It is the energy of the mind. Knowledge for its own sake is not only a waste of time but I believe that it will eventually consume you. I have spent so much time acquiring information that there is no time to use it.
There is a huge difference between understanding something and knowing it. One could read until their face was blue about gears, levers, body inertia, momentum and friction and still not know how to ride a bike. It takes actually getting on and crashing a few times to learn and then you never forget. It’s the same for most things. I’ve read countless books on math and guides on how to write computer programs. I didn’t learn to actually code until I pressed the compile button and fixed the resulting errors a few million times. Once I learned, the experience changed me forever. The logic of cause and effect and object oriented thinking color everything I do.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that reading is a waste of time. I am saying that being exposed to information without putting it to use is a waste. Reading isn’t even the most common method of acquiring information. Most people watch TV at an average rate of about 3 hours a day. I won’t comment on quality but no matter the source, I believe that all of this information has made our brains fat and lazy. Learning how young singers deal with stress on American Idol is useless knowledge unless you intend to become a singer. Understanding the details of permission marketing is a waste of neurons with nothing to sell. Knowledge isn’t truly consumed until it is utilized. Up until that point it is merely taking up space in your brain. The more time we spend focusing on a specific skill, the less we have to think about it. The knowledge is transferred from our brain to what we call muscle memory. Of course it is much more complicated than this. There are all sorts of scientific explanations that I don’t even begin to understand. The irony is that I am actively suppressing the urge to spend the next month reading about it.
My reading habit may be an extreme case but I think that most of us spend way more time consuming information than is healthy. We spend countless hours filling our brains with useless data. We have become a nation of the mentally fat and lazy. We applaud individuals who become experts at their craft while failing to recognize the dedication it took for them to achieve it. I have heard people say of a musician “I wish I had their talent”. The assumption being that the person was born with it. The truth is, they focused entirely on one skill for a long period of time until they mastered it. While I was reading about King Alfred uniting the early Britons with the English language, that person was playing scales.
I keep reading that we live in the Information age, that someday people will look back and proclaim our time to be the epoch of a new era. I hear that the Internet and freely available information will change the world forever. My worry is that we may drown in this ocean of information. I know that I am barely keeping my head above water. I think some kind of accountability system is in order. As I mentioned before, we could call it bibliophiles anonymous. We would help people only consume data that they intended to use. Part of our 12 step program would be mandatory time offline.
In this world of instant access to information, it’s how we use it when we are offline that leads to true wisdom.