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Read More Books And Fewer Articles; Read More History and Fewer Forecasts

By Morgan Housel - Mar 8, 2016 at 3:33PM

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"The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." – Mark Twain

Josh Brown says he's reading more books this year. He's tired of market commentators saying the same thing, often wrong and never in doubt.

"Lots of people should probably just shut up already," he said. "They won't. But you don't need to pay attention. Read more books this year instead."

Amen.

A few years ago I made a decision to read more books and fewer articles. It changed my life. I went further, vowing to read more history and fewer forecasts. That helped even more.

We're in the golden age of online journalism. More excellent, free articles are published daily than ever before. Anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter account has access to the kind of education that in the past was only available to the elite.

But reading is neither passive nor harmless. It's a skill that needs to be developed to ensure you're not wasting your time or making yourself dumber.

Start with books. Their edge over articles is simple: They are an automatic filter.

Everyone I know who has written a book says it's one of the most painful and exhausting experiences of their lives. Writing 100,000 good words on a single topic takes focus and patience that not one person in a hundred has. Six months sitting in an office. Just you and the keyboard. Wondering what you're doing, trying to communicate your life's work into a single deliverable. It's hell. You'll put serious thought in before venturing down that road.

But publishing an article can be done between meals on a sunny weekend. You can do it in your spare time, spur of the moment, without deep thought or commitment. It can be completed in a shorter period of time than it takes to clear away a bad mood, or the burst of optimism you get when the weather's nice. This raises the risk that your words reflect how you feel more than what you think. A radio-show producer once asked if I'd share my six-month market outlook. I told him I didn't have one. He said that was fine: We weren't going on air for an hour, so I had time to make one. In one hour! Confucius said you can't open a book without learning something. He never read an insta-take blog.

Because the barriers to entry are so much higher, books are an automatic filter in a world where content is ubiquitous. Yes, there are bad books. But that's because there are bad writers. The process of writing a book is far more thoughtful and complete than the process of writing an article. As a first approximation, it's where you'll find the best work and the best content.

Now, history versus forecasts.

Forecasts are intellectually seductive because they give us answers to pressing problems. "Tell me where I'm going to die, so I won't go there" the saying goes.

But forecasting is mostly an exercise in taking the recent past and extrapolating it into the future in a straight line. What's far more valuable is history, which is the study of how people reacted when those lines curved and shattered in ways they never foresaw.

Here's the truth, which most people intuitively know: Most forecasts are a shot in the dark, but how people react to failure and success is stable and predictable. That's where history is helpful: Studying how past investors reacted when things they never expected to happen did happen. A home-price forecast may or may not be worth the paper it's printed on, but studying how people reacted to the last housing bubble and crash is invaluable.

I still read dozens of articles a day. I'm still attracted to forecasts. But books and history take up most of my reading time and the bulk of my learning. It's helped more than I ever imagined.

For more:

How to read financial news

The anti-reading list

Where progress comes from

Hard truths for investors to wrap their heads around

The evolution of good investing ideas  

Things I'm pretty sure about

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