Reading 20 Books in 20 Days

I decided to read 20 books in 20 days. Great idea, right? Or?

Well, firstly the whole gist of reading 20 books in 20 days was to challenge myself. My philosophy of life is that one owes oneself to challenge one’s worldview at least occasionally, so when the opportunity to do so arose recently, I went for it:

In the beginning of September, I was hired as a Head of Operations at Apart Research and thereby thrown into the world of AI safety which I had absolutely no prior experience with. It has always been a dream of mine to work with tech-regulation and with my prior experience from the IT-security world, I felt the job suited me well.

And then back to the books: How do you upskill yourself to work in a community, that you know absolutely nothing about?

You read. A lot. A hella lot.

Monday the 5th of September, 16:45.
Day 1 — About being well prepared and why naivety sometimes is a good thing

Page count:0

I’m sitting at my local café. I am well prepared; I have cooked from home so I can read on without getting too low on sugar. I have done all my homework. Everything is set for reading and I’m excited!

I do not think that the beginning of a 20-book gauntlet at all represents the average mood and energy level for the whole gauntlet (see graph above), but retrospectively I’m happy that I ventured so naively into the challenge. I don’t think I really realized what lay ahead at this point…

Wednesday the 7th of September.
Day 3 — On how to stick a lot of information into your head in a short amount of time

Page count: 694

First of all, I want to clarify that it is not cozy to read so many books in such a short time. I do really enjoy reading books slowly, but it was obvious that a hot cup of tea, a plaid and “Instrumental Reading” by Spotify wasn’t suitable for this type of reading. I needed a method much more effective:

I found my inspiration in the Stroop-effect, a psychological experiment from the thirties. In this, the subject has to say out loud the text’s colour of presented words, while the words themselves spell another colour. Give it a try below and say out loud the colour of the text.

Most people struggle with this task, reading the word instead of naming the colour.
This is because our perceptual signals labelled ‘reading’ and ‘colour-identification’ conflict and the ‘reading’-signal tends to be stronger for most.

BUT the Stroop-effect also works the other way around and your perception will become stronger if several perceptual inputs align! I utilized this by reading the books while listening to its audiobook simultaneously.
SmorT!

With this method I was able to speed up the audiobook to a 3.5x speed and still get the content of the texts, even though I would never be able to sustain such a reading speed if I were to just solely read.
For the reports, I used a “read-aloud”-app.

Is this cheating?
Perhaps.

But honestly, I don’t see any need to pretend being superhuman here. Work smarter not harder.

Saturday the 10th of September, 9:30.
Day 6 — Being satisfied with the 80%

Page count: 1740

I went to town last night and the wine has hit me hard today. But God Bless Me: Today will also be the day where I will learn the relief of satisfying with the 80%.

Since I started at university, I have been very thorough when reading texts and I’ve made sure to have everything snuggled neatly into my brain. I’ve always aimed for the 100%(!)
But while this may be a fine tactic for some university reading, it is often an incredibly ineffective way of studying, when the purpose is getting a broader understanding of the subject. Allow me to explain why:

I’ve tried to sketch out my point below through 2 scenarios (for which’s graphs, I take absolutely no responsibility):

Scenario 1: You get a new book, and you want to digest every single thing in it! Probably you’ll initially struggle a bit during the first pages to grasp the context (1), but soon pace speeds up and you come to understand the broad lines of the portrait it paints (2). The final fact learning (3) is typically time consuming.

But the second step is a step we often fail to appreciate. When having read a book, we want to retell ALL the cool facts (“The Chardonnay-grape is actually ‘daughter’ of Pinot Noir(!) and Gouais blanc”) rather than the context understanding and a few facts (“The many different grapes is often crosses between other varieties. While the grape influences the taste, the area from where it comes is just as important”).
Unfortunately, learning all the facts needs far more thorough reading and while we spend time doing this, we could have moved on to a new book.

Scenario 2: You read through the book much faster than you normally would. There is not time to encode every single fact, but our brain stores remarkably well and when you have finished your book (much faster), you still have a lot of context-understanding and a few facts. Which you then pour into your new book.

This may sound intuitively off, but the method actually aligns with the way our human memory functions. We may imagine our memory to work like a gigantic library in which small librarians recall and store our memories and knowledge in small drawers on gigantic bookcases. But this description fits a computer. Not us.

Allow me to become a little technical here with yet another small graph (see below):

Quite far towards the center of the brain lies hippocampus. Research suggests that when we learn a new piece of information, the hippocampus creates small neurological connections to the brain’s pre-understanding areas needed to understand the context (1). When we reinforce the piece of information, the hippocampus keeps firing through these connections, but simultaneously the centers needed for pre-understanding forms their own connections internally (2). As these internal connections strengthen it eventually becomes redundant to pass through hippocampus (3) and so a new piece of knowledge has been ’wired’ into the brain when the hippocampus lets go of the initial connections (4).

Exemplified simply: Say we were to learn the origins of the Chardonnay wine grape. When originally presented with the information that Chardonnay is a cross of the grape Pinot-Noir and grape Gouais Blanc, our hippocampus will draw on the inferences it might already know:
Pinot Noir makes red wine, species and plants form new varieties through mixing of DNA, both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grapes I don’t really like, I do not know Gouais Blanc, etc.

Now, when reinforced with the piece of information the most important connections will become stronger: Maybe your strongest inference is your prior knowledge of plant reproduction and your disliking of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These connections will strengthen until your brain have created its own shortcut: It makes sense that I do not like Chardonnay because it is the ‘daughter’ of Pinot Noir (even though this may be untrue!).
But most importantly, you have formed a new piece of knowledge through the connections.

I utilized this philosophy for my reading. Yes, there is a lot of knowledge crammed into 20 books. But there is also quite an amount of content to connect. After having read each book, I always aimed to connect its content to the book from the day before. And so, each day I extended my wired network on AI safety. And, each book actually became an easier read because it fitted better and better into the context, I started to grasp.

Even though, this was one of the tougher days of the gauntlet, the hangover at least did something good for me. What is obvious to me now needed a little dose of alcohol to be obvious back then. Phew…

Tuesday the 13th of September, 11:01
Day 9 — Handling that your life goes bananas

Page count: 2691

Today’s read is “Singularity is near” by Ray Kurzweil. 633 pages. I haven’t slept properly because I was reading till the middle of night, my room looks worse than the guys’ locker-room at a summer camp, and my head is still sore.

Overall, I think the 20 book-gauntlet really taught me a lot on prioritization of my time, even though it was put to the extreme case in this example. But maybe it was also about time, I learned a lesson here:
Since I became old enough to handle my own life, I’ve had a horrible approach to being busy: If you cannot do all the stuff in your plan, just complete it faster! It is like putting too little butter on too big a piece of bread: The bigger the bread, the thinner the spread.

I could easily make you read for hours on agile time management, fail-fast-culture, and sprint-points to keep productivity high with many tasks, but I think there is a far more important factor to consider, when your life goes bananas: Yourself!

Allow me to briefly jump back to the neuroscience and the formation of memories through hippocampus, the memory-maker of the brain:
When taught a new piece of information our hippocampus is no busy librarian storing the new piece of information in the right drawer. We know that.
But what you might not know, is that it is reiterating and replaying the information several times EVEN AFTER you have learnt the facts! Yes, you read it. While you are reading these lines, you may still unconsciously be consolidating your knowledge on Chardonnay-grapes.

This sort of makes sense, taking modern humans’ tendency to be stressed into account. If we are constantly jumping from one task to the next (physically or mentally), we never allow the brain time to ‘do-its-thing’ and get the wiring properly in place. And that is seriously stressing for a thing like the brain.

When reading books, it quite rapidly became obvious to me, that there simply wasn’t enough butter for the bread, no matter how thin the spread. And so, I was forced into actively down-prioritizing stuff in my calendar:

I normally think of myself as a tidy person, I have high ideals for my engagement in my studies and I want to show my friends love by visiting them all the time. But I simply didn’t have time for it then and more importantly: I didn’t have time to think that I did not have time for it. Removing the stress of worrying was really relieving — instead of halfheartedly attempting something I could not. And yes, I lived in half-dirty clothes, ate crappy food, and slept way too little, but it was only 20 days. I survived.

I know these thoughts are much easier to state than living by, but I think we all owe each other to stay extra aware in periods of stress. We should be actively prioritizing instead of doing stuff ad-hoc, and thereby not feeling behind, confused, and stressed if we can avoid it.

For me, a challenge like the 20-book gauntlet sparked my curiosity on new methods to handle more extreme levels of stress, which I am developing for the moment and plan to share in a later article!

Monday the 19th of September, 17:54
Day 15 — Realizing that expectations are your worst enemy

Page count: 4189

At one point I started to doubt. I guess you always do when you are way out of your comfort zone for long. I had now been reading +4000 pages. I started to sense my reading becoming more unfocused and overall, I was generally much less patient than I use to.

For this context, I would like to share a little story from this point of the 20-book gauntlet:
This day I was attempting a quite tough report and during the entire reading, my focus was elsewhere, always speeding off to unrelated grounds. I was filled with acronyms and words I did not recognize. Overall, I was only filled with intense frustration when finally closing the reading 4 hours later. It felt like a complete waste of time to have sped through a report with ABSOLUTELY no focus on the text. I was so frustrated, that I considered reading it all again (no joke, I think it tells a lot about my state of mind at that time!).

Luckily, my roomie came home at this point and fell into the couch next to me.
“I’m frustrated” she told me.
“I’m frustrated too” I told her.
And then we started to talk. Talk about our expectations for the day and how these expectations had been no-where met in any of our days. I felt like having not understood a single word of my book, she felt like having worked an entire day without any purpose. We were frustrated. But not necessarily because it had been a bad day for any of us.
I mean, no one was hurt, none were ill, and we had our entire evening together in front of us.
We were frustrated because our expectations had not been met.

Allow a last little experiment from the world of cognitive psychology and neuroscience:

Imagine sitting in a Chinese restaurant where you’re presented with the menu. The menu present 6 dishes but all of them are written in Chinese. You do know that this particular restaurant serves the best spring rolls in China, and you really want to taste them. You try the third dish from the top and you are served the spring rolls; what a fantastic surprise, much better than I expected! Furthermore, you interpret the wording from the menu as meaning spring rolls.
Now imagine, you are going to another restaurant a couple of days later and find the same wording in the new menu: This restaurant must have spring rolls as well! You order, but are, to your frustration, served with duckling. Someone must have misunderstood you or served the wrong dish. You are disappointed even though you were served a meal.

The exact same phenomenon was found in monkeys by researchers some years ago. It so happens, that monkeys tend to regulate their expectations with the reward giving neurotransmitter of the brain, dopamine.

In the experiment, when monkeys were unexpectedly presented with food, researchers saw activation in dopamine receptors in the brain; what a pleasant surprise for the monkey.
But as the feeding were repeated and the monkeys learned to predict it, researchers saw the dopamine neuron become more and more unresponsive to the food, eventually being indistinguishable from the rest of its activity.
BUT, even more exciting, when the food wasn’t delivered as usual, the researchers saw a drop in activity from the dopamine neuron; the monkey were disappointed below from a resting state!

It so happens that our feelings of disappointment and relief are far more guided by our expectations than the actual facts. If I expected to read 20 books in 20 days and understand 20 books, then I will be disappointed from only understanding 19 of them. That’s kinda stupid, right?

Read more on the actual experiment on: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4826767/

I find this knowledge on our expectations really fascinating and definitely plan to explore it more in a later article.

Thursday the 22nd of September, 13:12
Day 18 — Dead and afterthoughts

Page count: 5050

I went fast towards the end and ended up finishing the 20th book on day 18. I realized that my speed was much, much faster than I would have thought it could ever be. And I only trained this reading technique for 18 days!
Overall, I think this gauntlet was an eye-opening challenge to approach and I also found it interesting to play with my stress-zones. Take a look at the graph below:

Being out of my comfort-zone (probably day 6–14) tend to spark my curiosity and teaches me new skills. In everyday life, I enter this zone from time to time, often unconsciously, and I can sustain life here for some time, though not always with joy. During my practice of meditation, I am often able to catch an entering of this zone, even though it is not always that easy. It is important not to stay in this unconsciously for too long!

Being in the “I’m-struggling-zone” is only sustainable for a quite short period of time, but it is also the place, where I am challenged the most, on my psyche as well as my physique. One should approach this zone with care, and with a defined plan for when to stop and which goals to achieve. I had both and I think this was an important part of staying sane during the last days of the gauntlet.

In hindsight, I think the 20 days were a bit too extreme and I ended up catching a cold towards the end of the gauntlet. Yet, I would still claim, that I could see myself doing something similar in the future, although maybe I would aim for 10 books in 10 days instead.
Overall, I think one owes to challenge oneself at least occasionally. The most important thing is of course, just to stay within one’s own physical limits!

If you are more interested in the concept of the gauntlet, you are very welcome to check out these ressources below:

Suggestion for 20 book gauntlets on AI Safety:
https://apartresearch.com/ai-safety-gauntlet

My personal reading log:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1r8NmBWWKdFnyxlOKIRq1tNwxYjBe3TZpYYrPJyD48ug/edit?usp=sharing

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Thomas Steinthal

Interested in human behavior, politics and life. "A man who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read"