Book Consumption and Professional Productivity

A no connection hypothesis.

July 11, 2019

I read lots of nonfiction books. Many fellow readers, including my wife, would put “read” in quotes. (Using her fingers). They would say I listen to lots of books.

For me, reading with my eyes and my ears is no different.  Plus, I do read with my eyes - as I’ll use the Whispersync feature to switch between the digital formats of Kindle e-books (on an iPhone and a Kindle Oasis) and Audible audiobooks (Kindle app on the iPhone).

What is indisputable, and deeply worrisome, is that I’ve sold my book buying/reading/sharing/owning soul to Jeff Bezos.

What is the one big thing that I’ve learned from reading all these books?  (Besides the idea that all of us should be more concerned than we are about Amazon’s monopoly in digital books).

My big book reading takeaway is that there is no connection between book reading and professional productivity.

None. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

People who read one book each year are as good at their jobs as those who read one hundred.

Conversely, the one book a year reader may be as lousy at their job as is the person who finishes a single book.

There is no causal connection between the pace of reading consumption and the quality of workplace performance.

I’ll make an even more provocative claim. I hypothesize that there is no correlation between professional performance within the postsecondary ecosystem and book consumption.   

Reading more books will not make everyone in academia more productive, and the most productive people in academia don’t read more books.

Most professors will read more than a few books each year in their discipline. But the best researchers and writers may read many more novels than academic monographs.  Or they may spend their time with podcasts, visual media, and poetry.

My brain works best with books.  Understanding anything requires that I go deep. To get my head around an issue, a time, or a concept I not only need to read a book on the subject - I need to read five books.

Many faculty and non-faculty educators get their information from other places than books. They will read a wide variety of articles, magazine stories, and reports.

Some of my colleagues will use most of their information energy in communication and collaboration.  They have a wide circle of people that they connect with on e-mail and social media.  Their information consumption will be spread over thousands of sources, rather than a few books.

For every book that I read, that is an article or a podcast or a report that I will never give my attention.

The opportunity costs for book reading are high.  When you read an audiobook, you can do lots of other things.  Things like dishes and laundry and cleaning and walking and watching Women’s World Cup Soccer.  But you can’t consume additional information during book reading.

Colleagues in academia who read fewer books may be taking in more overall information than book fanatics.  They can quickly switch between information sources, platforms, and networks.

If you are one of those people who finish a book or two a year, my advice is don’t worry about it.  Listen to what your brain wants.  Your information diet may be plenty rich.

If you are an academic who would rather read crime novels than academic press monographs, I say go for it.

While I’m mostly a nonfiction reader, I’ve noticed that fiction readers usually make the best academic writers.

Where do books fit into your information diet?


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