Let’s talk about the many shapes that reading (and readers) can take.
I started this mini-essay by revisiting some old notes about strategies for dealing with the overwhelming infinitude of books, and the trade-offs of “breadth vs. depth” applied to a reading practice.
Prioritizing depth: reading everything there is to read in a focused niche (but: may lack context and variety). Prioritizing breadth: reading widely across many areas (but: may stay on the surface).
A common way to balance the two is what I’ve seen called a “T-shaped” approach. This is typically used in the context of describing career skills — horizontal bar as broad yet shallow skills across many areas, plus vertical bar as deep skills in one specific area.
Searching around, I came across a few others — “X-shaped” for the intersection of leadership and technical skills; “tree-shaped” for depth in many sub-branches of a field; “multiple mountains” shaped for depth in several overlapping fields; “pi-shaped” for proficiency in two adjacent skills.
I thought it would be fun to brainstorm some other shapes we might use as lenses to think about how we read and learn. These are rather tongue in cheek and far from fully conceptualized, but I think fun as a starting point:
Given the original framing, on one hand we can kind of map these to our overall identities as readers, but I prefer thinking about them more as a set of lenses to adopt depending on context. I’m also thinking less about the shape of a relationship with any given book, and more about the overall patterns that reading takes, over months or years.
You may find your reading takes one shape when you’re on vacation, and quite another when you’re immersing yourself in a new hobby, or trying to work one some long term research problem. Or maybe your natural shape shifts according to the seasons. In a sense these are all ways of framing a syntopical reading stance (see: How to Read a Book).
We can of course extend this well beyond simple shapes. For example I like to think about reading as a sort of rich, variable, and (ideally) balanced ecosystem — full of seedlings, symbiosis, evolving niches, life-cycles, complex feedback loops of growth and energy…
I also like thinking about reading and learning through the lens of maps and topography: given a literal literary landscape, how do we navigate, explore, chart a path? I may write more about this soon :)
Taking the above as broad inspiration rather than any sort of comprehensive list — what shape(s) or other metaphors might you use to describe your own reading practice?