READ. REFLECT. WRITE. REPEAT.
Updated: Jun 14
Boxing Day 2017.
Our home was full of people - as the Christmas holiday should be – and between courses five and six of the never-ending buffet, my son’s partner asked me to tell her my favourite gift of the year, and the one thing I was most likely to pass on to someone else.
“Unexpected theatre tickets were very welcome; I’m looking forward to both trips,” I said. “And don’t think I’m ungrateful, but I have been over-supplied by chocolate and biscuits.”
Fortunately, she and my son hadn’t been the chocolatiers.
“You know why, don’t you.” she stated. I frowned. “Because no-one knows what to get for you. We all know you love books, but you already have your own a library. I’ve seen a couple of titles on your shelves where you have two copies of the same thing.
“No-one wants to find out that they’ve given you a third one.”
Two copies of William Barrett’s ‘The Irrational Man’ had been an amusing accident, but my daughter-out-law spoke a painful truth.
It’s been thirty-something years of browsing and buying, on a one-man mission to keep Foyles (London) in business, along with Hatchards (London), Blackwell’s (Oxford), Mr. B’s Emporium (Bath) and Waterstones (nationally);
along with The American Book Center (Amsterdam), Shakespeare and Company (Paris), Strand Bookstore (New York), The Elliot Bay Book Company (Seattle);
and while Amazon doesn’t need my custom, it still receives my orders. Frequently.
The ‘library’ now extends into four rooms (on shelves and floors), the length of the hallway, and three sides of the loft. Nett of regular donations to the local Oxfam charity bookshop.
After decades of patience, my wife has (gently) put her foot down:
“Don’t you think it’s time to change the buying-to-reading ratio?” As they say in the US, she’s done the math. “There are at least two thousand books in this house. If you read one per week, every week, that'll be 40 years-worth. And I should point out that ‘War & Peace’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ will each take longer than seven days.”
(I knew it was a mistake to try smuggling them past her. Did she notice the six volumes of Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’?)
To my shame the B2R ratio has worsened considerably. Not because I have upped the buying rate. Instead it’s the range of distractions that have eaten into reading time:
Added terrestrial TV; BBC iPlayer; Netflix; Amazon Prime; DVDs and Blu-ray discs; YouTube; podcasts; Spotify; Feedly (accessing hundreds of online journal publishers); and, of course, social media.
This year ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ is right. It’s time to rebalance B2R. Buy less, read a lot more.
It sounds like a fine New Year resolution, but I’ve been around long enough to know that such vague intentions usually dribble to nothing - except guilt in February and usual habits in March.
That’s why I’m writing about it here. And would appreciate your help, quid pro quo.
The intent of the Optimentum blog has always been to share ideas and experiences in the context of work. As the home page says, it’s all about coaching support, change management and connecting face-to-face and on-the-page.
Therefore, my reading goal is specific.
Tolstoy, Joyce, de Cervantes and Gibbon will have to wait until my days of leisure. This year, I’ll read business, organization, management and leadership texts, then publish a blog post for each.
The good news: I believe that most business books have a 1500-word essay trying to escape. The bad news: a lot of books in this category struggle to come up with anything worth reading at all.
In Pareto terms, I’m looking for the 2% of a business book that’s worth the cover price.
The worst news: that a small – a very small - minority genuinely merit their 300-plus pages. That’s the worst news because it will be much harder to write something meaningful in a short space, beyond a list of bullet points.
But that’s my problem, not yours.
My primary focus will be the purpose of the book and its central ideas; a literary critique will be second (although some business writers and publishers deserve that with both barrels). Where possible, I’ll link the content to my real-life experience. If not, to publicly-known stories.
All the books referenced are currently on my shelves, floors or in digital form on my Kindle. Some of the classics I read are now with Oxfam; some of my current collection I have tried before, and in hindsight wish I’d given them away instead.
But that’s one of the points of the exercise: to find brass where I previously found muck.
As for numbers, the idealist in me says one-a-week, a.k.a. 52 books. The realist (a more recent resident) knows that it just won’t happen, if for no other reason than we’re already near the end of Week 1. Client coaching, workshop design, business development, holidays, family-and-friend weekends will all demand attention.
And I don’t want to be reading 24-hours a day through November and December, playing catch-up.
Second thought: How about 3 books a month (one every ten days)? 36 sounds doable, if a little underwhelming. Easy to slip behind early in the year because “there’s still plenty of time.”
Therefore, my 2018 target is 40 books.
“Hang on Paul! Is that all ?? Surely you can speedread a book every couple of days.” Probably – but speedreading is nonsense. It’s skimming across the surface, not diving into the thinking that underpins a book’s meaning and utility.
Popular fiction can be skimmed. On holiday I’ve read 600-page thrillers in a day. Very entertaining, and completely forgotten.
In and out, like a fast food.
That’s why I’ll be writing the essay on each book – to increase learning and aid retention. When I’ve finished each one, the books are heading for the exit, either to the charity bookshop or to the first person who contacts me and asks for the copy because they (you?) want to read more detail.
That way I’ll clear shelf space for the next intake. Just don’t tell my wife.
And quid pro quo?
After you read an Optimentum post you like, please forward the details to colleagues and friends who you think might benefit too. Encourage them to sign-up on the Contact page.
Thank you. And here’s to book #1…
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