“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
— Francis Bacon
I used to be proud of reading 30+ books each year. I thought it was the key to gaining a competitive advantage in a world that rewards those who seek to discover and act upon good ideas. But in my constant pursuit of discovering the next “big idea,” I never took the time to digest what I’d just read.
Three years and 100 books later, I eventually realized I had been playing the wrong game. In my quest to read as many books as possible, I lost sight of what actually mattered: learning from the ideas that the best books had to offer.
I had committed the cardinal sin of reading: thinking that all books are equally deserving of my time and attention. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, one of the most important skills you can develop as a reader is knowing how to choose what book to read.
Knowing what to read is one of the most important skills you can develop as a lifelong learner. Spending a bit of time upfront on selecting the right book will maximize the significant investment required to actually read it. Where else can 15 minutes potentially save you 15 hours?
So if you’re serious about getting the most out of what you read, then just knowing how to read for understanding isn’t enough. There are too many mediocre books out there willing to steal your time and attention. What you need is a system for discovering the best book that fits your goals and interests.
You need a reading workflow that starts by helping you answer the question, “How do I choose what to read?”
Your Reading Funnel
“A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer
Think of your selection process as a funnel where you take all of the books you’re interested in reading and capturing them somewhere to be filtered at a later time.
There are many options for tracking the books you want to read, but I recommend choosing just one. A few popular options for maintaining your reading funnel are:
- Adding books to a bookshelf
- Using Goodreads to save your “Want to Read” books
- Saving books to an Amazon wish list
- Keeping a running list in a notebook or spreadsheet
Any option will work just fine, but I prefer using Goodreads for maintaining my top-of-funnel list. Goodreads is a book recommendation site designed for readers that lets you add books to virtual shelves for what you’re reading, have read, and want to read. But what makes Goodreads my favorite option is its accessibility and social aspect.
Goodreads’ mobile app makes it easy for you to keep track of all the books you want to read. You can either search for a book on the app or quickly scan books using your phones’ camera while browsing the bookstore or library. Whenever I see an interesting book cited in an article or book or hear one mentioned in a podcast, I’ll take out my phone, search for it on Goodreads, and save it to my “To-Read” list.
Goodreads also has a built-in social aspect. Just like other social media platforms, it lets you follow your friends to see what books they’re reading, want to read, and any reviews they’ve left. You can even track your favorite authors to see everything they’ve published and plan to publish.
Feel free to experiment with a few options to see what works best for you, but don’t spend too much time overthinking it. Once you’ve decided how you’re going to track your books, it’s time to start filling your funnel.
Filling Your Funnel
“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there.”
— Nassim Taleb
Picking out the right book starts with filling your funnel with a lot of books. You want to build a really big reading list, also known as an antilibrary, because you don’t yet know which books are best suited for your goals. The antilibrary accomplishes two things: it inspires you and allows for serendipity.
Each book on your to-read list serves as a little reminder of all of the things you haven’t learned yet. They inspire you to continue your pursuit of lifelong learning.
Browsing the books you haven’t read yet also lets your curiosity take over and guide you toward your next read. Being led by whatever piques your interest instead of picking out a book you think you “should” read will keep the learning process enjoyable.
But while filling your reading funnel with a lot of books is a good start, it’s even more important that you pool quality books from sources you can trust, such as:
- Recommendations from friends
- High-quality online sources
- The bibliography or appendices of books you’ve already read
Recommendations from Friends: Getting book recommendations from friends is an easy way to start filling your reading funnel. If you value their opinion or they happen to be a subject-matter expert on a topic you’re interested in, then chances are good that they can offer quality advice on what books to check out.
But while getting recommendations from friends is easy, it’s also the least effective at filtering for quality. Even if you trust your friends’ judgment, you still want to make sure you’re getting quality recommendations. You can do that by asking them thoughtful questions such as:
“What books have you gifted the most to your friends and family?”
“If you could only read one book on a particular topic, what would it be and why?”
Asking specific questions will give your friends pause to be more thoughtful with their response instead of just recommending whatever was the last book they read.
Online Sources: The Internet is filled with quality information if you know where to look. Fortunately, finding good sources online is relatively easy since many thought leaders and industry experts enjoy sharing their favorite books. Here are a few quality resources I like:
Picking out a book from the list of someone you trust is an excellent way to find quality books since they’ve already been pre-screened and evaluated for their content. This will save you time and lower your chances of picking out a bad book.
Bibliography or Appendix: An often overlooked and underrated source for finding great books is to check out the bibliography and appendix of books you’ve already read. There you’ll discover which books had a major influence on the book you just read. I like to think of the back of the book as a shortcut for helping you get to the root source of an idea.
Applying Filters: The Lindy Effect & Bad Reviews
“The best filtering heuristic, therefore, consists in taking into account the age of books and scientific papers. Books that are one year old are usually not worth reading (a very low probability of having the qualities for “surviving”), no matter the hype and how “earth-shattering” they may seem to be.”
— Nassim Taleb
Once you’ve filled your funnel with enough books, it’s time to ask, “What am I going to read? Specifically, you’re seeking out the book that’s best suited for your current goals or interests. Make the discovery process easier by asking yourself a few questions:
- Are you reading for pleasure?
- Are you researching a project?
- Is there a new skill you’re trying to develop?
- Do you want to expand your worldview?
Once you’ve defined your reading goal, browse through your list of recommended books. As you browse, you want to run through a mental checklist to filter for the best available option. Some filters to consider:
- How old is the book?
- What do the reviews look like?
- Is a book even the best tool for absorbing this type of information?
Older Books: Picking out a book based on how old it is may seem like an odd approach, but when you view it through the lens of competition, it makes perfect sense. Books that have been around a long time have successfully competed for attention and relevance over multiple generations. These books follow the Lindy Effect, as Nassim Taleb once wrote:
“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”
Favoring older books prevents you from falling prey to shiny object syndrome. Instead of being swayed by clever marketing tactics and gamed best-seller lists, you let time filter out what’s actually worth reading. There’s just one caveat: in rapidly changing fields, such as technology, newer books can be a better choice since their information will be more relevant.
Reviews: Reading online reviews can help you make two quick judgments about a book: Is it worth reading? And what can I expect to learn? But just remember that reviews can be highly biased and tend to err on the side of being overly critical, so always take that into account.
When reading reviews, it’s often a good sign if a book has a lot of rave reviews mixed with some strong negative ones. While this might sound counterintuitive, seeing a stark contrast in reviews is a good indicator that the book’s ideas are useful or interesting. It’s just that the author’s opinions about the ideas likely didn’t align with the reader’s. However, if a book only has a lot of okay reviews, then its ideas are probably mediocre and not worth your time.
Right Tool: It’s also important to ask yourself whether or not a book is even the best tool for absorbing the type of information you’re seeking. Sometimes the answer you’re looking for can be more easily found in an article, interview, lecture, or just by going out and doing it.
Books are not always the solution you’re looking for, but they’re often the best source for consuming the condensed knowledge of an expert in a way that’s been carefully thought out and edited.
Once you’ve determined your next read, it’s time to move on to the next step in your reading workflow: knowing how to read for understanding. I cover how to do this in part two of this series (coming soon).
Thanks to Stew Fortier, Tom White, Patrick Ward, Fadeke Adegbuyi, Jesse Evers, Alexander Hugh Sam, Noah Maier, Giorgio Parlato, Lyndall Schreiner, Paul LeCrone, and Ross Richey for reading drafts of this essay and providing thoughtful feedback.
Originally published at https://lawsonblake.com on October 26, 2020.