I was a voracious reader when I was a kid.
From a very young age, I was read to each night by my Dad, and his natural storytelling capability and ‘unique’ (!) spin on stories helped me develop a love for books.
I remember being given the full Roald Dahl collection and it being one of the best presents I’ve ever received (still is). The vivid imagery and meticulous detail of ‘The Twits’, ‘The Witches’ or ‘James and the Giant Peach’ served as rocket fuel to my developing mind and sense of imagination.
And then, somewhere along the way, that all stopped.
From a point when I read 4-5 fiction books per month, school, sport and eventually college (alcohol!) got in the way.
I also begun reading poorly written, banal sporting autobiographies which I often struggled to finish. (If you’re ever looking for a book to challenge you for all the wrong reasons, read Steven Gerrard’s autobiog.)
At around the same time, I begun to spend a lot of time online, firstly on sites like Bebo and Boards.ie, and then on Facebook, Twitter and a host of sports/marketing/tech forums and news sites.
Undoubtedly, this time spent grazing on short form content, with multiple browser windows open and an unlimited supply of distractions online played havoc with my attention span.
Literally, any time I took up a newspaper, but particularly a long form article, I had to fight my sudden urge to pick up my phone or lost concentration.
I’d probably liken it to a much lesser version of what a person feels when dementia or forgetfulness is setting in. For me, a young marketer who’s mind is his tool, it was frightening.
It didn’t help that my attempts at reading books focused on a much different genre to my youth. I had lost the ability to use my imagination, meaning fiction lost its lustre for me, and through bad choices, the majority of my reading was about staid, boring marketing or entrepreneurial books.
Combined with that, the information heavy nature of my day job made it difficult to both switch off, but also to focus on a book at night.
And then, gradually, I began to wake from my slumber.
Firstly, I used good old will power to break through the concentration and attention span barrier. Truthfully, it was incredibly difficult, and it’s embarrassing to admit an inability to concentrate on a book, but that was a problem for me!
Perhaps most importantly, I also changed the nature of what I was reading. From boring sports biographies and technical, non story based marketing books, I made small steps back to the fiction of my youth, and found my imagination re-awakening.
Books like Friday Night Lights, Peter Hook’s ‘Hacienda’ and John McPhee’s ‘Levels of the Game’, though strictly speaking ‘true to life’ are incredible stories, while any marketing book I picked up needed to have a cultural angle.
I’ve basically trained myself to love books again, and it’s incredibly enjoyable to re-discover the love!
In the past few months, I’m again reading 3-4 books at least per month, along with a healthy stack of magazines. I’ve also re-discovered a love of print, and don’t use my Kindle at all.
And at the same time, I’ve read three very inspiring pieces on the importance of reading.
Ryan Holiday is a bit of a man crush of mine, and his incredible binge reading habit and thus fertile mind is an inspiration.
I’ve taken Holiday’s advice about the cost of books, and basically disregard their price now. If I see something I want to read, I buy it.
Of course, this leads to a pile up on the bookshelf, and a dangerous credit card balance sometimes, but it’s so worth it.
Secondly, Shane Parrish of Farnam Street wrote this brilliant piece on the importance of reading last week.
And finally, this served to fully change my mind on the benefits of reading fiction and why it’s an important way to gain empathy and cultivate imagination.
I’ve changed the way I read too. Now I scribble on margins, jot down diagrams and take notes in a book about what I’ve learned. I try to synthesise and gather some meaning from a book, adding it to webs of information about other topics. I see reading as an ancillary education.
For example, I read James Kerr’s Legacy last week, and took a lot from it for business, but also a lot of reference points back to other sports and leadership examples like Obama or Alex Ferguson.
Hopefully, someone out there will identify with my journey in the past year or so, and attempt to re-discover their love.
Last year, both of those would have been firmly beyond my capability, as crazy as that sounds.
But boy, it’s good to be back!