My relationship with reading

Me hanging out with Shoe Dog. (original post)

Reading started to feel like an indulgence because it became an opportunity to converse with someone whom I admired; it was a way to get close to how they think, their lifetime worth of knowledge condensed to a few hundred pages.

ou are the average of the people you know and the books you read,” a mentor told me back in 2014.

At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning behind it. The people part was a little easier to grasp, but as a non-reader, I couldn’t relate to the idea that books would be held with a similar level of importance. Growing up in an education system where we were recommended the same selection of literature, I did not develop the agency to choose books that I liked. Instead, I read what everyone else seemed to have liked, let it be literary fiction or popular novels. When that didn’t stick, I thought I didn’t like to read.

In the past decade, I only read a handful of books. Despite a lingering desire to read, I put in mediocre effort. I never “found the time” to read, nor have I assigned it enough importance to make it a priority.

Establishing a habit

I first got acquainted with reading towards the end of 2017 from a spontaneous weekend trip with a Tinder date. On our third date, we flew to Vancouver. He was a prolific reader. When you live and breathe the habits of a reader day and night, you start to discover how someone finds the time to read. He carried a few issues of The New Yorker along with a kindle in his coat pocket and waiting was always a moment of joy because that was when he dived into reading; he had ebooks downloaded on his phone for when he couldn’t fall asleep at night. Very quickly, I realized that reading is not about setting aside time; it’s about optimizing every minute of free time.

The week after the trip, I picked up a book for the first time in a long while. I carried the physical copy of Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog in my purse; I read while waiting for buses; I got to restaurants early to read while waiting for friends.

I was lucky to have picked a book that I adored, and it helped with sustaining the habit. Through reading an autobiography, it felt as if I was having a conversation with the entrepreneur. Reading started to feel like an indulgence because it became an opportunity to converse with someone whom I admired; it was a way to get close to how they think, their lifetime worth of knowledge condensed to a few hundred pages.

Reading in practice, cultivating the habit

Reading gives us ideas. When we surround ourselves with these powerful ideas, we start to behave as so. A one-way ticket to a foreign country becomes viable, walking the non-traditional path becomes an option, and building a business from scratch becomes everyday.

Inspired by Phil Knight, in 2018, I left to travel.[1] Reading became a large part of my sojourns. I chose what books to read based on the cities I traveled to and the people I met along the journey. Sometimes it was a book about a specific country to gain context of the historical narrative, other times it was a book recommended by a local to better understand their worldview. Reading was a way to augment my understanding of a new culture I was experiencing.

In Chinese, we speak of 读万卷书,行万里路. It means Read thousands of books, travel thousands of miles. I realized that if I only traveled and not read, I would’ve missed a crucial part of the experience.

Traveling became my parameter for reading. Every new country meant a new book. Reading Start-up Nation on Israel offered perspectives of what contributed to the innovations of this small yet resilient country. My Airbnb host at the time recommended I Saw Ramallah, and in turn I was acquainted with the other side of the story.

Evolution with reading

Towards the end of 2019, a conversation with a stranger at a gallery bar in San Francisco changed the way I read. He said, he prefers to read multiple books at once because somehow the messages from different books seem to talk to each other, and you gain a unique perspective on one book from reading another. Doubtful yet curious, I borrowed 3 books from the library and experimented with reading many titles at the same time.

I recalled when reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Alchemist at the same time, I made interesting cross-connections between the child in Rich Dad, Poor Dad and the protagonist in The Alchemist; there was a kind of alignment between the two characters’ journey to finding truth.

The result lent to the development of new reading routines. I started my day by reading a business book in the morning; it was the most mentally demanding yet empowering to set the tone for the day. In the late afternoon, I read more interest based non-fictions. Then I ended the day with fiction so that the mind had a chance to rest and decompress. Interestingly, when you read more books at the same time, you somehow read more in the same amount of time.

Building parameters

I started establishing frameworks to build better reading habits. A friend and I started a book club with a few friends, an effort to diversify our interests and read titles that we otherwise wouldn’t have chosen on our own.

That was when I came across the article from Farnam Street on different levels of reading. “Syntopical Reading involves reading many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting ideas, vocabulary, and arguments.”

In August of 2020, I joined two reading groups on the future of living space,[2] one on Creating Cohousing and the other on Future Cities. By partaking in reading groups, you not only retain the information better through discussion, but you also meet others who think and build in a similar space. When you read a large quantity of information on a specific topic, you gain a more holistic perspective through dissecting the topic from various lenses.

Eventually, I started curating groups of books on a monthly basis that were aligned with my focus for the month.

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“You are the average of the people you know and the books you read.”

I started to understand what the quote truly meant.

Depending on the books we choose, we “hang out” with the authors we respect; we surround ourselves with the most intriguing ideas. In many ways, what I read determines how I think and the path I choose to take. It is almost a form of selective information intake that directly guides my actions.

I read one book (Shoe Dog) in 2017.

In 2018, 11.

In 2019, 16.

In 2020, 29.

Many years ago, I saw this article on the tail end. It was the most disappointing to hear that we only have a few hundred books left to read in the remainder of our lifetime (at a rate of 5 books a year).

But no, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Thoughts? Reach me @cocobliu


[1] Phil Knight had The Plan of seeing the world and traveled extensively before starting Nike.

[2] In addition to reading, I also wrote about this topic as a way to learn in public.

American Chinese idealist, designer, primarily based in San Francisco, taking sojourns around the world.