Lessons On Reading and Writing From Mr. 500 Books

I remember reading Othello back in high school…

It was bound in a bright blue paperback sleeve with the word “Sparknotes” written above the title.

I know. Sparknotes isn’t the same thing as reading the book. But I was young and at that time, Shakespeare didn’t interest me the way Final Fantasy VII did.

Imagine my relief when I heard that our guest for today’s podcast — Roy Lotz, one of the top reviewers on Goodreads — also wasn’t into reading back in the day, I felt relieved. He’s since found a love of reading and has read over 550 books…cover to cover.

He writes some of the best book reviews on Goodreads, which made me ask the question, “How can a guy go from reading Sparknotes in high school to reading 500+ books and becoming an amazing writer?”

I decided to reach out to him. Thankfully, Roy took some time to talk with me.

Here’s what I learned.

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It’s Never Too Late To Start

Reading isn’t just a childhood school activity.

Many of us didn’t have a choice on what books we read growing up. Great Expectations felt more like Dull Revelations.

The same was true for Roy. It wasn’t until he was in college that he found a joy for reading. His passion for reading could have easily come after college, or even in middle age. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. Reading is beneficial at any age.

How to Pick Books To Read

“For general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to, what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention, so there is but one-half to be employed on what we read.” – Samuel Johnson.

The secret is finding books that resonate with you right now.  Ignore what other people have to say and pick up books that pique your interest. If you don’t enjoy it, put it down and try another one.

If you want to read more, pick books that are interesting.

Reading a book is a unique experience. You might be captivated and enthralled by the Hunger Games, whereas your friend might find it boring. Reading is about satiating your curiosity, not following what others think…

Roy recommends everyone read A Short History of Nearly Everything. He calls these types of books “Popularizers” because they take a dense subject and make it accessible to the masses.

Other recommended books you might find interesting:

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig — A great example of how philosophy could be vital to a person’s life. Just watch out for the 60s/70s baggage.
  • A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell — Has some flaws because it’s a bit unfair to some of the philosophers, but Russell’s writing is clear and funny.
  • The Outline of History by HG Wells — Takes the reader from the beginning of life to World War 1 in 1000 pages. Wells gets a few historical details wrong, but it gives you a good sense of general history.

Reading is about pleasure. If you’re trying to force yourself to read unpleasurable books you’ll kill your motivation and stop reading.

But you shouldn’t be afraid to read books that scare you.

When Roy tackled Martin Heidegger’s Being in Time, he said it was brutal to finish. After reading 400+ pages, he wasn’t sure what he just went through. But that’s ok!

That experience made him a better reader and thinker.

Think of it like going to the gym. You’ll never progress unless you increase weights over time. It’s not easy but it’s necessary. Do the same with books and get your mental reps in.

Should You Read a Book Cover to Cover?

Roy finishes books cover to cover even if he doesn’t like the book. This method shouldn’t be imitated by all. It works for him but might not work for you.

Naval Ravikant, another voracious reader I admire, looks at books like bound blog posts. He recommends reading chapters of books that interest you and being ok with moving on from a book once it loses your interest.

Focusing on reading a set number of pages per day regardless if it’s one book or many.

To make it easier to read many books at once, Roy uses his Kindle about half the time. The remainder is split between physical books and audiobooks.

The easiest way to read more books is by finding predictable nooks in your schedule that you can pair with reading a specific book.

For example:

  • Mornings after you wake up you can read {book one) for 20 minutes to get the mind working.
  • During your morning commute, you could listen to an audiobook (book two) for 30 minutes.
  • Before you sleep you can snuggle up with a good piece of fiction (book three) and pass out with the lights on after only two pages.

It might not seem like a lot of time reading, but these little chunks will add up and you’ll be shocked at how many books you get through in a year.

Audiobooks: Abridged vs. Unabridged?

Roy recommends audiobooks for light activities such as driving or walking. Audiobooks also come in handy when you’re reading a monster of a book that would otherwise be too heavy to hold for long periods of time.

When asked if he likes abridged or unabridged books, he says it depends. If you want to set yourself up for a win-win, go abridged for long books. If you enjoy it, then go back and get the full experience with the unabridged version.

An author he recommends you check out on audiobook is Marcel Proust.

Being a Generalist or a Specialist?

During the time of Aristotle, it was possible for one person to reach the cutting edge of all knowledge…

That’s impossible today.

Being a generalist sacrifices depth because there is too much information to grasp at a surface level. Specialization, however, is necessary if we want to expand the realms of human knowledge.

For teaching, being a generalist is the best approach because you don’t take for granted the depth of knowledge needed to explain concepts to new learners.

Human progress is possible through specialization, but we need a strong generalized scaffolding to make sure we’re effective thinkers.

This is why Thought Stack exists: to help create a scaffold of “good thinking” in the brains of people around the world.

On Writing Well

You can’t get good at anything without doing it a lot.

Roy writes 1,000 words a day, a number he picked up after reading On Writing by Stephen King. Practice, practice, practice! Stephen King actually writes 2,000 words a day…but Roy thinks that’s excessive.

The practice itself is not going to make you better. You need to be more strategic in finding your unique voice.

Roy’s method for finding your voice:

    • When you read, accumulate a bunch of quotes and store them in a Google Doc, notebook, or index cards.
    • Pick a quote that you saved and think about why you chose to save it. Why do you like it? What about its rhythm, diction, or what it’s expressing touches you emotionally? Deconstruct writers you like so you can find out why you like them.
  • Like any art, writing is learned by imitations, not principles.
  • People recognize good writing, so when you see good writing, be sure to imitate/borrow what you can. Eventually, your own voice will manifest itself from your experiences.
    • When you write non-fiction, your goal should be to attain clarity. Be as clear as possible. This gets tricky when you talk about abstractions, such as philosophy, but if you’re not clear in your mind, your reader won’t be either.
    • It’s hard to think clearly about something super general. If you write about something abstract, include a concrete example. This will help your reader to understand your point.
  • Writing is an act of mental organization as much as it is for communication.
  • Metaphors are useful for abstract concepts because it enables visualization in the reader’s mind. Metaphors play a huge role in human cognition, just make sure you chose the right one.
  • Language and speaking are ancient, whereas writing and reading are relatively recent in terms of us as a species. Therefore, never write a sentence that sounds weird if read out loud. It puts too much strain on the reader’s mind and makes your message muddled.
  • Use language that is more natural — “he/she” is worse than “their.”
  • Favorite writing style book: The Elements of Style and The Sense of Style.
  • Most important writing commandment: Be Honest. Be honest about your thinking and be honest in your intention to communicate in an emotionally direct, factually direct, and linguistically direct manner.

List of Books Mentioned

How To Find Roy

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