What I learned (about learning) from reading 100 books a month in school
When I moved back to England aged 6, learning the language didn’t come easy at first. Although I’d spoken English from a young age, Hebrew had been my default. I was used to a different alphabet and to writing from right to left. Pronouncing certain words was a struggle.
Sat in my second-grade classroom, every lesson was an ordeal. I produced pages of perfect mirror writing — my teacher literally had to hold my work up to a mirror to read it. siht ekil etorw I. Clumsy, disjointed capital letters forming sentences outwith punctuation.
I felt like an idiot. My teachers gave me colouring-in sheets. So I retreated into books. Reading had always come naturally, but more so then.
Books can teach you anything. Books can teach you how to understand people. Books can teach you fluency in a language. Books offer a quiet means of escape and solace. For a child caught between cultures, far from home, they were a necessity. I copied out sentences, letter by letter, to practice.
At school, I took every possible opportunity to escape to the library or read under my desk.
And within a few months, my English was as good as any native speaker. Today, you would never guess it’s not strictly my mother tongue and I speak Hebrew like a toddler.
But that pattern of constant reading continued.
It was all I did. I never managed to stick with sports, TV, clubs or musical instruments for long. If I wasn’t doing school work, helping out at home or asleep (although I stayed up most nights reading under the covers), I was reading.
That time added up. When I began keeping a tally, I found that I was reading up to 25 books per week. Hitting 100 per month became my focus.
If you do the math, it’s easy for a kid with minimal responsibilities and few other hobbies to read that much. At school, I'd finish my work fast, then get back to my book. I knew that my teachers would only tolerate it as long as I got good grades, so I made sure I did. Plus, I had to reread the same books multiple times which is always faster. So, this is nothing that impressive in the practical sense. Anyone could do it.
Whenever I write about reading, the most common question is this: What’s the outcome? How has it benefited you?
Or some variant thereof. Always the same underlying idea: that there must be a tangible, concrete result of reading a lot of books.
It’s a good question. It’s also the wrong question.
Think of it this way. Imagine an athlete who starts at a young age and spends all their available time training. They have some big achievements. They win major competitions, reach an impressive personal best or achieve a certain ranking.
But it would be wrong to say that the outcome of all those thousands of hours of training and preparing physically and psychologically was a gold medal or a number on a scoreboard. It would be wrong to say that was the sole benefit, the only reason they did it, the purpose.
Instead, if you asked this hypothetical athlete why they did it, the answer would be something like this:
Because they loved the process. Because the discipline shaped them as a person. Because it was their escape. Because it was something they could control. Because it made them part of a community. Because they wouldn’t be who they are without it. Because that’s just them. That’s who they are.That’s what they do. It would be unfathomable for them to attempt to imagine themselves without sport.
As you may imagine, I am the opposite of an athlete. But the concept is the same.
People who read a lot do it because they love the process, because it’s who they are, because it’s just what they do.
So it’s not about a defined outcome. It’s not about pointing to particular books and saying: this book helped me start my business. This book helped me have a happy relationship. This book taught me how to write copy. This book taught me the best way to eat. This book helped me achieve X, Y or Z concrete result. Even though those things may be true.
This is the transactional mindset. A + B = C. Which is a terrible way to think and a recipe for an unrewarding life.
If you only do things to achieve an outcome or derive a benefit, you miss out on so much.
In school, learning is linear. There’s a fixed curriculum with a known volume of facts and concepts to learn. If you can memorise a reasonable portion of it, in some cases a small portion, you’ll get an okay final grade on the test. If you can apply it you’ll get a great final grade. There’s a direct relationship between what you learn and the outcome you’re aiming for.
Here’s what I learned:
- The facts we learn form the context of our real-world experiences, which are how we build up expertise.
- Knowledge builds on itself — we draw links and connect ideas.
- Much, if not most, of what we learn never has any practical value. Might as well enjoy the process.
- Sometimes what we learn has unexpected value long after we first learned it.
- Remembering is not the same as understanding. It can take years to understand something, even if we think we already do.
Let’s break that down a little more.
Reading taught me a lot in the literal sense. I have this insane body of diverse, disconnected facts. It comes in handy.
I am great at pub quizzes and was always on the school quiz team. When I was 9, one teacher pretty much bribed me to supply her with obscure facts which she used to get attention from her class. I can hold my own with a wide range of people and in many situations. There’s always a relevant bit of trivia to break the ice.
Reading, in itself, is no more valuable than any other form of media consumption. It depends what you want to get out of it. Random facts, although fun, are not the point. Yu could probably get the same effect by watching a lot of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and QI.
Instead, it’s all about drawing links.
Ideas need to connect with other ideas to make sense.
In my work, it’s common for me to receive a brief and straight away remember something I read ten or more years ago. I’ll type it up from memory, then fact check and usually find that I’ve recalled it perfectly.
It feels like cheating. When I read that book under the covers as a kid, my sole agenda was enjoyment and the content didn’t have a huge amount of meaning. Later, part of it linked to something else and made sense.
That’s the boring answer: reading is a lot like training for a sport. You don’t know what the payoff will be. You know that the gold medals other people fixate on and congratulate you for are not your sole aim. In the end, you do it because you love it and because it’s a way of life