Mapping your reading topography

Useful exercise / thought experiment: mapping your reading topography. Or…somehow aiming to understand it, maybe!

By “topography” I mean the landscape of the books you read — and more specifically, I’m thinking about your path / trajectory through this landscape over time. Basically: zooming out and looking on a macro level, what defines the changing shape of what you read?

This is prompted by some Twitter discussion on how “reading a book a week” isn’t always a good goal. I’ve also been trying to think through what defines “good” reading — I think it’s mostly clear that quality > quantity, but “quality” of reading:

  1. is hard to measure with a single metric
  2. is different for every individual
  3. changes even for a single person according to mood, time, etc.

In general, some books are better for you than others — and may be good for you but not for me. And, of the books you ‘should’ read, some times / situations may be better than others for you to read them.

It basically follows from this that…

  • Some books may be objectively good, but not a good fit for what you want to read at this exact moment, for any number of reasons (and if so, you shouldn’t read it then!)
  • Similarly, some books may be recognizably not-good (in the same objective-ish way) but still fit a certain need for you (curiosity, desire for low-effort entertainment, to answer a specific question, whatever) and thus still very worth reading!

So, I want to propose that in thinking about our reading, we can have kind of a ladder of goals:

  • First, most naive (but still useful) level is basically: read more, by number of books, and (bit better) by time
  • Second level is basically: read better books
  • Third level is basically: read only the best books you can and read them at the appropriate time / context

Any levels beyond that? Maybe…start getting into e.g. “reading networks”, multiple books interacting, etc.!

A general metaphor might be the little chart on a treadmill indicating incline angle as “hills” you’re climbing, or the elevation chart that accompanies a trail guide for a hike. Translating this to our reading pace and overall patterns can help for visualizing things like “this week I need to take it easy and have fun, but I’ll intersperse this novel with occasional chapters of a challenging book I want to finish”, or “this month I’m prepping for a big project and need to read a bunch of dense books all on one subject but after that I’ll palate cleanse with some fun stuff I’ve been meaning to get to”…and so on!

I try to balance my reading, mostly naturally, and I haven’t done much of like specifically charting on a conscious level. But…maybe something to try!

It could also be interesting to look back at a couple years of past reading data and try to observe some patterns. My speculation would be things like: fun novels during vacation, cramming at the end of the year, challenging books kind of distributed across longer times but without much discernible pattern…

Anyway it’d be interesting to conduct some specific analysis of my reading topography / patterns, and also generalize a bit to propose some ideas for specific patterns that might be good match for some general life situations, learning goals, etc.!