How to read more: Less Flow, More Stock

I was half-expecting Jeff Ryan’s recent article in Slate on how he read a book

I was half-expecting Jeff Ryan’s recent article in Slate on how he read a book a day in 2012 to be somewhat self-congratulatory. Fortunately, it wasn’t. It actually made me feel like even I might be capable of pulling off such a feat. Here’s the money quote:

If you follow my path and read a book a day in 2013, you’ll find that you truly, truly will not be reading more than usual. Right now, you are probably reading a comparable amount to me—but you’re reading newspapers, Facebook and Twitter, and the work of the fine folks at Slate. I let that stuff go for a year in the interest of making my quota.

This reminded me of the idea of Stock and Flow, first written about in Snarkmarket by Robin Sloan, and more recently addressed by my friend Chris Higgins, in his book The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not Starving.

When it comes to writing, Flow is the ephemeral, short-lived stuff: the Tweets, the blog posts, the emails, the stuff on Reddit and Facebook. (Reading and writing flow is what happens when I’ve had a busy but unproductive day.) As Chris Higgins writes:

If you spend your life in flow (which is tempting for many bloggers, especially those who like to live inside social media worlds like Twitter), you develop the skills of curation, but you neglect the skills of in-depth writing–those latter skills are what you’ll need when you trade up and find yourself needing to write long articles or books.

On the other hand, Stock is the “durable stuff,” the stuff that lasts: substantive blog posts, longer articles, books. It’s the stuff that gets bookmarked and referred to, years later. It’s the stuff that serves as the anchor for your website or career. One of the best takeaways I learned from Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, the new book from Nassim Nicholas Taleb (which which I reviewed in the LA Times is the best way to predict the future shelf life of something. Quite simply: the older something is—a work of art or a kind of technology—the longer we can expect it to be around. Something that’s thousands of years old, like the shoe or the book, isn’t leaving anytime soon; by contrast, there’s no evidence that Twitter and Facebook will be around in 10 years.

Ryan’s piece in Slate made me realize that our reading habits can be thought of in terms of Stock and Flow as well. If you spend today on Reddit, you won’t remember that content in a year; if you spend that time reading a book, on the other hand, that could come up in conversation in a year. So, in 2013, just remember: if you’re reading this, you’re probably already spending an ample amount of time on Flow. Try spending more time on Stock. You won’t have to read any more, you’ll just be reading things that are older, took longer to produce, and therefore more likely to withstand time, fads, and your own imperfect memory.

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