I wake up at 5am each day so I can spend a couple of hours reading before getting ready. This began as simply a way to get more reading done. Reading has been central in my life as long as I can remember, but as I transitioned into the adult world I found reading (like fitness and friendships) got squeezed out by the bullshit we’re told is important. As the habit of early morning reading has become more deeply ingrained in my routine, though, it has leveled me up in ways I couldn’t have predicted. My students think I’m nuts. My wife is reserving judgment. I think it’s fucking awesome.

Now, I’ve always liked reading. I grew up in libraries, and I don’t remember a time that I couldn’t make sense of a book put in front of me. Here’s the thing, though: Even if I hated reading, the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks by such a massive margin, that I couldn’t justify not doing it.

It’s like free weights for your brain

The best routine is the one you can stick to.” ― Anon

Books as dumbbells might be a tired cliche (is ‘tired cliche’ a tired cliche?), but hear me out. When I began bodyweight fitness, I dreaded my routine. I wasn’t good at it, and it made me face some short-sighted assumptions about gym-going mouth breathers that I’d been holding onto for years. It was humbling, and something I did not think was sustainable. I was not strong, I was not fast, and I only owned two pairs of athletic shorts.

The one thing I had a surplus of, though, was determination. Even though I wasn’t good at my routine, I showed up on a regular, tightly-observed schedule, and did it. Workout days turned into workout weeks, and workout weeks became months. As time went on I began to feel like one of my old D&D characters. I could feel myself level up. Eight pull-ups became thirty. Bodyweight squats turned to deep step-ups, which turned to barbell squats. I got better, harder, and stronger.

But this is about reading

And reading is no different. As I’ve recommitted myself to a literary life, I’ve realized the same gains. It’s harder to measure than counting push-ups, but the improvement is the same. As I’ve settled into this ritual the last few years, this steady commitment to my routine has sharpened me. It has made me a clearer thinker. It has invigorated my mind and has allowed me to shift through stages of early-morning grogginess and begin my workday in top gear.

Reading is fitness for your brain. Not only that, but long-form reading has been shown to have a centering and calming effect on the mind. Many benefits of reading are obvious and well-documented, and I won’t rehash them here, but I want to take a moment to talk about a few less obvious ones.

Reading turns great thinkers into your own personal mentors

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ― Plutarch

I first read the book Slapstick when I was in 1oth grade. We had an intern in our library named Do Nothing Dave, and he casually mentioned I might enjoy Vonnegut. I walked over to the shelf (where my high school library [mercifully, astoundingly] had the collected works) and browsed until I found something that looked interesting. What I read is a book that Vonnegut would--late in life--call the worst book he’d ever written. For me it was life-changing.

I didn’t know a book could be like this, I remember thinking as I devoured its final pages next to my 3am bedlamp. Not only did Vonnegut expose me to a style of writing that I have never encountered, he exposed me to a style of thinking that was fresh in my life. He was saying things in his books that I was not hearing from any other outlet. He wrote at length about loneliness, war, cruelty, and unhappiness--and he wrote about them in a way that was engaging and hilarious. This is a book that the New York times blasted (the best jab comes when the reviewer says that Vonnegut has, “happened to give up storytelling altogether”), but it sent me into a Vonnegut spiral that, by the end of the year, had spun me through everything he’d ever written and implanted ideas that would become foundational in my life.

Since that year I have made a habit of devouring the collected works of authors I love--from Douglas Adams to William Zinsser. The result has been that each one has claimed a small part of me, and I--in turn--have synthesized them into something of my own. These men and women have mentored--and continue to mentor--me to this day.

Reading provides the latticework for thinking clearly

"...the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my adult life, about 95% of my reading is non-fiction. Taking in a good non-fiction book has an effect on me similar to drinking a glass of cool water when I’m thirsty. It is refreshing, invigorating, and satisfies something almost fundamental to my biology.

Non-fiction, though, has a clearer benefit. Good non-fiction writing is often marked by its structure. To be convincing, it must be arranged logically--with each new idea or rung of an argument coming only after the author has firmly secured his footing on the previous rung. Exposure to this structure shapes your brain to expect similar rigidity in your own thinking. When you condition yourself to interpret these logical structures, you condition yourself to think in these same structures. It’s not that reading makes you smarter--it's that reading gives you the ability to manipulate your thoughts and hold two opposing thoughts in tandem. It builds the latticework that your own critical capacities hang from.

It provides the foundations from where you can comprehend the world

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”  ― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Beyond this, a healthy regime of reading informs. It educates. It exposes you to worlds outside of your own. Reading widely will not make you an expert in any field, but it WILL provide the low-level background signal that will allow you to make connections.

In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From he explores the origin of good ideas. What he comes down to is this: If you want good ideas to happen, put different people with different areas of expertise in a place where they can slam into one another.  Apple does it (they famously designed 1 Infinite Loop with centralized resources); Facebook does it (they have the largest open office plan in the world); and Google does it.

The good news is that you don’t need their billions of dollars in capital to create a microcosm of this in your own world. With the power of regimented reading, you can turn yourself into a one-man idea creation machine.

Reading broadly gives you the fodder to make the connections that lead to good ideas. This is why Bill Gates sets aside time in his schedule to undergo Think Weeks and Warren Buffett says his primary course of doing business is to, “just sit in his office and read all day.” Successful people understand the power of habitual, regimented reading, and they take great strides to make it routine.

It habitualizes learning

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” ― Mark Twain

And this is perhaps the most important reason to read. Creating a reading habit will create a learning habit. It will force you to level up.

Ultimately, I’m not just advocating for reading. Putting the latest James Patterson on your nightstand to tumble through for ten minutes before bed isn’t going to make a much of a dent in your intellectual fitness.

Instead what I’m advocating is to make reading a habit in the same way that you would the gym. Look at your daily routine, choose a time that will work, and stick to it like your life depends on it.

After a week of this the response becomes Pavlovian. Whatever time you’ve set aside for reading will begin to feel natural. As you settle into your usual place each day, you’ll find that your transition into deep focus is easier than the day before. Your mind will begin to feel elastic and and receptive, taking in new ideas, combining them with old, and cranking out something uniquely your own.

The Takeaway

“If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck them.” ― John Waters

Reading is a sort of wonderdrug. It makes you smarter, improves your empathy, boosts memory, reduces stress, provides entertainment, calms the mind, connects you to the world around you, and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex.

If they sold this in a pill, you’d pay $1000/month for it.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you read (although I would caution that while infotainment like reddit feels informative, it generally has the nutritional value of reading a Lucky Charms box). And don’t get hung up on the medium (I prefer reading on a iPad mini converted into a rich ereader, but I also subscribe to magazines, have hard copies of books, and will take most anything in a pinch). The most important thing is that you pursue reading that you find interesting. Beyond that, I will only invoke the old computer science adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Fiction, non-fiction, long-form articles--we live in a world that is rich with great writing and bursting with new and interesting ideas that are waiting to be digested.

So my advice? Embrace it. Habitualize it. Make it as routine as going to the gym or getting a good night’s  sleep. Wake up early; stay up late; ditch the dopamine delivery system in your pocket and bring a book with you everywhere you go. However you manage it, just fucking read.


Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave them below!