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Ask HN: How do you balance reading books vs. articles
61 points by yawz 5 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments
I’m an avid reader. I have many books going at any given time. I’m also interested in reading articles and blog posts online. But when I spend my time reading articles, I sometimes have this thought at the back of my mind about using the same reading time for books instead. Do you have any tips and tricks on how you’ve build a balance in this?

My experience is that books come in two forms: ones that can be summarized by a blog post (e.g. any Malcolm Gladwell book) and those that contain content of irreducible complexity (e.g. history books or textbooks). I usually get bored with the first type of book because it just rehashes the same thing over and over again.

So, when you choose book vs article, I think this distinction should be part of the thought process. Basically, if you do give up a blog post or article in favor of a book, make sure you're getting the right bang for you buck and are not just re-reading the same idea over and over again.

I'm a big fan of the adage to not read anything younger than 10/20/30 years old. by definition most books are mediocre, especially new ones, and only reading stuff older than a certain age helps filter out the crap.

same goes with blog posts to a certain extent - there are a number of shorter works that are constantly posted on HN (http://jsomers.net/hn/) and many of them are worth reading. though tbh I read a lot of articles all over the internet from any time. blame it on lack of discipline

Hah, this is exploiting the old, 'back in my day music was good, unlike whatever you are listening to now'.

In other words, you let everyone else filter for you.

Or: Lindy Effect, survivorship bias, some kind of incentive that selects for quality over time, etc.

Music is almost purely for entertainment and not for information so tastes can afford to be variable. And books are published on all sorts of topics so even despite this, among old books you can find weird things that disagree with each other.

> And books are published on all sorts of topics so even despite this, among old books you can find weird things that disagree with each other.

This is recursive and implies a decrease in diversity over time, starting from enormously high and reaching abysmally small. But I am fairly certain that it doesn't hold.

> among old books you can find weird things that disagree with each other.

I fail to see what makes old books capable of disagreeing with each other and recent releases incapable. At some point new releases become old and therefore they suddenly attain the ability to disagree with each other?

I fail to see the difference between music and books tbh. Whatever remains popular has, as you said, some property or quality that helps preserve it in memory.

> This is recursive and implies a decrease in diversity over time, starting from enormously high and reaching abysmally small. But I am fairly certain that it doesn't hold.

What books are considered part of a canon will always trail behind the total number of books being published, so the total set will either remain stable or increase in size.

However, I think your assumption that it will somehow converge only holds if the criterion of quality are both universal and consistent. Neither has to be true – different cultures have different measures and weights for quality, and within cultures there are disagreement as to what quality is (even in a contemporary setting). Hence my next claim.

> I fail to see what makes old books capable of disagreeing with each other and recent releases incapable. At some point new releases become old and therefore they suddenly attain the ability to disagree with each other?

That's the point – it equivocates the two which allows you to be indifferent between them upto other factors, since you should expect both new and old books to be diverse, rather than the monoculture of thought you are attempting to resist by going completely your own way. Those other factors can include possible selection effects like I have claimed above which act as signals for a book's quality.

I guess the only thing left to add is that you can't read everything, but there's a lot you could read. Given this problem, does one be an early adopter for a book or not?

Thank you for explaining your POV. In retrospect, my first comment insinuates a lazy approach to filtering. However, I didn't intend so, and it caused a misunderstanding, because we are in agreement. I did not intend to suggest that 'allowing other people to select for you' creates a monoculture, though the lack of information in the sentence and my subsequent replies points to that.

> I guess the only thing left to add is that you can't read everything, but there's a lot you could read. Given this problem, does one be an early adopter for a book or not?

The answer to the explore-exploit dilemma is dependent on the remaining time and your reward function, i.e. goals. I am still in my infancy as an avid reader, therefore I can not give a good enough comment.

Riffing off of this:

A better heuristic that can accommodate both the observation and necessity of change in how books are appraised could be: "What is the oldest possible correct book for the given topic, that continues to be read today?" If new books come for new topics that's fine, read them if the topic matters. Else older books might be better to use given the previous argument.

> I'm a big fan of the adage to not read anything younger than 10/20/30 years old

The only issue I really have with this is textbooks. Especially true for humanities/history where some new things have come to light or new theories/fields have developed.

> by definition most books are mediocre

What? Oh, well, in that regard most elements in any category is mediocre. Doesn’t really mean much...

Sturgeon's law: "ninety percent of everything is crap." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law

It's not uncommon for those types of books (as you mentioned, for example, Malcolm Gladwell) to come into being as a result of a series of blog posts.

A couple examples are Cal Newport and Mark Manson. Their books aren't bad, but they could be reduced to probably 1/3 of their actual length without much loss of insight.

Blinkist and similar tools are a good enough solution for this. But those are locked up behind a paywall. I've been importing links to book summaries (along with authors' TED talks, podcasts etc) in LearnAwesome.org (my open-source project) so that when looking up a book, user can easily discover summaries,interviews,talks covering the same ideas in a more preferable format.

I listen to audiobooks, it helps to filter boring books. And after listening to the audiobook If I feel that I missed a lot I can read a regular book.

There is a great book "how to read a book" by Mortimer J. Adler. It teaches to filter books and understand if it worth reading

Hehe I read that and once I got the gist from the first two chapters, I filtered it and stopped reading it.

I've read too many of the first that lately it has killed most of my motivation to read any non-fiction books (the last couple I started, I just never finished because essentially I got bored). I enjoy reading (and still read fiction), and I want to have that motivation, but I just can't seem to muster it. This includes books that have good reviews, because apparently a lot of people don't seem to mind. It just seems like there's a lot of people writing books because it's "the thing to do" and probably makes more money than the couple blog posts or long article that would have been a better format.

Anyone else experience this, and how did you get past it?

I experienced the same thing. Waiting for recommendations from similarly minded people helped me get past it.

I didn't read any non-fiction for a long time before I was given a book as a gift [0] that was really good. Since then, I have received a few other recommendations that I enjoyed [1-2].

[0] Artificial Intelligence by Melanie Mitchell

[1] Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

[2] The Theoretical Minimum Series by Leonard Susskind

Honestly, you've already identified the problem (reading books of the "first kind"), so you know what to do. Stop picking up books just because they're best sellers. That would be a great start.

You could take it a step further and read academic reviews, which are about the size of a book chapter but are otherwise meant to be self-contained pieces of writing on a topic.

You are overthinking this. Some people just like reading those books and you don't. It's personal preference. Just try reading new genres you haven't given a chance before and maybe you will find something interesting.

I'd like it if the trend became to write business books as a collection of essays rather than around a single topic. I'm sort of imagining Paul Graham's essays bound into a book or something similar. That way it's not unnecessarily verbose, but still long enough to warrant putting into a book.

I love essay compilations, the latest one I read was Umberto Eco's Chronicles of a Liquid Society. A compilation of his columns in l’Espresso magazine. Such a good format, doesn't waste any space in his writing whatsoever (that's Eco and the format).

I would really appreciate more of this kind, any commenters here have suggestions?

Business books — even the insightful ones — are typically only 2-3 pages long (there a few, very few, exceptions). But that can’t sell at the airport so they are padded out like washing powder.

Some of these can be worth the squeeze / time (e.g. stuff from Mark Manson imo), but the litmus test I use is whether the author trying to do any one (or more of the following):

* "inspire" me with useless stories from other people, i.e. stuff that isn't anything beyond "wow amazing feat!" with no practical utility. These are most of the trash pop-biz or pop-psych books that talk about the marshmallow experiment for the Nth time... * use their book to get speaking engagements (e.g. by checking their website) * does the book contain a goofy diagram to abstractly illustrate their point in a bass-ackwards way? (The Conjoined Triangles of Six-Sigma Success!)

In all fairness, examples and context usually would push them out past magazine length. (It's also true that, based on the complaints here about things like recipe embellishments, I'm probably more tolerant than some.)

That said, many/most are padded out. In general, you can't publish a book unless it's 250 pages or so. The economics for publishers apparently just don't work out. Fairly or not, a lot of people at least subconsciously buy by the pound. They're not going to pay $20 for a 50 page book in general.

I use Pocket to postpone reading articles during the work week. I then go through the list over morning coffee on weekends on my e-reader. Once I removed that impulse to read articles immediately as I stumble upon them, I found out that I simply delete like 50-60% of collected links without consuming them.

I read books either after work / later on weekends / before bed.

I do the same and yes, results are similar. I delete most of the material I marked after some time. It also prevents me to chase the breaking news. When I go over a list, usually the "breaking" value is already lost so I can skip them.

I also have a two or three layer setup. I star the material in rss reader, then if it looks ok after some time, I add to Pocket. I skim the article in Pocket and if it looks worthy enough, I favorite it and an IFTTT rule adds it to Instapaper. I read once more in Instapaper.

In my opinion, if you don't think you'll revisit an article, it's not worth reading even once.

Edit: typo

> I found out that I simply delete like 50-60% of collected links without consuming them.

This is an interesting result! Why do you suppose this is?

I read an interesting article the other day.

"I am always amazed by what happens: no matter how stringent I was in the original collecting, no matter how certain I was that this thing was worthwhile, I regularly eliminate 1/3 of my list before reading. The post that looked SO INTERESTING when compared to that one task I’d been procrastinating on, in retrospect isn’t even something I care about.

What I’m essentially doing is creating a buffer. Instead of pushing a new piece of info through from intake to processing to consumption without any scrutiny, I’m creating a pool of options drawn from a longer time period, which allows me to make decisions from a higher perspective, where those decisions are much better aligned with what truly matters to me."


Yup, I was also partially inspired by him when coming up with this approach. Definitely the only "productivity guru" who had a mild impact on my workflow.

Looking forward to him converting his Building a Second Brain course to a book, because no way in hell I'm paying a thousand bucks for a course.

Plenty of reasons, but among the top ones:

- They don't seem as interesting as they appeared to be at first. Example: https://www.wired.com/story/his-writing-radicalized-young-ha... (captivating title, but I find Doctorow's fiction mediocre at best)

- I open them, get their essence in the first few sentences, decide it's not worth the time compared to others in queue. Example: https://github.blog/2020-11-16-standing-up-for-developers-yo... (don't need to spend 8 min on that, I got the gist from the title)

- Context gets removed. I forget what made me save them, making my judgement on them more objective. Example: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/03/how-seriously-rea... (I read like 2-5 papers a year front-to-back, I don't really need to know this)

I do the exact same thing. For me I think it has to do with the fact that when I am going through everything I'm confronted by how long it would take to read everything I have saved previously, so I'm much more in the mind to get rid of stuff to make the overall readjng time manageable.

Prefer books over articles generally since the information density is often higher and the quality of information for published books is going to be more consistent. Books often contain leads for more information which can be contained in either more books or articles, of high quality, for good reasons.

Articles are often more contemporary in topic matter and so should be fit to your current purpose, rather than acting as your primary means of exploring topics (which is their most common use when reading feeds, if we call "filling up time due to boredom" a form of foraging). Books are better for both exploration and depth when it comes to understanding important and long-lasting ideas.

I balance the two by reading longform articles that convey a single idea well, rather than books that take too long to read and clickbait articles that provide instant-gratification but nothing of lasting value. (I highly recommend the Thinking About Things newsletter [0] and LongReads [1] for finding these kinds of articles.)

[0] https://twitter.com/ThinkingAboutT6

[1] https://longreads.com/

Seconding the recommendation of Thinking About Things. That newsletter is really one of the internet's unknown gems - I tire of most "interesting article" curators eventually, but they cover such a diverse array of topics that it's been over a year and I still enjoy their articles.

Is there an archive of the past links from the newsletter?

Unfortunately I don't see one on their site. The Twitter feed [0] has some links though.

[0] https://twitter.com/thinkingaboutt6

Thinking About Things is really good. I couldn't stop scrolling and adding things to Pocket. Thank you for the recommendation.

Great piece of advice, thanks - and for the links too.

I dump articles into instapaper send them to my kindle when there's a pile of them. That's usually every week. Then, when I have some free time, waiting for my beef stew, for instance, I'll chip at them little by little.

Some really short ones --- a short news for instance, I just skim over them when I see them.

Some articles require more concentration, and I'll usually add them to my At-Desk to do list. When I'm at my desk, and has a chunk of free time, I'll pick one and read.

One thing is that over the week, some articles will have the same topic, with varying depth and quality. So by waiting a little bit, I can often read less words while still being informed.

But I probably spend much more time on books, mostly in mornings and evenings, because I prefer books in general. However, I read fictions most of the time. It's probably not what you have in mind, and it isn't really comparable to articles.

I read mostly fiction books too. (At bed time mostly) For articles I save them them to Pocket, and then every so often I'll edit the list.

I make a zine called https://WaldenPond.press that I get delivered once a month. Then I leave my phone inside and read for 20 minutes or so on the balcony while I have a coffee in the morning.

It doesn't sound like much, but I'm consistently getting through the 4 hour edition in about 2 weeks. Then I switch to just reading my fiction book in the morning as well as at night.

I prefer books over articles for a few reasons. One, it feels like more of an accomplishment (I know this is a shallow reason to read, but it's a reason nonetheless). Second, I'm much more likely to remember the source of a piece of information if I read it in a book, which helps with organizing and remembering what I've read. Random articles just leave me with a vague feeling of knowing something but not why I know it. Third, a published book is more likely to good.

Books are not inherently more valuable than articles, but they certainly seem to be valued more. Honestly, I just read what I like at a given time. It's not that important.

In practice, I read more articles day to day, but I read more book when I travel, because I dedicate more time to reading. I love to sip a beer and read a book in distant places.

I read for one hour every day in a book and one hour online articles. Most of the time, however, I invest less time in articles because I read most of them only roughly.

I read books in my bed before going to sleep, and I read articles on my computer during the day. So, there's a clear physical separation: different parts of the house, different times of the day, different media. They don't overlap, so they don't conflict.

Are you reading for pleasure, or for study?

If for study, you can save a lot of time by scanning the text, contents, and index for what's relevant to you, and only reading those parts (or at least reading them first). For articles you can usually just read the middle half, ignoring the introduction and conclusion.

If for pleasure, you're out of luck. You'll never read everything you'll want to read in one lifetime. You can maximize the value of your limited time by casting off any sense of obligation you may have to books you aren't getting value from. If a book isn't justifying itself after an hour, or 50 pages, or whatever, toss it out and find something else. Life is too short to slog through garbage.

> I sometimes have this thought at the back of my mind about using the same reading time for books instead.

This implies that books are inherently superior. But sometimes the author's content isn't a book length. (I see this a lot in books from Harvard Business Review where what is really called for is a dense article, but that doesn't put a book on the author's resume.)

Some arguments are intrinsically long. Building up an understanding of thermodynamics (not just a summary of its formulation) is certainly book length. Scheidel's 'Escape from Rome' is not going to fit into an article.

So I don't really balance. Sometimes I have a big book in flight and that's going to take a lot of my attention. Sometimes I don't, but I have a number of interesting articles. I aim to optimize the enrichment I get instead.

I try to minimize screen time in general and reading for me is really something I do to calm my mind. So a few habits that I developed are:

- Before bed time, I avoid screens and read novels instead - When I have spare time, I go out and read on a bench - I have my phone set to a black and white screen from 9:30pm on

Yup. I read articles during the day. How I pick those can be whatever came up that week/moment or I groom my Pocket backlog.

But before bed, I want my brain to calm down and books help that. Routine is 30 minutes before bed reading a paper novel. I also attempt to make this fiction (as most of my other reading is non-fiction)

It's tough with two kids, but I've prioritized it this year and have appreciated myself for doing so.

do you have a tablet or an e-reader? maybe having a separate device and only allowing yourself to read articles on it might stop you from reading as many random articles online.

when i used pocket a few years ago i found that it was too easy add an article if I had the browser extension installed so i removed that and only added articles by going to the website, which meant i would usually think a bit more about whether I really wanted to read it or not.

ive just bought an android eink tablet and im going to start saving articles using a browser extension to save the article as epub or text, and then use syncthing to sync it to the tablet and read them there.

another thing that might help is to use an rss reader since you won't see a sidebar of other articles like you would on a website that might distract you

> im going to start saving articles using a browser extension to save the article as epub or text

Do you have any recommendation on such an extension? I've been using EpubPress[0], but it doesn't always make a great job (e.g. missing important images and still weighing many MBs)

[0] https://epub.press/

i use this one but i never tried any others so i dont know whether its better or worse than epubpress https://github.com/alexadam/save-as-ebook

I have several books going at any given time and will generally only read a chapter or a couple of pages. If it is material I find especially tough (for me it's been Deleuze or Lacan) I might only read a page or so a day.

Typically, I am doing this in the evening and I have a regular time after my evening meditation and walk.

Being able to structure that only happened after my kiddo got into high school and it's been easier since he's at college and I am wholly on my own.

Poorly. I read a bunch growing up, but as an adult I've found I've lost the attention span for longer books. Which is a shame.

I like books for fiction, and articles for keeping up to date. I usually read books for fun before sleeping, and articles to keep informed during the day. But really, I just do whatever I feel like doing.

I might cut Netflix time for reading, but articles are kind of a necessity to keep up to date.

I keep my reading time at two hours daily, with that i am supposed to read about two or three books a month and everything that falls into my kindle. At this point i’ve gotten very good at skim reading light articles and aggressively deleting uninteresting or bad ones.

Please take a look at my model - it's all about two dimensions and things get easier - https://dev.to/psmyrdek/the-learning-funnel-133i

I only read articles that I believe are making me more intelligent by expanding my understanding of a concept or incredibly thought provoking. Doing the same for books is quite tedious so I only read fiction books that revolve around good stories.

Like others here, I read books on paper by incandescent light in the hours before bed. But since you bring it up, I think I might try to start using paper-only for an hour or two after waking also, before facing a screen.

Books are a superior format, consider cookie walls, notification popups, ads and all the other junk.

I am reading articles during my way to work (short period) and books before sleep (long period).

articles on the shitter, books on the couch

This guy gets it.

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