The one thing all schools should teach (but don't)

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

This post is in response to a question I received via Quora.

What is something every student should learn which isn’t taught in school? 

How to read.

Sure, schools teach us how to look at the letters C A T and know that they refer to a particular type of furry animal.  The difference between adjectives and adverbs. When Shakespeare was born and who Dickens was married to. How to 'analyze' by guessing the author's intent and drawing lofty conclusions from it. How to write an essay with an introduction, middle, and conclusion, each paragraph including point, example, and explanation.

But I have yet to hear of a curriculum which covers how to read and benefit from it. This is what reading is all about. No one writes a book because they want it to be analyzed. People write books to teach, process an experience, do something new or convey their ideas. Reading should serve the same purpose. 

I can think of few worse ideas than forcing 10-year-olds to plow through Shakespeare or Austen. That is a terrible idea. Not because they are not worth reading (they certainly are), but because it results in boredom and confusion. At worst, it turns it into a miserable chore.  I was lucky that I read a lot outside school which is why I managed to retain my love of it. I did not have many friends, did not watch TV, play video games or do sports. I just read, up to 25 books a week.

Studies have shown that most adults have a reading age of 9-11. This breaks my heart. Stupidity has nothing to do with it, the cause is a lack of education on how and why to read, not what and who.  I find this sad because they miss out on an enormous source of fulfilling fun and education. Whatever your career, learning more is the best way to become a valuable part of the industry. Whatever the circumstances of your life, guidance, and advice from smart people is always useful.

I picture the difference between someone who reads for academic purposes and someone who reads to learn as being like the difference between a bodybuilder and a builder. A bodybuilder pushes their body to an unnatural, usually unhealthy point to achieve a certain physique. A builder, on the other hand, needs to be strong and able to move in the way their job requires. One sort of strength is vanity, the other is functional. Reading is the same. If you read to write a paper, sound smart or tick another item off a list, you are the bodybuilder. If you read in order to live, you are the builder. I am an advocate of functional knowledge- the type of learning which serves a real purpose in our day to day lives. A good book teaches lessons which we can refer to during tough time, when we make decisions and when we want to add a new dimension to our lives.

If I could teach a class on reading to every student, this is what I would say:

1)  There are no rules when it comes to books.

Ignore lists of ‘50 books everyone should read.’ The best books are the ones which you enjoy. There is no requisite number anyone should read per year (although I recommend 1 per week as a minimum.) Likewise, there is no perfect time or place. Read whenever possible, wherever possible, in whatever form is preferable. Break the rules. Read a book backward, or a series out of order.

2) Books are to be digested, not swallowed.

Speed reading is a scam and a waste of time. Read slowly, considering each page and go at the pace which feels right. If you want to pause and think, do it. The goal is not to read the most books, but to get the most out of them. A good book requires multiple readings, spread throughout your life. This is particularly important for those which are complex or challenging.

3) Take notes.

This is extremely important. Record sentences which strike you, ideas you want to recall, points to reference. Making notes is the best way to remember what you read and to grow your body of knowledge. I use Evernote to catalog them, but go with whatever works for you. Over time, it becomes easier to draw between notes and create a latticework of knowledge. Creativity and innovation require inspiration from multiple sources. Reading through notes on varying topics is an effective way to cross-pollinate the different parts of your life and work. When I need an idea, I flip through random notes and let them mingle in my mind. It never fails to create something new. Never. 

4) Don’t treat books as something sacred which must be kept intact.

We are no longer living in an age where books are expensive and rare. They are extremely cheap- I read 200 books a year and it costs me less than £500. This is the best possible investment. If you don’t have the means to buy them new, go to a secondhand bookstore, a flea market, buy old stock from a library or just hit Amazon. Give up your Netflix subscription, buy fewer drinks, don’t upgrade your phone, whatever. Reading a lot does not require being rich. Don’t be afraid to write in the margins, fold pages and carry them everywhere. This is how a book becomes your own.

5) Read books which challenge you.

Extremely old books. Biographies of controversial figures. Genres you think you hate. Obscure topics. Books which have nothing to do with any of your interests. This is somewhat satisfying and more meaningful than skimming through a light read. It’s also a perfect way to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new. You might be surprised. I recently read Theodore Roosevelt’s 500-page autobiography. Despite having no interest in the lives of politicians, I enjoyed it a lot. When I hit a bookstore, I try to ensure half of my purchases are ‘blind’ - books I know nothing about.

6) Never finish a shitty book.

This does not mean giving up if it’s difficult. It means learning to identify when you are getting nothing out of a book and acting accordingly. Resistance can be a sign that you are being challenged. Boredom and lack of engagement are not. You can always come back to it in the future with a different perspective. 

7) Let it in.

This one is tricky. We all fall prey to confirmation bias when we read. Let’s say a disorganized person who never has time for anything picks up a book on time management. They flip through 300 pages, see a bunch of complex looking techniques and decide that implementing them would waste more time. So they go back to watching Netflix. If a book is going to change your life, you have to be receptive to the messages within it. An open mind and a sense of willingness are required. Every so often, a book will alter everything for you. This has happened to me many times. However, it will never happen if you read just to confirm what you already know. Let the words flow through your brain, sweeping away cobwebs. See 5).

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