Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

Ten books in one month

100 books

I hadn’t heard about Aaron Swartz before his demise on January 11th. He was a brilliant chap: master computer programmer, co-founder of Reddit, activist for open data and much more. He was also just 26 years old.

After the news of his suicide, the web exploded with eulogies. Much was said about bullying by US prosecutors, openness of data and difficulties of dealing with depression, all of which contributed in someway to his suicide. But what stood out for me came mostly through Aaron’s own words. (His blog Raw Thought is a treasure trove and a great way of learning about him.)

One thing in particular stuck with me: his ability to read more than 100 books every year. (He dropped out of high school and that’s how he taught himself.) I want to do this. And I know managing that with a full-time job and my other writing work is going to be a hard thing to do. So I’ve decided to start by setting a goal of reading 10 books in the next 4 weeks. (This is a little more than the 2 books per week needed to make up 100 books per year.)

At first glance this seems like a difficult task given that previously I averaged about 1 or 2 books per month. But some simple calculations show that this is not a ridiculous aim. At an average size of 300 pages (70,000 words), I’m aiming to read 25,000 words per day. This means at an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, I will need just over two hours of reading time. Allowing for sometime for note-taking and breaks will make it 2.5-3 hours every day.

If I cut out watching TV and I read only the most essential things online, I should be able to do this. If I can do 10 books before February 24th and manage the rest of my life properly, I’ll extend this challenge to 100 books before January 27th, 2014.

With help of friends on Twitter and Facebook and my own reading list, I’ve compiled a list of 10 books that I am planning to read in the next four weeks:

  1. Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma
  2. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
  3. Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin
  4. The End of Science by John Horgan
  5. Genome by Matt Ridley
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  8. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  10. Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

If I find the book not worth my time, I will replace it with another one and update the list here. Although I doubt that this list of 10 will need any replacing. I will post a review of the book once I’ve read it (here and on Amazon). If you are keen to support me in this endeavour, you can buy me one of the books above. At present I only first 5 of them. Here is my Amazon wish list. (PS: email me if you need my address).

The #100bookschallenge starts now.

PS: I’m taking the average word count of a book as 70,000 because I am planning to read more non-fiction than fiction. Image from here.