choosing books to read

Rules for picking books to read: optimise for age and readability

how to pick books to read
Arthur Schopenhauer introduces the concept of alternative cost

I have a problem: I really don’t like giving up books I started.

Is the solution to read them to the end?

No, because they are either full of mistakes and fakes or mostly because they are shallow.

Is the solution to not read them?

No, because then I’d start living in an echo chamber and that’s bad.

Is there a solution?

Yes: entertain a point of view and be able to throw it in the bin without succumbing to the slavish “it’s in a book, therefore it’s right”.

Does that mean I should read everything?

Absolutely not. For me, the purpose of reading is to come across ideas that I am not familiar with.

I recently asked the Slate Star Codex reddit thread how they choose their books because modern non-fiction has been getting on my nerves. Some good points came up and I will add some of my own (relating to both fiction and non-fiction):

1. The main criterion to optimise for is the product of age and readability

For example,

Saw The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck on the best sellers book shelf?

Read Moral letters to Lucilius (1st century AD) instead.

Is everyone reading Fifty Shades of Grey? Anna Karenina (1877) is what you need.

Looking at Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind?

Pick up The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant.

Old books are free from copyright too, so you will easily find them online.

Readability is tough one. I have suffered through many a Shakespearean play. It’s not him, it’s me. I just find him difficult to understand. It happens to be worth it.

In general, the only disadvantage to old books is that they aren’t always intelligible on a practical level.

2. If the book is recommended by a friend, consider it and if you are stuck, ask a friend for a recommendation

Make sure they themselves have read it.

This is how I got into reading Nassim Taleb.

3. If it is on your favourite subject/sub-genre, older than 50 years and still relevant, it’s worth a read

Like Sherlock Holmes? You will probably like Hercule Poirot

4. If the author is a journalist first and foremost, don’t bother with it

Let’s not get political and mention names, but they usually have a lot of interests to defend

5. Authors who spend a lot of time in your part of the world are generally easier to read

Occasionally, for me, reading modern American authors feels like watching an informercial. I mean I really don’t want the first 3 chapters explaining why I should read the book, it’s already in my hands ffs.

6. Sample three random pages in the book: if a paragraph doesn’t make sense, the whole book it unlikely to make sense

This is what I do in book stores. Style is part of substance. When it comes to reading books by academics, this is especially important.

7. If the book itself promises to change your life, destroy as many copies as you can, so that our grandchildren are saved from the intellectual pollution

I could go on a rant, but I won’t.

how to decide what books to read
Delete, delete, delete

There are obviously exceptions to the above.

In addition,

8. Books by the same author seem like a good idea, but this isn’t a reliable rule

J. R. R. Tolkien, for example.

9. Reviews aren’t very important

Arthur explains it well above.

Case in point: The Da Vinci Code is 4.5/5 on Amazon.

And what if you are too cool for books?

Who do you like to read online?

Maria’s Brain Pickings is excellent

The Brain blog is overly academic in its tone, but still nice

Massimo’s Footnotes to Plato is lots of cool philosophy

Lots of other blogs where I know, or feel like I know, the author.

33 thoughts on “Rules for picking books to read: optimise for age and readability”

  1. I stopped reading books ten or more years ago. I’d rather sit and think. It’s probably the beginnings of dementia of some kind. My only problem is that it didn’t stop me from buying books I wanted to read. So now I always have presents ready to give – books for any occasion, stacked on every surface in the house.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. The second book makes the first look like kindergarten (when on its own it’s quite thought provoking). All thinkers should read something about not thinking 😉


  2. You’ve been prolific of late. Social media push? Getting addicted to the little white numbers in those little red circles…? (Don’t worry, we all are.)

    Hmm, picking books to read, I just posted something on this somewhere… (Too spread out by far I tell ya.) Ah, found it, (on a writer’s site), recreated for posterity:

    Personally, if you can’t trust your friends for reading material, the smart ones at least, then who can you trust?

    But reading a bad book? NOPE! I found the Cloud Library to be invaluable. My local public library gives me access and I pull down copy after copy, read 2-10 pages and if they don’t flow, or just get too detailed, or just generally suck — back they go. I’ve read a few even into the 30-60 page range, and then say, “can’t do this — bye!” Life IS too short for bad books.

    The math:

    10,000 words / hour (this is way low, but reasonable given all interruptions, restarts, etc.)
    1 hour / day reading = ~350 hours / year. (This is way generous I think).
    100k words: average novel
    350 hours / (10 hours / novel) = 35 novels / year.
    50 years: age 20 – 70 reading lifespan
    1750 = 35 x 50: Total novels read in life time.

    So, on the low side, an average readerly person might read between 1500 and 3000 novels in their life time. Many people may exceed 5k novels in their lifetime. Some maybe 10,000 novels and non-fiction books. Still, 10,000 is really low considering…

    There will be 100,000 novels published this year alone.

    Time enough to read a bad book? No. Most definitely not.


      1. I did some research on the topic. The numbers are much lower, like an order of magnitude lower.
        Where I said 35? It’s more like 3.5. See my comment on that blog post regarding the PEW research.
        That math, although it might look reasonable, is so far off, it’s stunning — and not in a good way. My fear is that, even today, we, western society, has already peaked regarding the willingness to read. If you write stories, it may be that your best markets are in the developing countries. Which is food for thought (where food is precious).


      2. The printed word seems defy all logic. On the one hand information, through the net, now encompasses the globe. Practically no place is free from its reach.
        On the other hand, the publishing industry is simultaneously shrinking and growing. Millions of new books in a decade. Fewer and fewer new mainstream authors. E-publishing taking over, yet…
        A book is the ultimate in portable entertainment. It contains no battery; is durable for centuries if taken care of; can be replayed endlessly for free; and can be gifted, traded or resold. Not to mention humanity has adopted the book as a form of self-identity. There’s absolutely no need for a “library” these days. Yet, who doesn’t have a small personal one? Or live near a great big building full of books?
        Strange times for the printed word.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I completely agree. I think they are more niche now. Back when I was a kid (as they say in the US lol), when i was in my room, all I had was books to entertain me. I could play a video game or play an instrument, call a friend for a chat, but books had a much bigger “marker share” of my me time pre smartphone. Now, it’s kind of a more specialist thing

        Liked by 1 person

      4. We won’t ever read that much. Reading used to be a pass time and now there is way too much competition for eyeball time.

        Better take some drugs and hope Photo reading works. I heard you can “read” a book by just flipping through the pages! Magic!!!


    1. You guys should totally try SubDyn or Photo reading or read as per Tai Lopez method which is basically SparkNotes. It will lead you into a world of self aggrandizing over confidence


  3. The three random pages technique sounds excellent. I agree, American authors have a hard time saying what they want to say so they include, everything. I blame our education system here and the “tell ’em, tell ’em what you told them, then tell ’em again. A funny thing, American movies don’t have those abrupt and sometimes beautiful endings like European films. Ours have three malformed endings for most popular films. So much that I just pick the first one and skip the last fifteen minutes of the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, we are certainly moving in that direction too!

      Compared to what I am used to here, it does have a slightly more commercial vibe to it, and it’s generally not a bad thing at all!

      I am no use at films, but I do have lots and lots of favourites coming from the US 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t there a social uhhh. Social mechanism? Where a new action may look productive so others follow?

        Monkey see monkey do.

        Its an old saying but, writers copy successful writers. Art, has always been a form of imitation. If everyone is copying each other then new ideas are not new just, stale.

        I like your idea of reading the public domain. I frequent there.


  4. Most books I consider reading are on topics that interest me, and if a particular title or author crops up in my circle more than once then I’m off to find a copy; I like playing along with the seeming synchronicity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “because modern non-fiction has been getting on my nerves” THIS. No editors, no fact-checking. Near plagiarism. UGH. My whipping-boy example: Astronauts Wives Club by Lily Koppel. So awful–so trite. I believe the research consisted of watching the movie The Right Stuff and nothing else.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s