I think there is something profoundly healthy and ‘enlightening’ about reading long-form content, both fiction and non-fiction, that is not present in short-form content like many blogs (the irony, I know!), news articles and, to some extent, academic papers. I worry – maybe wrongly – that our current standard mechanisms for acquiring and ingesting information act to provide us with a huge number of paths to a relatively small number of narrow and somewhat anaemic sources of information.
This has been driven home in recent years through direct exposure to the noise-making machinery that drives a not-insubstantial proportion of the internet. The sheer number of websites and social media accounts dedicated to re-branding, re-posting and generally amplifying content that is typically poorly researched and often sensationalised into bite-size 800-word-or-less chunks is quite disheartening. It sometimes seems like the entire apparatus is targeting the reader’s subconscious world rather than their conscious one.
That’s where books can be great. At the outset, the reader enters into a relationship with the author. By committing to reading their book, we essentially agree to spend an extended period of time in the author’s company as they set out their narrative or discuss their ideas. We can get a sense for who the author is, and often a more holistic perspective on both who they are, their motives and how they’re trying to get us (the reader) to think. We also get more time and content to process and reason about, giving us a richer, more in-depth grasp of the subject or themes we’re being shown. Sometimes – maybe most of the time – you simply cannot beat a good book. They are investments.
This brings me to this post. A few years ago I noticed I’d got out of the habit of reading long-form content regularly. I recall in that particular year I read only two or three books. The following year I set myself a target to read at least one book a month, and gradually this has crept up to something like 1.5 books a month presently. That’s still not as many as I’d like, but I’m in it for the long haul – hopefully I’ll get there!
I wanted to highlight another point here too: I love working in software and specifically in my own little bit of AI. But that doesn’t mean I should spend every spare minute reading the latest papers and little else. We need to strive to be rounded, ethical and conscious of broader issues. That means looking outside our little silos, trying to understand other perspectives and actively searching for challenging work, and/or actively reading seminal work that we take for granted as knowing or not needing to read. That also means that non-scientific work can be very important too, including fictional works.
I realise this perspective isn’t limited to just people working in AI, and I don’t think this is controversial or original, but I raise it as I have encountered many professionals in the commercial and research sectors that – in my opinion – focus too narrowly on minutiae that ultimately inadvertently limits their capabilities. That’s why I thought I’d put my reading list for the last year, and some books I’m expecting to read over the next year down. Hopefully there’s some books of interest in there too!