Have you ever encountered one of those deeply literate people who are able to quote aptly and accurately from a wide range of classical literature? Have you ever met someone who has a prodigious general knowledge? Did you envy that knowledge? Did you think they must be superbly well educated?
Most of us assume that formal education is what imparts useful skills and important knowledge. On the other hand some think formal educational credentials don’t signify real knowledge as much as signal pre-existing intelligence, conscientiousness and compliance. Nonetheless it’s hard to deny that skill acquisition depends on practice, and that knowledge depends on exposure. A greater amount formal education should leave a person with more skills and knowledge. For example on all 5 science questions in the General Social Survey, both a higher IQ and more education increase the chance of a correct answer. They do so even when the effect of the other (and a number of other variables) is accounted for. Therefore even if formal education doesn’t impart as much knowledge as we think it does, it does impart some.
However, by no means all extremely erudite individuals are university educated. Almost half of those in the top 1/3rd of science knowledge, or the top 15% of vocabulary, do not have a formal degree. Still those with lots of formal education are fairly over-represented among the very knowledgeable. I asked myself, just how much knowledge do formal degrees impart, and how much formal education, or independent reading, would one need to be erudite? I hope to answer these questions below.
How much reading is a degree worth?
Recently I read a study done by the National Endowment of the Arts in the
entitled “To Read or Not To Read – a question of national consequence”. This study surveyed the amount of reading
done and its relationship to reading scores among children still in school, and
showed there is a very strong connection.
Of more interest to me were two small tables. One looked at the number of books (or
equivalents thereof) required to be read in a typical year in college. The other at the number of hours spent
preparing per week.
Percentage of Seniors
Number of assigned textbooks, books or book-length packs of course readings
Percentage of Seniors
Preparing for class (studying, reading, writing, doing homework, etc)
I calculated (from Table 1) that over the course of a four year degree the median number of assigned books is about 29 books and (using Table 2) that the median senior spends about 11.6 hrs per week in preparation. The academic year is roughly 34.8 weeks long, so the median total time spent in preparation over the full 4 year degree is about 1610 hrs. I also found that it takes around 3¼ min for me to read a page once, and that the typical textbook is about 500 pages long. Therefore it takes 55.5 hrs to read a 500 page book, or 6.7 min per page, implying that each assigned book in college is being read twice on average. This is what one might expect if the material were being studied.
How much reading is a PhD worth?
Now about 30% of college graduates go on to graduate school. Let’s assume these are the top 30% of college graduates. The median graduate student would therefore be at the 85th percentile of college seniors. The 85th percentile of assigned books read is 74 books over a 4 year degree. The 85th percentile of time spent preparing is more than 15 hrs so I used the percentiles to work out z scores and from that estimated that the median is 11.57 hrs and standard deviation is 10.354 hrs. Using that information I calculated that the 85th percentile is 22.3 hrs of preparation per week, or 3100 hrs over the full 4 years. That works out 41.9 hrs per book, or 5 min per page. That implies an average of 1.55 readings per book (or perhaps also twice each if the typical 85th percentile student read 30% faster than the 50th percentile student).
Suppose our graduate goes all the way to a PhD and goes through books at the same pace as during college. The average PhD takes 5.5 years to complete. At that rate the PhD candidate will have twice read a total of 102 assigned books after his BA and a total of 176 books since high school. The average professor who gets tenure takes another 8.5 years to get there. That’s another 157 books, or a total of 333 books since high school (each read twice on average).
OK, what’s that for those of us who aren’t at university?
The typical text book is 500 pages long but the average soft cover book in the serious sections of bookstores is only 250 pages long. So let’s convert all the above to a number of such ordinary books, read once each.
An associate degree from a junior college is the equivalent of 58 books and 800 hrs of reading.
A basic BA is the equivalent of 116 books or 1610 hrs of reading.
A PhD is the equivalent of 704 books or 7363 hrs of reading.
Academic tenure is the equivalent of 1332 books or 13930 hrs of reading.
Gladwell’s ten thousand hour rule for expert level performance is about 956 good books, or maybe 704 like a PhD, and the rest of the time taken up discussing them.
The complete works of Shakespeare come to the equivalent of 11 such books or 1/80th of what it would take to really be part of the literati.
How much time would it take?
How hard would it be to do that amount of reading? Only 4% of adults read as many as one book per week. At that rate it would take 3.7 years to cover 193 books, 16.9 years to cover 704 books (and reach expert level) and 31.9 years to read 1332 books. You could halve that time by reading 2.5hrs per day – less time than most spend watching TV. In addition to that some sort of regular discussion and arguing about the material should be taking place throughout. Still it is easily possible to acquire, by the age of 35, the knowledge equivalent of a PhD on one subject, or of BA degrees in 4 different subjects.
A word on the quality of books read.
These numbers refer to high quality material only, and not to mental chewing gum or cheap thrills. Serious non-fiction books cover aspects of a subject correctly and in depth. Serious novels would be those that might be regarded as part of the classics. Each book should cover new concepts, arguments, facts, angles or points of view, metaphors, new moral choices, and/or involve a fresh or superior style. The material should require you to be intellectually engaged and should stretch you moderately. It shouldn’t be no challenge at all (mental chewing gum) or be exceedingly hard to grasp or work through. When pitched at that level, interest is highest and learning is fastest. Books that are currently tough should become only moderately challenging after one builds up a larger concept base and masters the easier material on which understanding depends.
If one is smart and well read then being wrong is usually the result of a confirmation bias i.e. always reading stuff that confirms, and never stuff that challenges, your beliefs. Stepping outside such information bubbles is not really natural for people so one would need to take deliberate steps in that direction. These would involve making a point of seeking out respected writers on each subject with views you don’t like. Also in discussing texts it’s more productive to seek out bright informed people who will disagree, than people who will agree.
How much formal approved reading is optimum for creative achievement?
Formal education in the form of officially approved prescribed books, to be absorbed in detail, comes at some cost. Studies have shown that creativity scores decline with each year of formal education. Dean Keith Simonton (in his book Genius, Creativity and Leadership) showed that creative eminence has a historically invariant inverse U-shaped relation to amount of formal education. The peak comes just shy of a BA for the humanities and just into the graduate years for the hard sciences. Similarly, measures of dogmatism among elite leaders show a U shaped relationship with formal education. The dogmatism minimum among leaders is at about the same point as the creativity maximum among creators. Leaders with PhDs were even more dogmatic than those who were high school drop outs.
To convert the optimum amount of formal education in those studies into a number of prescribed books read, it makes most sense to confine ourselves to students capable of graduate school. The optimum for creative achievement is therefore 56 for the humanities, and 93 books for the sciences, respectively. The average book would be 500 pages long and would be read twice. This converts to a single reading of 224 and 372 ‘ordinary’ books for the humanities and sciences respectively. That number only refers to the formal approved material in a single subject area. There is evidence that a high level of other reading aids creativity. For example creative adolescents tend to read more than 50 books a year. In other words, the ideal is no more than 224 to 372 solid approved books on one subject area (or the study of no more than 56 to 110 basic text books), and in addition to that the more outside (or unapproved) reading the better. At least 50 total books, approved and unapproved, should be read per year. That’s a total of over 1000 books of all kinds in 20 years.
How many books do you need to have read to be erudite?
Let’s return to the issue of erudition. To be erudite means to be very widely read and knowledgeable. It would be pretty unusual for a busy person to read as many as 2 ‘ordinary’ books per week or say 2500 by the age of 40. That’s the equivalent of three PhDs or 6-7 BA degrees. Such a person would certainly be erudite but is it necessary to cover quite so many books in order to be erudite? Half that number is 30% more than the 10 thousand hours needed for elite performance. That many books would be the equivalent of at least 3 BA degrees, or a PhD plus an extra BA in a different subject. On the other hand it seems highly doubtful that as many as one in twenty 40 year olds could be described as “erudite”. I propose we split the difference between the ten thousand hours type of elite performance and the upper limit. That means a reading rate halfway between 50 and 100 books a year for 25 years – or 1875 ordinary books. If one aims to be creative then one should limit the time devoted to officially approved works, or to obtaining a formal qualification. Approved reading should take up no more than 1/8th of one’s reading time in the humanities, or 1/5th in the sciences.
It helps to be smart
The numbers above assume an IQ of 110 (73rd percentile) for the average college senior, 125-130 (95th percentile) for a PhD, around 135-140 (99th percentile) for academic tenure, and maybe 140-144 (99.5th percentile) for erudition. By way of compensation lower IQs would require a lot more, or closer, reading. Compensating for an IQ shortage will be tough because smarter people are inclined to read more anyway
How much fact and how much fiction should you read?
One might ask what proportion of the reading should be fiction and how much non-fiction. It appears from surveys that people read fiction at six times the rate they read non-fiction. That ratio implies 268 works of non-fiction and 1607 serious literary novels. That’s OK if one was aiming to be one of the literati e.g. an English PhD or commentator like Christopher Hitchens or Stephen Fry. One would have made an in depth study of 67 text book length non-fiction works relevant to literature e.g. literary theory, history, philosophy, psychology and biography. One would also know, in quotable detail, 34 times as much good fiction as all of Shakespeare, War & Peace, Don Quixote and both Homer volumes, put altogether.
Alternatively the fiction specialist would read 5-6 good novels per month (going back to each novel once again over the years), and just read through an ordinary non-fiction book once, every month. A ‘novel’ could also be an equivalent length anthology of poetry or a play.
For someone with a non-fiction bent (or career) – Gore Vidal say - a ratio of 6 novels per one non-fiction book is far too high. Since it is appropriate for 6/7ths of a literature specialist’s reading to be fiction, a similar focus on non-fiction is appropriate for others. That means 64-65 ordinary books of basic facts, theories and techniques across various subjects, every year. In addition to that a single reading of 10-11 serious books of fiction – equivalent to reading all of Shakespeare, or War & Peace, Don Quixote plus one Homer volume, every year.
Alternatively, a non-fiction specialist would read one good novel through once, and study a good textbook hard (like one needs to pass an exam on it), every month.
The best way to structure reading
There are two extremes with respect to structuring your reading. In the first you could exhaustively cover, or master, a single subject or author, before moving on to another. In the second you dip into subjects and books as you see fit. Which is best for picking up knowledge?
There are experiments that shed some light on this. Studies in sport comparing the performance outcomes of training one sub-skill per session versus training a variety of sub-skills in the same session show that the latter results in better long term performance. This is particularly so with complex skill sets because one is also learning to combine the sub-skills. Creativity requires exactly this sort of combining and integrating concepts from disparate sources. The ideal might be as radical as reading bits of several books per reading session, or as moderate as changing the author or subject after each book or two.
Boredom is the most effective killer of learning so it is essential to keep interest levels high. Reading that is guided by interest ought to be remembered better than reading dictated by a curriculum schedule. That implies moving on before getting bored and that might mean putting a particular book aside before finishing it, and starting to read another.
Learning is better over frequent short sessions than a single long session. It’s not just the boredom factor playing a role here. Outside of material that is memorable for other reasons e.g. being vivid or emotionally charged, the first and last bits you focus on are easier to recall than the middle. So it pays to increase the number of starts and ends in your reading. The same effect as having two reading sessions could be achieved by changing the subject or author in the same session.
Not all of us have photographic memories so if we are to recall what we read we will have to read the material again – perhaps more than once. Studies show that repeating the exposure at the point where you are about to forget maximizes long term recall. The first repeat will need to occur quicker than subsequent repeats.
The ten “How to Become Erudite” rules of thumb.
To become erudite the rules of thumb are
- read 6-7 ordinary length books per month – that’s on the order of 2½ to 3 hours per day;
- the books should be very high quality;
- deliberately read some materials that challenge your beliefs, or debate them with people who do, whatever those beliefs may be;
- let interest guide your choice of reading matter, even within the official approved list;
- make sure at least 4 to 7 times as much reading outside the official approved list as in it;
- vary the subject matter and the authors as much as possible;
- if you are getting bored with what you are reading change to another book;
- if you need to know a book well return to it at least once, ideally at the point when you are just about to forget its contents;
- engage other knowledgeable people on the subject matter of your reading, or apply it to something;
- keep doing that for 25 years or more.
Erudition isn’t everything. Without an experimental and empirical approach to life i.e. life experience, it becomes mere flash.
Reading copiously, while
never leaving a room, will leave large gaps in one’s knowledge of life. Such gaps would make it impossible to be wise.