Finding Good Books: A How-To Guide

Every week, I get an email asking something like this:

Hey Charles, you read a lot of books. How do you find good books to read?

Allow me to be sarcastic.

Perhaps the most popular question for writers is “Where do you get your ideas?”

Guess what? The people who ask this are, inevitably, not writers. For real writers, ideas are never the problem.

It’s the same for reading—those who ask how to find good books are (generally) the people who don’t read.

Each good book gives dozens, if not hundreds, of new paths to explore. The more you read, the more there is to read. The problem for readers is not finding books—we have too many—but choosing what to read.

But let me answer seriously.

I think of this problem in two parts:

  1. Find good books
  2. Choose what to read next (prioritize)

How to Find Good Books

If you read 24 hours a day for a whole year, you will finish 2000-3000 books.

Sadly, a million new books are published each year.

Luckily, we don’t want to read everything. This is because:

  • Most books are trash
  • Our interests are limited
  • Reading isn’t an end in itself

Reading too much, especially on the wrong stuff, can hurt us. Here’s Argentine philosopher Mario Bunge writing on information overload, from Philosophy in Crisis:

“…the problem of a worker in today’s knowledge industry is not the scarcity of information but its excess. … In order to learn anything we need time. And to make time we must use information filters allowing us to ignore most of the information aimed at us. We must ignore much to learn a little.”

Over the years, I’ve developed some heuristics (mental shortcuts) for finding good books to read.

First, a general principle I like to use:

  • Filter books for skin in the game. Ignore your personal trainer if she is fat. Do not read books by authors who do not “walk the talk.” (From Taleb’s Antifragile.)

This principle helps us weed out the sensational, low-signal-high-noise books. You would never read a book on martial arts by someone who has never been in a live fight. It should be the same for books.

Now, the heuristics I use:

  • “Walk” the book. Authors tend to mention other authors in their books. A good non-fiction book (such as Kahneman’s masterpiece can have hundreds of references in the back. Follow the “branches” of the reference tree that interest you. (You can do this with the “Further Reading” section of your favorite Wikipedia pages too.)
  • Use crowdsourced lists. Find high-quality communities for your interests. They usually have many lists of recommended readings. Examples of communities I’ve used recently: Cognitive Science Stack Exchange, the philosophy subreddit, and Hacker News.
  • Ask an expert. Write to professors or practicing professionals that you respect (it helps to be a good judge of character here) and ask for recommendations. If you show genuine interest and respect their time, they are often happy to answer.

Choosing What to Read

I do the above steps constantly. This means I always have a running list of books to read.

But how to choose what to read next?

Here are a couple heuristics I use to do this:

  • Use the Lindy Effect. Time filters signal from noise. Old books tend to survive for a reason. (Again, from Taleb’s Antifragile)
  • Consider diminishing returns. Nobody reads 30 textbooks on the same subject. The more you read on a subject, the less learning gains there are from each book.
  • Is it actionable? How immediately relevant will the book be? Can I use it in the next week to make my life better? In the next day?
  • Pick the lead domino. Choose the book that makes everything else easier. For example, a book on psychology is much better for the general reader than, say, a book on ancient Japanese architecture. Or, you might want to read an overview of philosophy before diving into, say, this monster.
  • Trial and error My favorite heuristic. A book is boring because it’s (1) irrelevant, (2) too easy or (3) too hard. Great, that means you shouldn’t read it. Drop it and move on. You can always come back later.

Finding books to read is not hard.

Much harder is finding the time to do it.

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