The Gist: How to choose a book to read. Steal authors’ time, and be mindful of whose time you’re stealing and how much. Score books to find more like you like, less like you dislike.
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How do you choose what books to read?
Friends, media, algorithms often advise what to read. But we rarely discuss how to choose a book. This email will try to answer that question, at least for non-fiction, and I’d love your input as well (You and I are among the who in this story)
Figure 1. Try a spin of the WH_ _ L _ F MISF_ RT _ N_! Alternatively, why choose at all? Harry Truman claimed that growing up in rural Missouri he read every single one of his library’s 2,000 books.
Crucial to the answer of how is why. Knowing your objective for reading is essential to realizing whether you’re achieving it.
My principal advice is to steal time. We spend hours reading social media others took seconds to write. We spend minutes reading news that others took (maybe) hours to write. We spend (comparative) seconds reading books others took years to write. Reverse the sequence. As you do, think about whose time you’re stealing and how much of it they spared.
Figure 2. The ideal back flap picture, preferably a full-time author of a first-time work.
But that’s not to say that reading books is a time-saver. The best returns, where 1+1=3, come from larger investments. Warren Buffett once advised, “Read 500 pages every day…That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” Tyler Cowen expands, “‘It took me 44 years to read this book’ is not a bad answer to many questions about reading speed.” The question is where this would be most useful: On what do you spend time, money, attention that you want to do better? About what are you curious or passionate and why? You bring your whole life to each book you read, including your past library of readings. As you contemplate your next book, consider the path you’re going down and whether it’ll be a good companion along the way.
So, yes, the best time to start reading was a long time ago. But the second best time is now. And if you’re stressed out by starting so late, great news! According to the American Psychological Association, reading is one of the most effective stress-relieving activities there is.
Figure 3. Yes, nothing more stress relieving than reading about the brutal, unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper.
Of course, if you’ve found a valuable why for reading books, you must find the when. People say all the time they don’t have the time to do whatever it is they’re not doing. But until we colonize Mars, we all have the same number of hours in a day. We just make choices about how to spend them. Which gets to the most powerful secular concept I ever learned: opportunity cost. Every dollar spent on cable can’t be spent on a book (but hey, get a library card!). Will you choose to read books? If you need some extra motivation: the average American lives to 78. If you multiply how many books you read last year by the number of years actuarial tables suggest you have left, are you satisfied with the number? If not, track your time for a day to see where it goes and spend more of tomorrow on priorities and less on defaults and distractions. Everywhere you go, bring a book. Or Kindle. Or Kindle app on your phone. Or the Audible app. Or just set aside time like you might for exercise. Though I am only a fraction of Warren Buffett’s daily 500 pages, the past couple of years I’ve found I could get to 100 books a year (about 30,000 pages – or 80 pages a day) on an average of an hour a day. But however often you read a book, it’s worth getting right. So let’s dig into that:
From where you source books is our next key question.
The best source for books you like is books you’ve already liked. Far better to execute on ideas you’ve graded A+ than to be on a constant search for novelty. Besides, it’ll probably be new again. Memory is very fallible. You’ve forgotten key insights. Go back and take some notes. And, before you protest, know that you probably underestimate the joy of repeating an experience. So, go read the greats again.
Figure 4. Never read a book? Skip ahead.
The next best source is books like those you’ve already liked. Various websites claim to help you with this but it really comes down to this: what were those absolute favorite books that you’ve just re-read? Have you read other things by the same authors, on the same topics, in the same genres, or from their bibliographies? Those are great places to start. Simultaneously, avoid and discount books like those you’ve already disliked. You don’t need to keep trying to give James Joyce another chance.
Figure 5. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.” – a real passage from Finnegans Wake.
If you want to explore something new, actively search for the best books on the topic. Confine your search: What are the best books on parenting, pies, pirates, etc.? Consult Google, friends, a librarian. Has an expert curated a list for a college syllabus or a bibliography? Read through the cluster of results, perhaps starting with the most repeated titles. Not all are bound to fit your needs or satisfy your curiosities but the more you read, the more you’ll figure out what’s the best in the field, and you’ll soon get a real education. My friend Ben does this often: he spent one recent summer reading everything he could on the history and meaning of currency. I’ve tended toward more practical items myself – like giving a speech.
Figure 6. Of course, The Communist Manifesto is literally the 6th most assigned book on college syllabi. Probably even included in your research about how to best parent your kids to bake great pies as pirates.
With personal recommendations, tread very carefully. Some of the best and worst books I’ve read have been recommended by friends – sometimes by the same friend! Consider: how enthusiastic was their recommendation? (And how enthusiastic are they, generally? My girlfriend Ashley is a delight because she’s enthusiastic about everything – but that means her book recommendations need to be parsed very carefully). Bearing in mind how they might evaluate a scale, ask them to rate the book out of 10. But beware recency bias: people are almost always more lucid about books they’ve just read or, even worse, haven’t finished reading. If you want a better recommendation, ask your friends what books have stuck with them after many years. Once removed from the conversation itself, consider: has this person recommended any books to you in the past? Were they any good? How much do they read generally? How much do they know about the specific field the book covers?
Democracy can be useful – when the voters have read the book. The more friends who spontaneously recommend a book, the more likely it may be good. My friend Yinon relies on a system that tracks the frequency that books are mentioned on his favorite podcasts. We will dig into public ratings in a moment, but for now, beware bestseller lists, which are really an indicator of effective marketing inducing prospective readers. More useful might be a buyer’s remorse list.
Figure 7. Similarly, American democracy can be useful – when the voters have read the Constitution.
Published book reviews can be good to the degree that the reviewer/publication shares your perspective. Obviously the best book reviews ever are mine. That’s why you receive and have read this far in the email. But if you must consult other sources, I’ve discovered some great books from the Claremont Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, Marginal Revolution. Reviewers are going to be subject to recency bias, too, but hopefully they’ve read widely on the subject, critically read this book in particular, and are able to tell you what may be better. The crucial value reviews deliver is context – hopefully enough to guide you whether the book is worth adding to your list.
Don’t read a book merely because it won a prize, but an award may be an indicator of quality in a topic you’re already interested in. I once hypothesized that prizes would be a good source of new material – after all, some of my favorite books had won prizes – so perhaps I could outsource selection to some grand poobahs of literature. I read through a series of winners of a few particular prizes… and came away ready to pursue new hypotheses. The truth is I had not read those favorite books because of their winning a prize and the alternative reasons have proved more durable. Prizes have three problems: (1) they tend to give one out every year, regardless of whether 0 or 10 merited the award; (2) unlike book reviews, they rarely provide context for why the awardee is worthy; (3) few prizes are likely to closely match your interests, even in a specialized field. If you’re not trying to research a particular topic but are just looking for a good book, you may be best served by perusing lists of award-winners and only noting down the ones that intrigue you. That’s what I’ve done with military reading lists and I’ve discovered some real gems. But if you’ve read a few from any list and are dissatisfied, discard the list.
There are, of course, other avenues for sourcing books but I haven’t found many to be consistent sources of quality. Some argue that translated works are an excellent screening process: most inhabitants of the Earth don’t speak English and yet plenty still write books – if a book has been translated, publishers have made a determination that it’s more worthy. Provocative idea, but it hasn’t really translated to my own experience. And then, of course, there’s browsing whatever the algorithms suggest or what catches your eye among the aisles. Judging a book by its cover is actually not totally useless – it basically tells you whether you’ve been seduced by the publisher. My general rule of thumb is if you’re merely browsing, make no impulse buys. Just add them to your list for further evaluation.
Wherever you got your books, you can finally go about choosing how to prioritize. Whenever you come across any book that might be interesting, add it to your list with a raw, emotional score out of 10. If you use Excel or Google Sheets, you can just sort and that may be good enough. For the next level, state a specific objective for reading the book: what do you want to get out of it? To return to our whys: Will it help you optimize your life or satisfy a curiosity? Will this book be a good companion in your life? My friend Stan divides books into a limited group of categories that interest him and then rotates between each. Personally, I’ve found that the books I most enjoy are about aspects of history or policy that I’ve been curious about (especially if they look at things with an economic lens or a unique take); very practical advice about how to do better something I care about; and my faith. Of course, you can go deeper and start adding columns to try to find other factors that correlate with your preferences.
A specific evaluation of the author is most useful: whose time do you want to steal and how much time did they give?
Regarding whose time you’re stealing, you need to ask: does the author know what the heck s/he is writing about? I gave my assistant Taylor a list of the best and worst books I read last year without scores and asked him to evaluate each author on the basis of whether they spent the majority of their adult life in the field written about and whether they had a good educational background directly related to the field in question. He was able to predict whether the score was good or bad about 2/3 of the time.
A related question for credibility: do you share a worldview or approach with the author? You should certainly read books that challenge your assumptions but it’s highly doubtful that you are going to consistently enjoy books best that disagree with you. Even the challenges are worth knowing more about in advance to prepare yourself to engage and to test whether respect the author’s thought process. Ultimately though, as I’ve joked before, the very best books I read confirm my existing biases.
Regarding how much time you can steal, this is a harder thing to assess: how can you figure out how much time an author spent brooding about and researching this specific book? People freely include their (selective) autobiographies but don’t really disclose their specific writing process. But here are some proxies: First, if someone had a full time job while writing their book, be very skeptical they gave it enough time. Second, if someone frequently writes books – say, more than once every few years – be very skeptical. The authors of books I’ve rated 8 or higher have written less than half the number of books in their lifetimes than the authors of books I’ve rated 4 or lower – and very few of the top ones are under 50 (or alive!). Third, extensive footnotes and bibliographies hopefully indicate lots of research – and time. My 8+ books are six times more likely to have a multi-page bibliography than my 4- books.
Beyond evaluating the author, you can return to democracy but…
Online ratings very likely overstate how good a book is: in this grade-inflated world, people have a serious allergy to low ratings. If you don’t like math, skip ahead. I rate every book I read out of 10. Out of the past 150 books I’ve read, my average rating is about a 6. But for those same books, Amazon’s average rating is the equivalent of 8.6. If you only include books with over 250 reviews, my average actually drops and Amazon’s average jumps to 9! Of the last 60 books I’ve read, not one with over 250 Amazon reviews is rated below an 8.6. At least for me, Amazon’s ratings system is near useless. But Goodreads, even though the average of the last 150 books I’ve read has been 7.8, is a little more instructive. I tend to give one to two points higher (out of a scale of 10) to books with over 250 Goodreads ratings averaging 8.2 or higher than books with 250 ratings below my average of 7.8. Some friends of mine swear by only reading Goodreads scores of 8+ (4+ for Goodreads 5 point scale) but ultimately you’ll have to discover yourself how closely your tastes match the collective.
Figure 8. “4/5 stars – ride was okay, though I think the driver might have vomited into the passenger seat right before I got in; anyway seemed like he had been drinking, which was confirmed by the BAC test after we got into that car accident. But I only broke my arm, so you know, it was fine. Of course, we weren’t anywhere near where I needed to be – the driver had gone in the opposite direction. Driver asked for 5 stars but giving 4 because he talked too much.”
One friend, skeptical of book democracy, closely examines publishers – essentially asking, what are the reasons a book might be published other than its quality? He reports, “large, popular, mainstream trade presses produce the worst books. Academic publishers have rigorous peer review/high standards. Self-publishers and small/fringe publishers will print niche or controversial books that advance contrarian ideas/views, especially from the right. Mainstream trade presses are the books sourced by very demographically distinct New Yorkers for review in mainstream media to sell to masses.” His general thesis is that the size of an author’s platform to sell books is inversely correlated with the quality of the book.
Finally, older books may be better – so long as they’re timeless, not out of date. Literally hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. If a book is still being published or discussed decades (millenia?) after its original publication, it must have some sort of staying power that may be worth looking into. To return to the earliest example, consider the potential seconds of relevance of social media, the potential hours of relevance of articles, and the potential years of relevance of books. I have a strong bias against anything just published, but I will say reading English authors say, after World War II, is a lot easier and, if the book is reliant on data to prove its point, recency matters.
I can’t say how well these metrics work for beyond non-fiction as I don’t read non-truth. You may have alternative metrics that work well for you, but that’s something you’ll have to evaluate yourself. Just remember: though there’s value in the process, evaluation is for context, not predestination. Your interests may change, but if you have a highly rated book, strongly recommended by an expert friend who read it many years ago, similar to a book you already love, written by an author who has spent her life devoted to this field that you want to know more about to improve your life, you should probably read that right away.
And, ultimately, if you want to read a lot, just get started. Capture your interest while it’s still there! If you don’t have a specific project in mind at the moment, read the shortest book with the highest rating on your list and you can get some momentum. Both because of the immediate availability and the option to email myself highlights, that means reading on Kindle – but read on whatever platform works best for you. Highlight and take notes, empathizing with your future self’s attempt to remember the key points.
If you don’t like a book, quit. Pick a number – 100 pages in, 10% in, 30 minutes in – and evaluate whether you want to continue. Higher discard means more books. I don’t do a great job of this – my own trouble is trying to figure out whether a book is simply something I disagree with, whereupon I’d like to at least know their best ideas, or whether it’s badly written. I mentioned the most profound secular idea I’ve come across is opportunity cost. For my dad, it’s sunk cost, and it’s worth applying here.
And, crucially, once you’ve finished a book, do two things. First, score the book and compare it to your anticipated score. Try to figure out how you got it right or wrong so you can be better for the future. Second, write a summary or review so you can organize your thoughts today and consult it in the future for when you forget all about it!
Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with a friend: know anyone who has ever read a book? Anyone planning on reading a book? Anyone writing a book that should be read?
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