Introducing Friction for Improvement

The holiday season, I’ve been reviewing some of the systems I have built up over time to support my habits. This one is around my online reading habits.

Since the death of Google Reader, I’ve been using Feedly as my RSS feed  aggregator for a long time now. It’s been great because it synchronises across devices, & so I’ve always got something to read regardless of where I am.

That convenience of course has meant that I’ve gravitated towards reading whatever “new” stuff is flowing in, leaving my desire to be more intentional about what I’m consuming merely a desire.

These long holidays, I finally pulled the plug on Feedly, migrated the OPML file to Feedbro, a “local” newsreader extension for Chrome, Firefox & Edge (I use Chrome primarily).  I still have access to my newsfeeds – which I took the opportunity to prune down to half the size it was – BUT I have to sit down intentionally at the computer to read.  Feedbro doesn’t work on mobile. It doesn’t synchronise across devices, which means my primary workhorse is just one computer.  I am not as familiar with Feedbro’s features which means I’m not “saving” articles for later reading.   Just to make sure I switch across to a new system, I also deleted the Feedly app from my phone & the Feedly account (the Great App Purge of 2021 has also begun, although not as radically as Cal Newport suggests in his book Digital Minimalism).

In just a few days, I’ve reduced the number of times I’m picking up the phone to “read”.  The friction I’ve deliberately added to the process of online reading means also that I’m more likely to pick up a book. I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (yes, I’m late, & yes, it’s fantastic. It’ll probably be the subject of another post).

[I’ll review this system at the end of February, enough time for a new habit to have set in.]

Kurt Vonnegut’s first public reading “Breakfast of Champions” [Audio, LInk]

This is the very first public reading by Kurt Vonnegut of the classic Breakfast of Champions, three years before it was published. Vonnegut appeared at 92Y a total of seven times and he had much admiration for the audience at the corner of 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue.  Add 92Y to your list of sites if you’re interested in literature/ poetry/ biography etc.

Need more reasons to read? Or just some recommendations? [Article]

Leo Babauta has a few suggestions, as well as a link to this Quartz article about a study which concludes that folks who read literary fiction are more empathetic.

“I get lost in worlds wholly created by an author, imagined but containing truths about life, incisively commenting about life, reproducing it in beautiful new ways, putting me in the mind of another human being, grabbing my heart and dragging it through the thrill of falling in love or the dull numbness of divorce or the fear of being found out, giving me the power of flight or omniscience or magic, confessing about guilty deeds and crimes and affairs, taking me into richly re-imagined periods of history, helping me time travel and space travel and regular travel into new lands, showing me how other people live in helplessness, in slavery, in squalor, in power and luxury, in prostitution and presidency, making the mundane seem magical and the magical seem possible.”

An interesting discussion about reading speed on Reddit [Link]

I am a lurker on Reddit, & enjoy the time spent on some of the sub-reddits. I’ve been fascinated with speed-reading (I’m not very good at it), and even more intrigued by those who seem to read quickly & remember what it was they read. This thread on the books subreddit was interesting for just that reason.

Neil Gaiman on the future of reading & libraries [Article]

Neil Gaiman’s talk, [transcript here] is worth your time, if you care at all about nurturing the love of reading in the younger generation.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

The value of reading literary fiction over popular fiction [Article]

Research shows that reading literary fiction is more valuable in improving empathy.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.” Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

How to read faster & retain more [Article]

Mark Manson has some advice:

These are strategies anyone can use and require little practice. You can be up to speed and doing this stuff within a week or two. It will just take some conscious effort at first and a little bit of practice. For the most part, these tips are practical and logical, not some uber-speed-reading techniques.

Check out  Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book as well.

Why teach (and study) English? [Article]

Adam Gopnik explains why should English majors exist:

 Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible.

Why kids around the world can’t read [Article]

This western-world view at why kids in developing countries can’t read.

Of the world’s population, about 7 out of 10 live in a country where pretty much every child completes primary school. The proportion of secondary-school-aged kids who are in classes has climbed from about half to two-thirds over the past 15 years. The trouble is, a lot of those enrolled appear to be learning very little. In India only a little more than a quarter of the children who complete primary school can read a simple passage, perform division, tell time, and handle money—all skills that should be mastered by the end of second grade. And while eighth-grade enrollment increased to 87 percent from 82 percent of school-aged children in the country from 2006 to 2011, the fraction of enrolled children who could do long division fell to 57 percent from 70 percent—suggesting that despite more of them going to school, fewer kids actually learned basic math over that time.

Sure, but what about access to food, electricity, rest/sleep, books, teachers, housing etc.. ? Realities on the ground don’t usually make their way into these explanations – the pat answer from most armchair economists seems to be “if you can’t afford it, don’t have kids”.