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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

Why We’re Reading Less in 2020

Dec 17, 2019 | Reflections

adult book book store bookcase

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In case you hadn’t guessed already – I really love to read, and as far as I can remember always have. Reading is even listed as its own line item on my resume under ‘Personal Interests’ followed closely after by golf and travel.

I frequently get questions for recommendations about what to read next. While I can happily provide suggestions, not knowing why someone reads and what their interests are always makes giving a recommendation somewhat intimidating. For an average non-fiction book of 275 pages, most adults will spend between 5-7 hours it cover to cover – a sizable time commitment and not an ‘ask’ that I take lightly.

When I am not asked about what to read, I often get questions about how I read as much as I do. Sadly the answer is not that creative – I watch just a little tv and typically get 30-45 minutes of reading in before bed each night. Though I probably read moderately faster than the average American, I am not a speed reader by any means. If anything, by reading regularly, I can read more as it helps you keep your brain trained on how to focus for an extended period of time – a lost art in the our hyper-distracted era.

Less frequently am I asked about why I read so much – a more interesting question in my view. Firstly, I read because I am curious about how the world works. There is much in life that is incredibly interesting. People who spend a whole lifetime developing expertise in their particular discipline will draft a book, publish it, and for $15-$20, you and I have the ability to access the wisdom that may have taken an entire career to develop. There are few things in life that are as great a value (the Costco bucket of animal crackers notwithstanding).

Secondly, I have found reading to the best way to open up the door to working on interesting problems and questions professionally. Reading can take your thinking to the next level of complexity, and often can help shorten the time or accelerate the speed with which you are able to move up the learning curve.

As I have thought about reading, I think back to a conference I attended years ago. In 2004, I had the opportunity to hear leadership speaker, John Maxwell, speak. Maxwell shared that day 2 things that have stuck in my mind the last 15 years. First is his view that leaders are readers. If you want to be leading others, reading is the fastest and best way to continue to push your thinking about how better to lead where you have been entrusted with that role.

Secondly, Maxwell shared a challenge that if you will read a book a month on a subject for five years, you will become an expert in 5 years. I.e. basically – if you can get through 60 books on a subject, you will have encountered the major ideas and a lot of the nuance in a given field of study. While you may not be actively contributing the discipline with your own thoughts, you will have pushed yourself right to the leading edge and distinguished your thinking from the vast majority of others.

I have read regularly since I graduated from university in 2005, and kept fairly meticulous records. There is a saying that people over-estimate what they can accomplish in a year, but under-estimate what they can accomplish in a decade. Looking back on the last 14 years and particularly the last decade, I thought I would share a few summary statistics for the true data junkie.

Since 2012, I have read 287 books or an annual pace of 36 books a year. Since 2004 (15 years), I have read 125 books related to investing, 108 books about business strategy and 68 books about wealth management/family offices/etc.

Looking back, that progress is not something that I planned ex ante, but just emerged from a steady pace week in and week out. Looking to meld my 3 primary areas of focus, in 2017, I began drafting a manuscript and have recently finished a rough draft of what hopefully becomes my first book, an admittedly feeble attempt to repay a debt of gratitude to those authors who have gone before. More to come in 2020 on that.

So What Am I reading in 2020?

Given the end of a decade, it seemed an important time to take a step back and reflect on past efforts, but also consider what comes next. I have decided to take a different tactic in 2020 – namely to read fewer books, but longer ones. For one, in most of my preferred areas of interest, I have covered the “classics,” and really in any given year there may only be a handful of new books that are worth digging into.

But moreover, I know that I have deliberately skipped over some longer books, and likely missed a few gems. My 2020 plan started to form when I recently started reading Katherine Graham’s Personal History, the Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography of the former publisher of The Washington Post. Graham’s book is long at 642 pages, but even 20 pages in, is absolutely delightful in its depth and craft of writing.

As such, it made me wonder what other books I have been putting off reading due to their length but where I would be well rewarded for the effort. So I spent a couple weeks compiling a list of 12 books for 2020. Some are long ones, and others are classics that just never rose to the top of the pile.

In case you are interested in following along – here is the list:

  1. Katherine Graham – Personal History – Started and have more or less put aside until 1/1/2020
  2. Jon Meacham – Destiny and Power – Biography of George HW Bush – The more I learn about HW in other books, the more intrigued I am by him. I look forward to digging in more deeply
  3. Walter Isaacson – Benjamin Franklin – Arguably one of the most interesting Americans ever
  4. Peters and Waterman – In Search of Excellence – This is one of the first books ever written on business management – somehow I’ve never read it
  5. Dave Packard – The HP Way – HP was the Facebook of its day – I always enjoy reading history of technology
  6. Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel – This was really popular a few years ago – I just never got around to it
  7. Elie Wiesel – Night
  8. Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning – 7 and 8 both seem like important reflections on what it means to be human
  9. Nelson Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom – I know very little about Mandela
  10. De’Tocqueville – Democracy in America – This is candidly the one I am most excited and simultaneously intimidated about reading.
  11. Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – This book gets referenced a lot – seems at least worth venturing into
  12. Edward Hirsch – How to Read a Poem – This one is a bit further afield, but I have recognized that poetry is one of those things you get exposed to as a young person, but don’t have the life experience or perspective to encounter.

So there you have it, 12 books (a book a month) and just shy of 6,000 pages to read in 2020. What would you recommend and what reading have you been putting off where you would be rewarded for the effort?


About David

David is the Founder and CEO of Family Capital Strategy, a strategy consultancy for family offices and family businesses based in Nashville, TN. We help families stay invested together through the design of the family office and the thoughtful development of the family’s investment program. We provide objective, conflict free advice in a strategic, customized and multi-generational manner.


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