What Do Digestion and Reading Have in Common?

A couple of days ago I read an article on how “optimization” is creeping into every aspect of our lives. The article states:

“Everywhere from digital nomad gurus to the false prophets of productivity, we are taught how to optimize every aspect of our existence. You can find carefully scripted routines for your mornings, your sex life, and your bowel movements. There is no aspect of human life that you couldn’t be doing better.”

This culture of optimization has given birth to a most ridiculous metric — the number of books you can read in a period of time.

I won’t lie, I’m especially bitter about this because I’m a slow reader. I like to take my time with the material. Let my mind wander and explore the other thoughts that pop into my head.

I see reading as exploration akin to a walk in the woods and I’d rather enjoy the sights, smells and sounds than rush through the beauty only to boast about arriving at the end faster than somebody else.

The absurdity of the metric is that it’s a terrible measure of knowledge. It’s the equivalent of your self worth being measured with the number of likes you get on Facebook.

And that’s because there’s no deep learning in simply reading as many books as you can. To understand this better, let’s think about something boring but generally understood — digesting food.

When you eat something delicious, you enjoy every scrumptious second of it on your taste buds. Your taste buds invoke a release of dopamine in your brain and you feel good. The chewed up food then moves down to your stomach and intestines where the process of digestion breaks it down into proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and nutrients to be absorbed into your bloodstream, powering your body for as long as it can.

In other words, your tongue may enjoy the taste of the food, but your body only benefits once its nutritional value is extracted through digestion and absorbed into your system.

The equivalent of digestion for reading is reflection.

Reflection involves re-reading, slow reading, pondering, playing with thoughts, and discussing what you’ve read with someone else. Much like digestion, reflection involves breaking things down and letting the rough-edged thoughts interact with the rest of what you know to form connections and thereby, a deeper understanding of the material you’re reading.

It’s by taking the time to absorb these new ideas into your stream of knowledge, do you truly extract the intellectual value of the material.

There’s an added advantage to reflection: time needed to reflect forces you to be more selective about what you read. The current culture around high book counts tend to involve including whatever is trending into your reading list but there are too many books whose contents aren’t worthy of the hype they receive.

Consider the time needed to reflect and cut the “fat” from your reading list. Look through recommendations and reviews and be critical of what you choose to put into your mind. Read what you can hopefully get something out of (and that doesn’t exclude good fiction that makes you think).

In short, don’t turn reading for learning into a metric and attempt to optimize it. Learning occurs through reflection and reflection is a personal journey that cannot be quantified.

Even though it may hurt to admit it as a data analyst, there are some things that just shouldn’t be measured in numbers, and one of them is the joy of reading.

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