I love reading lists. Whenever I find one, I feel like dropping everything I’m doing, and dedicating my whole life to reading the books on the list. But there is one problem with reading lists: the randomness.
First, let’s go back to the beginning of the 2023 for a moment. Lex Fridman, podcaster, machine learning scientist, and a twitter personality, published his reading list for the upcoming year. His goal was to read 52 books, one book per week. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), a war of reading enthusiasts broke out. It felt like every Twitter celebrity had to have their say. For some, the books he picked were too basic, something that is on a required reading list of a high-schooler; for others he was being too ambitious: How do you read “The Brothers Karamazov’s” in one week?
Here is the original tweet:
I'm reading a book a week in 2023. Classics, sci-fi, nonfiction, or anything people highly recommend. I'll keep adjusting the list. Start on Monday, done by Sunday. Might make lowkey videos of takeaways. If you want to read along, the current list is here: https://t.co/hYCs1pvLiZ pic.twitter.com/7JTKx9wYEj— Lex Fridman (@lexfridman) December 31, 2022
But what bothered me the most about Lex’s reading list was the randomness. Is there something in common between “1984”, “The Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, and “2001: A Space Odyssey”? I don’t see the connection.
(By the way, you can follow Lex’s progress here https://lexfridman.com/reading-list/ He promised to make a YouTube video after completing a book on hist list)
Most of the books on Lex’s reading list are fiction. That is fine, I don’t have anything against it. And to be honest, the randomness of books on the list might not be a problem if you are reading mainly fiction. But even fiction can be read topically.
So, there I was, learing the game of Twitter, writing rebuttals and counterarguments, trying to explain why these kind of reading lists are a waste of time, yet completely not grasping why I thought that way–when suddenly I had an idea (that at that moment felt like a stroke of genius, but, in hindsight, it’s just common sense).
Instead of reading random books throughout the year, pick a single topic, and read books on that topic alone.
Let’s call this method: Topical Reading.
Topical reading can work even if you are reading fiction: Pick an author, and read everything that they wrote; read what other people have written about them; read the official and unofficial biographies, autobiography, letters, “unpublished” short stories. Become an expert, an independent scholar.
I have done this with three authors: Jack London, Honore de Balzac, and Phillip K. Dick. Why these authors? I don’t know, at the beginning I was more interested in their life than their work, and by learning about their life, I learned to love their work.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about topical reading, I just was so fascinated with the authors that I had to read everything they ever wrote (impossible task, I know).
Benefits of reading topically.
When you concentrate on a single topic for a whole year, you will know more about the topic than 99% of the people1, making you a somewhat of an expert. Of course, reading alone is not enough: You need to act on the knowledge, take notes, write, work on a specific question.
Think of your brain as a sponge(a boring but useful metaphor)—before soaking in new elements, you need to squeeze the water out. And by squeezing I mean producing something of value, applying the knowledge.
You can master many topics throughout your life.
A quick calculation: At the beginning of 2023 I am 36 years old. Give or take, I might have another 40 years to live, plus minus 10 years. That means I can explore 30 more topics of my own choosing, one topic per year, sometimes concentrating on a topic for two or three years.
Here is my main point. You are better off learning 30 deeply studied topics than reading thousands of books in random order.
What do you want to know better? What topic do you want to become somewhat of an expert at? Forget everything else, pick this topic, and stick with it for the rest of the year.
And yes, I have my topic for 2023. The topic of the year is: solving problems. I have compiled a list of around 30 books on problem-solving, adding and removing the books from the list as I go along, trying to understand the art and science of problem-solving.
A good side effect of topical reading is that, by the end of the year, you and me, all of us, can write a book on the subject. And that’s what I’m planning to do. I am reading topically about solving problems, with and overarching aim to write a book.
If by any chance you are interested in the progress of the book, refer to this post: Writing my first book in public.
I made that number up, felt like it could be correct ↩︎