I think I might have a book problem

I was talking to my colleague Daoud about the books I’m reading in my current attempts to understand statistics in a more coherent fashion (my  problem isn’t that I don’t understand a reasonable amount of statistics, it’s that I don’t have an overall framework in which I understand statistics, so my knowledge is very patchy) and happened to look up at my bookshelves.

Where I spotted an entire book on statistical inference that I have literally no recollection of buying.

It looks pretty good, too. I haven’t actually read much of it just now (I probably have in the past), but it seems decent based on a skim through.

But it drove home a thing I’m realising recently: how little of the knowledge that is contained on my bookshelves I actually know.

Looking around the shelves there are a lot of books there I haven’t really read. They fall into a bunch of categories:

For some of them, this is legit – there are a lot which I’ve partially read before abandoning that path of my life (I have a lot of books on functional analysis, set theory, etc which I’m still interested in in the abstract and can’t bring myself to get rid of but honestly I will never study again).

Some of them I’ve picked up, read as much of them as I could and “Oh god this is too hard I need something simpler” and either bought a simpler book to supplement them or abandoned the subject.

Some of them are that simpler book, and I’ve instead ended up acquiring the information a different way and they are now too basic for me.

Some of them I’ve bought only to discover that they’re terrible and not really worth reading.

Some of them are reference books where the concept of having “read” them doesn’t really apply.

A lot of them though? I think what has happened is a chain of thought that goes “I wish to learn about X” *buys book about X* “Yay. I have learned about X” (In one case this is literally true. I have an unread book about Xlib up there. Fortunately I also no longer care to learn about Xlib).

There’s an idea that’s common in some fitness communities: You shouldn’t pre-announce your fitness goals, because it gives you much the same psychological rewards as actually achieving those goals, and thus makes you less likely to put in the effort to really achieve them. I don’t know if this is true – I don’t really know enough about the psychology of reward mechanisms to say (Ooh. I should buy a book on that. Wait. No. Bad David) – but it has plausibility, and I think something like that might be happening here: Surrounding myself with books about a subject in some way satisfies my desire to learn about that subject even though no learning actually takes place.

A little of this is probably healthy and normal. But there’s a lot of this going on with my shelves. I suspect that there’s a year of reading (spare time reading rather than solid) even if I only count the books that I actually care about still learning.

So I’m going to do two things to try and change this.

OK, three things, because I’m aware that I’m pre-announcing my goals right after I said that pre-announcing your goals is a great way to not achieve them. But the third thing is “achieve my goals despite having pre-announced them through a careful application of regularly reminding myself I haven’t achieved this goal”.

The first thing: Always have a physical non-fiction book on me when leaving the house. I can’t guarantee that this will cause me to read it, but I can guarantee that time when I don’t have a book with me are times that I’m not going to be reading a book.

The second thing: I was saying the other day that I didn’t really have any mid-range goals suitable for using beeminder. All the habits I’m trying to form seem to be either not worth the additional monetary stress or ones I’m already able to achieve on my own. Well, now I’m wrong, so I no longer have the excuse to not try it, so I’m trying it. I’ve committed to reading a non-fiction book every four weeks (I’ve counted my recent read of Mathematical methods in the theory of queuing to get me started). A book every four weeks should be easy. I normally read 3-4 books per week. Granted those are fiction, where my reading rate is absurd compared to my reading rate for non-fiction, but even so. If anything I’m hoping that it will be a pessimistically low rate and I’ll be able to raise it later,

Both of these will bias me towards shorter books (the former because longer books are heavy. The latter because I can’t necessarily finish a longer book in a month). If this proves to be a problem I’ll redefine my beeminder goal in terms of a “typical” book size and count book carrying as an exercise goal. Really though, I don’t have a problem with being biased towards shorter books for now: I like short books, and I have plenty of interesting ones to keep me going for now.

I’ve no idea if these will be sufficient to sort out this problem, but hopefully they’ll be a good start.

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