On September 10, 2010 I read my 1,000th book. I started counting books I completed in 1987 so it took a little over 20 years to reach my 1,000th book.
Upon reaching the milestone of reading 1000 books, it seems appropriate to reflect on what I have learned as a result of all that reading. The temptation is to enumerate a list of facts or insights gained from individual books. Doing this might be a worthwhile project but would be a book unto itself and might not yield any insights to other readers. Instead I want to reflect on a few general points.
As Wittgenstein wrote in On Certainty, When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.) I believe this is how learning occurs. That is, light dawns gradually over the whole. The more you read the more you are able to connect the parts and begin to see a coherent whole.
One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years of reading is how various seemingly unrelated subjects are in fact connected. Making these connections is an important part of understanding and it is particularly satisfying to read a book which references ideas or concepts previously discovered in another book. The more this happens the more it strengthens the connections and increases retention of learning.
Another important lesson which comes from reading books other than textbooks is how incomplete a textbook based education really is. Although not a poor high school student I started college with many gaps in my learning. As a college student my performance in class greatly improved over high school and my grades reflected this. However, at the end of four years and a bachelor’s degree there were still significant gaps in my knowledge. Independent reading is the best method for filling in these gaps.
By some estimates it takes over 10,000 hours to master a skill or discipline to such an extent that you can be considered proficient. There is no secret to shortcut this process. If you want to gain a certain proficiency in a subject you have to put in the time. If you want to learn about a subject (or many different ones) you need to put in the time reading about them. This reading has to go beyond textbooks or summaries. You have to read full length books.
But, do you need to read a thousand books? If my theory about education is correct them you do need to read a fair amount in order to make the connections which are such an important part of a good education. I have outlined in several essays above the importance of studying the various subjects in the curriculum. A true study of these subjects involves reading to a great extent.
Of course not everything can be learned from reading books. But, the criticism that someone only has book smarts is misguided as well. For someone who truly has book smarts ought to be able to learn new things easily, connect new ideas to old ones, apply ideas in new ways, think creatively and be a good critical thinker. All of these important skills develop as a direct result of extensive reading. After all, how can one be a creative, critical thinking, problem solver without the knowledge to think creatively and critically about? You need content to be able to apply it and this is what extensive reading provides.
Is 1000 books enough? Of course, I plan to continue reading because there are still gaps in my knowledge; gaps that a lifetime of reading will never completely fill. But, this too is an important lesson learned from reading extensively. As much as anyone can read there is still an entire pool of knowledge to explore. One thousand books barely scratches the surface. But, the journey has been rewarding and I hope to report even more gains in knowledge and insights upon completing my second thousand books.