How I Look At What I Read Each Year (2018 in Review)

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I try to avoid cross-posting from my blog these days. I tend to think that the blog is for business, and Medium is for stuff that I can’t claim is related to work (or wouldn’t want clients looking at and saying, “Is he touched in the head?”). However, reading is a subject that applies in both my creative/personal life and business life. Don’t worry; despite this coming from a marketing blog, there will be no call to action, no pop-ups, and no invitations to subscribe to something.

At the end of each year, I like to take a moment and take a look at everything I read that year. I’m an inveterate reader, but I am also a fan of lateral thinking. I find that I am most successful at solving problems for myself and for my clients when I think about something outside the fields of marketing and copywriting. This has been true since my Army days, when reading about mathematics inspired my approach to interrogating terrorists (specifically, Mark Buchanan’s Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks). At the end of each year, I like to look at the books and articles I’ve read, and draw themes from them. Sometimes, this allows me to identify topics in which a scattering of articles read in a year indicate I should do further research. Other times, it just helps me identify the common threads across what I have been reading. These common threads can help identify compelling marketing themes.

I keep track of the books I read in a simple text file, having found that Amazon’s GoodReads often neglects to note when I actually finish a book. This year’s books were:

  • James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, science fiction (one of the series of books that inspired the fantastic show The Expanse, worth viewing if just to witness the invented “Belter” patois made of Afrikaner, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages)

With respect to articles, listing them here would be painful. I use an automation in IFTTT to keep track of what articles I archive in Instapaper; this year, my spreadsheet of read articles had 2,088 entries.

I took the articles from that spreadsheet, and fed them into a word cloud service (here are two that work well: Jason Davies’ more statistically sound model, and Tagcroud’s more customizable model). I then stripped away all of what I would call “waste words.” These are the words (mostly adjectives and adverbs) that are popular in articles that do not relate to the underlying content. If you’ve seen clickbait, you know the words.

  • best

Once I had iterated out the waste words, I took the thematic words and put them in a mind map to better visualize the trends and related concepts. Most of the results were unsurprising — one can’t escape news about Trump, after all — but it was valuable to see the theme that emerged across my books and articles: the crises and opportunities surrounding changes in culture and social identity.

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Mind Map of Reading Themes in 2018 (click to enlarge)

(This personal analysis is not on the blog.) It’s no surprise to me that ADHD figures heavily in 2018. I’ve been struggling with the VA this year, trying to get them to provide me treatment. The VA refuses, frequently, in a fittingly Catch-22-inspired manner: it can’t prescribe medicine, I’m told, where it can be abused (many ADHD meds are on the DEA classification scale), but it won’t prescribe alternatives that are not subject to abuse because they are not the right medicine for the disorder.

Similarly, I’m not surprised to see Trump on the list. He’s inescapable, even for those — like me — that don’t really want to be part of the culture wars going on now. (My position on the culture wars is that the world would be better off if the dominant culture was an extinction event-sized meteor crashing into the planet).

How do you use or review what you read each year, whether for refreshing your recollection of the content or to observe themes?

Originally published at on December 27, 2018.

I'm a writer and photographer. I'm also a combat vet (Iraq), and former investigator. I should drink less coffee.

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