In the midst of the pandemic in 2020 I took this picture of my office:
And at that time, I made a promise that I would clean up my mess…especially because I was quarantined and had nothing better to do.
It is now over two years later and nothing has changed in this picture except for the fact that there are two more years of books piled up in front of the bookshelves.
This is nothing to be proud of…but it reminded me of what I wrote at that time and I want to share an updated version of that with you today.
I titled it “Surviving your library” …which I am still doing…and now I will justify (once again) how I do that.
Joseph Epstein, an essayist of note, and author of 31 books, wrote a piece that has as its thesis:
Every superior writer I have known, or known about, was a slow reader.
Since 31 books should qualify Mr. Epstein as a “superior writer,” I accept his thesis with confidence and will use it as justification (at least in this blog post) for being a slow reader (of which I am one)…and at least a competent writer (of which you can be the judge). 🙂
He goes on to tell us why slow readers make better writers:
The reason is that writers read differently than non-writers.
People without literary ambition might ask what a book means, whether it is significant, whether it gives pleasure.
Writers ask these questions along with two others, which slow them down considerably:
1. How exactly did the author achieve his effects
2. What from his work can I appropriate—a euphemism, of course, for “steal”—for my own writing?
I have no “literary ambition” that I know of beyond this blog and my books…but I have some writing ability…and maybe I can attribute that to the fact that I am a slow reader.
And unfortunately, in my case, that also comes with being a rapid accumulator (of books) as well.
Do you buy Epstein’s thesis?
Let’s explore it a bit before you rush to judgment.
With a bookcase that looks like mine (and there’s another one on the other side of my office which is equally unkempt) you might assume that I’ve read many of the books–and you might then assume I invented speed reading because I often quote from the books I’ve read.
In that case, your assumption is wrong…and you would also be wrong if you assume that I have mastered the art of neatness (which is painfully obvious).
But you would not be wrong if you assume that much of what I’ve learned is from those same books, very few read in their entirety, and all that I’ve read was read slowly.
I am both an incredibly slow–and picky—reader.
Slow means slow…although I am up to “2.0 speed” with audio books.
That matches how I speak so that was easy to get used to.
Picky means that because I am so slow, to get the most out of a library as large (and messy) as mine, I’ve learned some lessons that allow me to absorb the content (with retention and contentment) from most of the books I own.
I am a little embarrassed that I have not read many of the books you see in the picture above cover to cover…but I am proud to say that reading non-fiction books cover to cover is overrated…which I will explain.
This has less to do with how slow I am and more to do with my pickiness.
And the quality (or lack of quality) of many of the books plays a role too.
That’s part of being picky.
Epstein has added some “embarrassment protection” saying that being slow has made me a better writer.
And Marty Edelston, my mentor for 34 years, who published the largest circulation consumer newsletter in America, once a million subscribers strong, added pickiness to the equation when he said to me:
“Fiction is not worth your time. We don’t need to escape but we always need to learn through business books. And the only way to read non-fiction business books is never to read them cover to cover. There is probably one thought or one chapter in every business book that is worth reading. Putting that into your computer (i.e., your brain), and then sharing it with the world, is the greatest service you can do.”
He had to read this way to serve his audience; I had to do it to survive my library.
Even if you disagree with him about the notion that you can skip reading all fiction, you still might agree with the notion that it’s usually only one paragraph or one chapter that’s truly meaningful in every non-fiction book.
I know I do…especially with a bookcase like the one above (and being such a meticulous/slow reader).
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the “one chapter per book theory” until much later in my career.
(Check out the P.S. for an example of a book that doesn’t fit neatly into this theory… and how a “franchise” was created from a book that has to be read slowly…and has hundreds of ideas worth absorbing…and it needed ancillary methods and products to extract them all)
The result of this “slow and picky reading mashup,” that I’ve written today, by conveniently manipulating the teachings of both Joseph Epstein and Marty Edelston, is to give excellent cover for owning a lot of books, being a slow reader, and not reading most of them in their entirety.
While still getting a ton of value out of every one of them.
And learning to write competently (if Epstein’s theory is sound and competent is a word you would attach to my writing ability).
I’m grasping a bit because I want some benefit for being such a slow reader…while looking for the big idea in every book I read.
On Epstein’s two key points regarding how writers read, I fit the bill. Do you?
1. How exactly did the author achieve his effects?
Is this something you do while reading?
I feel like it’s the only thing I do when reading non-fiction.
I’m obsessed with how the author created his or her thesis.
Was it from personal experience or observation?
How much was based on intuition and/or connecting the dots from a variety of sources?
Or did the author actually invent something themselves (the rarest form of achievement)?
2. What from his [her] work can I appropriate—a euphemism, of course, for “steal”—for my own writing?
I’m doing this right now with Joseph Epstein by reading his article slowly and writing this post. 🙂
Seriously, I would ask in response to this question, what isn’t derivative in all of our work?
Answer: Not very much.
This is not the same thing as saying that our writing is void of anything innovative or new.
I simply believe that invention is overrated…but combining everything in your experience, observations and connecting the dots gives you a first mover advantage when writing to your audience on expressing a previously foreign concept and making it real (i.e., understandable).
You didn’t invent it–but by becoming the messenger for that concept with your reader is what makes it significant.
Note that I didn’t stay “steal” (or Epstein’s euphemism “appropriate”) …because if you are a regular reader of mine on Sundays you know that I believe that, “stealing is a felony but stealing smart is an art.”
And we all know that the worst thing we can do is take credit for someone else’s invention, innovation or even a quote…and you always receive more kudos and respect when you give the credit for the idea before putting your unique spin on it.
Your teacher, mentor (or even a stranger—I don’t know Joseph Epstein) gets some props…and then so do you.
I also believe that Epstein’s take on why a slow reader may be a better writer gives new hope and a new angle for someone who can’t get through a non-fiction book in its entirety.
But does it really make you a better writer?
Regardless, at a minimum, reading slowly enables the reader to get a different take on what is read.
Now this doesn’t mean the reverse is true—that reading quickly will make you less than a competent writer.
I know many speed readers who can process the same insights as slow readers—and many of those rapid readers are in fact good writers.
Marty was a hybrid–slow to find the key ideas and then fast to put the book down and share the ideas he found with thousands, even millions, of people.
After “appropriating” Joseph Epstein’s essay into this essay of my own, I want to get your opinion.
If you see yourself as a competent writer, email me and let me know if you are a slow reader or a rapid reader…and how you see that affecting the way you write.
I’m hoping that you, my online family, will have interesting insights based on your varied skill sets in marketing and copywriting…and I will share some of your shares in a future post.
And of course, you can tell me if this is a waste of time to explore…and then I can simply move on to looking for more essays to steal…er…appropriate…that might be more interesting.
I have no choice contemplating this since I’m afraid I will always be a slow reader…and now I may have a reason to stay that way.
I am also content that I’ve gained so much from all I’ve read, even if it’s mostly from an avalanche of paragraphs and chapters rather than complete books.
And no matter what, I need to clean my office. 🙂
P.S. Gene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising is a book that must be read slowly.
In 1984, when asked about his masterpiece and the impact it had made at that time, he said:
Since it was published in 1966, I have had people coming to me regularly to tell me that they directly credit reading this book with their making millions of dollars.
This is amazing enough, but even more remarkable is the fact that—when I look back on it—not a single one of these people was a copywriter.
Here is a book that is called Breakthrough Advertising…and yet was used by men and women who were not in the business of advertising at all, to make more money than most of us ever dream of accumulating.
How did this happen?
And why is the book even more of a phenomenon today?
I bolded the sentence that I really want you to notice above because it holds so much promise for all of us:
“…not a single one of these people was a copywriter.”
If you take the time to learn the process that Gene lays out in the pages of Breakthrough Advertising, it’s like putting stairs in front of whatever marketing hurdle you’re facing.
It won’t remove the hurdles you face when selling your product or service, but it will give you a proven, decades old process to step over them with ease.
The challenge is spotting the process.
Well, Breakthrough Advertising is a dense read.
The process is there, hidden in plain sight…meaning you have to extract it from the text.
I hope you will consider buying a copy today…as long as you agree to spend time reading it slowly. 🙂
Once you have a copy, you can then take advantage of the other products and “services” I am making available to make sure that what you read (slowly) can then be implemented (fast) inside your business.
Second step: Sign up for the waiting list for the fourth “Breakthrough Advertising QuickStart Bootcamp” …the first three were epic…and the fourth promises to be the best ever…and the timing will be perfect after you have finished your slow read of the book.
We are planning the next Bootcamp at the end of 2022 or early 2023.
I am also publishing a 500-page companion volume called Breakthrough Advertising Mastery which has been two years in the making…and it’s at the printer right now.
We’ve plucked the process out of Gene’s masterpiece and organized it in such a way that all you have to do is follow the instructions.
Inside you’ll see that we created exercises and worksheets that you will use the rest of your career as you embed these concepts into your business or the business of your clients.
But that book is for later…when you are ready for your Breakthrough Advertising Ph.D. 🙂
As Gene wrote above, you don’t have to be a copywriter to learn from him and the concepts he wrote about.
But I wanted to let you know that once you enter the world of Gene Schwartz and Breakthrough Advertising, you will be amazed with the applications and game changing ways to enhance your copy, your marketing, and your business.
But you need to buy the book first.
I consider it a privilege to share the wisdom of Gene Schwartz with you in a variety of ways…going deep inside the pages of Breakthrough Advertising with you…so as many people as possible can adapt Gene’s thinking into their businesses.