Everybody talks about how many books they read this year. But very few people discuss what to read, which I think is much more important and not obvious.
Quality over Quantity
There are 130 million books in the world. 129,864,880, to be exact.
Let’s assume that you will learn all speed reading tricks, build a habit of reading every day for a few hours and become a voracious bookworm who reads one book per week every week for 50 years (as all of us aspire to).
Congratulations, now it’ll take you just about two and a half million years to finish them all.
But you don’t have that luxury. Even if you’re a fast reader, you’ll read about 2,600 books in your lifetime. That means you have to choose one most prominent book in 50,000 if you want to read the best stuff.
Now let’s take an average reader like me who reads one book a month. I’ll read about 500 books during my life, and I have to choose one book in 260,000 to read the best.
500 books out of 130 million is a minnow in a vast ocean. And that’s precisely why you need to optimize for what you read instead of how much. The total number of books you’ll be able to read is capped at 2,600, but the quality is all your choice.
Another reason to choose books wisely is to avoid superficial thinking.
Remember that phrase, “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are”?
It’s the same with books. Thoughtful reading helps you develop opinions on subjects, and obnoxious books just waste your memory with facts. What’s worse is that most people actually believe in what they read and don’t even bother to check references.
So if you want to be a great thinker, you have to make good choices in what to read.
How to Choose Books
So far, we restated the question from vague “how do I choose great stuff to read” to a definite “Is this book one in 260,000?”
If we frame it that way, it boils down to two things:
- Knowing what kind of stuff interests you;
- A framework to figure out the best book in in 260,000.
The first one is up to you. I have written about choosing what to work on here, so if you haven’t yet figured out what to do with your life, you might benefit from checking it out.
Here’s a hint. It comes down to choosing some area of knowledge, like a science. For me it’s biology and longevity. It doesn’t mean that you need to become a madman in a lab, but it’s more of a vector to direct your thinking towards. Henry Hazlitt also has some great ideas on the subject.
And don’t get stuck. It’s okay if you don’t know yet what to work on or what area of expertise to develop. It takes time. Start thinking about it, notice questions and problems that excite you, and try many things. Follow your curiosity.
Here’s the best part. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already figured out what knowledge interests you or if you’re not there yet.
The rules for choosing the best books are the same:
- Read old books.
- Read original books.
- “Is this a book in 260,000?”
Rule 1: Read Old Books
The first rule of choosing reading matter is to read stuff that has been around for a long time.
It was first introduced by Nassim Taleb in his book Skin in The Game as the Lindy Effect:
“That which is “Lindy” is what ages in reverse, i.e., its life expectancy lengthens with time, conditional on survival. Only the nonperishable can be Lindy. When it comes to ideas, books, technologies, procedures, institutions, and political systems under Lindy, there is no intrinsic aging and perishability. A physical copy of War and Peace can age (particularly when the publisher cuts corners to save twenty cents on paper for a fifty-dollar book); the book itself as an idea doesn’t.”
Taleb explains how Lindy applies to books in Antifragile:
“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. So I follow the Lindy effect as a guide in selecting what to read: books that have been around for ten years will be around for ten more; books that have been around for two millennia should be around for quite a bit of time, and so forth.”
Rule 2: Read Comprehensive Originals
The second rule is to read original books that cover a wide range of aspects of a particular problem or area.
It was introduced by Henry Hazlitt in his fantastic book Thinking as a Science (which, by the way, is more than a hundred years old — here you go, rule #1).
Henry states it as follows:
“One of the first things we should look to in selecting books is their comprehensiveness. To quote Arnold Bennett: “Unless and until a man has formed a scheme of knowledge, be it but a mere skeleton, his reading must necessarily be unphilosophical. He must have attained to some notion of the interrelations of the various branches of knowledge before he can properly comprehend the branch of knowledge in which he specializes.”
Yes, you will struggle. Yes, they’re hard to understand and sometimes are written in this weird old English. But once you grasp these ideas, once you fully understand them, you’ll experience such a deep feeling of excitement that you will drop reading bestsellers like a rotten egg.
Here’s a list from Henry Hazlitt for you to start from:
- John Locke, The Conduct of the Understanding;
- Isaac Watts, The Improvement of the Mind;
- Arnold Bennett, Mental Efficiency;
- T. Sharper Knowlson, The Art of Thinking;
- Arthur Schopenhauer, On Thinking for Oneself, in his Essays.
- The best single work on this subject is John Dewey’s How We Think;
- William James’ chapter on Reasoning in his Principles of Psychology might also be consulted with profit;
- S. S. Colvin’s, The Learning Process contains some interesting chapters bearing on thought.
- Probably the most thorough book is Stanley Jevon’s The Principles of Science, though this, consisting of two volumes, will require quite some ambition to attack;
- A good recent short work is J. A. Thomson, Introduction to Science;
- Herbert Spencer’s short essay, An Element in Method, in his Various Fragments might also be mentioned;
- Of those works treating method mainly from a corrective standpoint, I have already mentioned Jevon’s Elementary Lessons in Logic;
- The authoritative and most comprehensive book on logic is still John Stuart Mill’s great tome;
- Of course this list of books on method, as well as that on the psychology of reasoning, cannot pretend to be more than merely suggestive. If the reader desires an extensive bibliography in either of these subjects he will probably find it in one of the books mentioned.
ON DOUBT AND BELIEF
- On doubt and belief, William Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, and William James, The Will to Believe, might be read. The viewpoints of the two essays are in almost direct contradiction.
- On reading, Alexander Bain’s The Art of Study, in his Practical Essays, will be found useful.
- Bacon’s essay On Studies, which is not more than a couple pages long, contains more concentrated wisdom on the subject than is to be found anywhere.
ON SUBJECTS MOST WORTH THINKING ABOUT
- On subjects most worth thinking about, the reader cannot do better than read Herbert Spencer’s essay What Knowledge is of Most Worth? in his Education.
ON BOOKS MOST WORTH READING
- As to books most worth reading, consult the lists of John Morley, Sir John Lubbock, and Frederic Harrison;
- Sonnenschein’s Best Books (in two volumes);
- Baldwin’s The Book Lover;
- Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf and Frank Parson’s The World’s Best Books, previously referred to.
ON THE ART OF LIVING
- On the art of living—the art of planning time so as to have room for thinking, as well as valuable hints as to how that thinking is to be carried out—consult Arnold Bennett, How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day, and E. H. Griggs, The Use of the Margin (both very, very small books).
- Finally, there is much useful material, as well as incalculable inspiration, to be obtained from the intellectual and literary biographies of great thinkers. Especially is this true of autobiography. Among others may be mentioned the autobiographies of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, and an autobiographical fragment by Charles Darwin.
Rule 3: Is This a Book in 260,000?
Lastly, do this gut check before starting a new book. Ask yourself:
Is this a book in 260,000? Can I afford to read this at the cost of missing 259,999 others?
And remember: if it’s not a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.
Thank you very much for reading my work.