In 2015, Tim Urban wrote a great perspective post for Wait But Why about putting life through the filter of time and then breaking it down by activity: How many winters, Super Bowls, and books can you consume in a 90-year lifespan? If I’m 32 (I am), that leaves 58 (hopefully good) years in my life. And if I read, on average, 20 books per year, that gives me approximately 1,160 books to pore through over the next several decades. That number may seem like a lot, but when you consider (according to Uncle Google), that there are nearly 130 million books out there and another 600,000 to 1,000,000 additional books released every year, 1,160 books means I’ll be able to get through about 0.000003 percent of all published books by the time I hit 90. A real big, fat dent.
So, knowing this, how do we decide which books to read? Where do we even begin when the paradox of choice presents itself in such a monstrously overwhelming and paralyzing way?
For me, it’s important to understand why I read. Reading for entertainment results in very different choices than reading for knowledge and growth. There’s no right or wrong, better or worse method. While I tend toward books that challenge an existing perspective or teach me something new, I still enjoy sprinkling in a book for fun every so often. (Talk to me about the Red Rising series!) I try to keep a four-to-one ratio of knowledge to entertainment when it comes to what I read, meaning for every four books I consume for knowledge or growth, I’ll read one for fun. That said, more often than not, the books I read for knowledge or growth end up checking the fun box too.
It can be tough to distinguish between the fun books and knowledge books so for the sake of clarity, I run through four questions to help me think through which category a book might fall into:
- Is the book classified as nonfiction?
- Is the book considered literary fiction or a “classic”?
- Is the author known for their prose or writing style?
- Is there a central, big idea or a hypothesis the author is attempting to prove?
- Has the book laid claim to one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards?
If I can answer “yes” to any one of these five questions, the book falls into the knowledge category. These questions are by no means failproof, though. Inevitably, upon completion of a book, I may find that it flipped from one category into the other, which is fine. But these guidelines still serve as a nice framework for helping me think through the types of books I want to dedicate my time to.
How to discover new books
There are three main ways I discover new books to potentially add to my reading queue on Goodreads (my all-time favorite “social networking” website):
1. Recommendations from friends
If a friend or family member gifts or recommends a book to me, I’ll (at the very least) look into it before deciding whether or not to proceed. A good recommendation usually comes from someone who knows me well, who knows what kinds of books and authors I’ve read and enjoyed, and who has some knowledge of the kinds of topics that pique my interest. For this reason, the best recommendations typically come from my partner. Sometimes, a book will find its way into a conversation I’m having too. I’ll usually jot it down and look into it later.
2. Reading lists or recommendations from people I admire
This is a big one. Not all reading lists and recommendations are created equal. I don’t check the New York Times bestseller list (or any bestseller lists, for that matter), and I give little credence to books claiming these awards on their covers. I won’t click on some random person’s “My Top 5 Books of 2018” unless I’ve done sufficient research on that person and decided I care about what they have to say (which means you probably shouldn’t click on my top five list either). That said, I will click on Sam Harris’s book recommendations list, or Shane Parrish’s, Maria Popova’s, Naval Ravikant’s, and Derek Sivers’. I’m hungry for whatever these folks put out. They are the small handful of people whose work I consume on a regular basis and whose opinions and judgments I care to hear. Their minds contain multitudes, their work and writings reveal interdisciplinary, polymathic knowledge, and their reading lists are a reflection of such. To me, these people are inspirational human beings. If I could choose five people to surround myself with at all times, they would be the ones. Perhaps by proxy of being around them (or maybe by osmosis), I’d become a polymath myself. You might not care about Sam Harris or perhaps you’ve never heard of any of the people I’ve listed. But this point is still relevant: Seek out the people you look up to, whether they’re in your own life or they’re public figures. Ask them about what they’re reading or go to their websites or blogs to see if they’ve shared book lists and recommendations. More often than not, Googling a name along with “book recommendations” will yield a shocking number of articles. Public figures like Bill Gates, Sophia Amoruso, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett are all avid readers who openly share what they’re reading. You’ll have no shortage of books to check out and add to your queue once you’ve gone through a couple of their lists.
This site has been invaluable to me. (A cautionary note: Goodreads was bought out by Amazon a couple of years ago, so if you’re concerned with privacy and Amazon having too much data on you, you may want to stay away.) That said, I’m exposed to a vast array of books because of the diversity in my network on Goodreads. You can choose to keep your network closed to only people you know or you can widen it to include strangers and authors. (Goodreads is similar to Instagram in this regard.) There are pros and cons to each strategy, but if you want increased exposure to random, obscure books from various genres, it helps to branch out and befriend people who are unlike you. (You can always “unfriend” them later if you decide their book choices are too wacky.) I liken combing Goodreads to thrift shopping (especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for). There’s a lot of junk that won’t resonate with you, but with a little patience and a practiced eye, you’ll come across a vintage piece that just might change your life!
These methods are what work for me, but you don’t have to limit yourself to these three alone. Sometimes I’ll walk the aisles of my local bookstore in the Mission (Dog Eared Books) to envelope myself in the scent of old books, touch the well-traveled covers, and feel the weight of knowledge in my hands. I’ll read the little notecards marked as “Staff Favorites” for that week or month. I’ve picked up a couple of books this way. It’s similar to surfing through books on Goodreads but with more sensory input. Joining a book club is another great way to discover new books.
How to filter through the books on your list
Life is too short to be spent reading books of little relevance or interest to you, so don’t read a book just because it landed in your lap. Filter, filter, and filter some more. Don’t buy a book just because your best friend said it’s their favorite book. Buy a book because you’re genuinely interested in the story, idea, or philosophy or because you’re a fan of the author. Don’t read a book because a family member gifted it to you for the holidays; read it because the book speaks to you and is relevant to where you are in life. Along the same vein, don’t not read a book because you think the person who recommended or gifted it to you is a weirdo or because you think their perspective on something is plain “wrong.” Read that book because you’re curious about the other perspective. Read it to gain a better understanding of someone else’s mindset and lifestyle choices, even if you end up using it against them in friendly debate later on.
Do your due diligence and know what you’re reading, why, and how best to read it. Know your answer to the question: Why are you reading this book?The upfront time cost of researching a book’s topic and author will pay for itself later; otherwise, you may end up with a bookshelf (virtual or physical) full of books you’ve started but never finished.
These are the steps I take between first hearing about a book and actually adding it to my reading queue:
I take a few seconds to jot down the title that piques my interest
For example, I’m thinking about reading I Contain Multitudes, which a friend mentioned while we were talking about the microbiome and fecal transplants.
I spend two or three minutes researching the book
I typically use Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia to skim the summary, author bio, and reviews. Usually I’ll read two or three reviews from each star variation for a total of 10 to 15 reviews. If I lose interest at this point, I move on to the next book on my list. If I’m still intrigued, I’ll move on to the next step.
I spend another two or three minutes searching the book on Goodreads
I keep this as a separate step from the above for two reasons: First, I find the reviews on Goodreads to be more geared toward the content of the book itself, whereas Amazon’s reviews are sometimes inclusive of book formatting, editions, and shipping. Second, I like to see who in my network has already read this book and what they thought of it. I tend toward reading more reviews on Goodreads than on Amazon, and I acquaint myself with the reasons a book was phenomenal to some and dreadful to others. Often, you’ll start to recognize common patterns and reasons for why people rank a book as four or five stars versus one or two. At this point, I’ll decide whether I can tolerate the negatives of the book given the potential positives. For example, people who gave I Contain Multitudes one or two stars seemed to have a problem with the lack of evidence and sound science in the author’s narrative, or they found it boring and had a problem with the way the book is organized. People who gave it four or five stars (more stars tend to also equate to more detailed reviews) seemed to appreciate the wealth of information the author provides on the topic of bacteria. Some of them acknowledged the lack of specific evidence and deep dive into current research, but from these reviews, I can surmise that the book probably focuses on breadth rather than depth, as is typical of most popular science books. Because I know little-to-nothing about bacteria and how they exist in our world, this book seems like a good enough introduction for me and is worth further exploration. Often I’ll lose interest in a book at this step, perhaps because the negative reviews speak louder to me than the positive ones. But this is also the step where I usually have enough information to decide whether a book is worthy of being added to my “Want to Read” queue on Goodreads. In the case of I Contain Multitudes, it’s been added to my queue and I’ve now completed my due diligence. In rare cases, I may need to find more information about a book, in which case I’ll resort to the next (and final) step.
I take an extra five to 10 minutes to research and skim through articles about the book and author
If I’m still on the fence about a book, I’ll dive further into research about the book and the author. I’ll read through articles, op-ed columns, reviews, and more, perhaps in the New York Times or the Atlantic. If the author gave a TED talk about the book’s research, I’ll watch that. I’ve never gotten to this step and not known whether to proceed with the book. But, if this happens to you, you can create a separate list or shelf on Goodreads and title it “Undecided.”
Each of these steps may take closer longer when you first start this process, but it’ll get faster each time. Now I set aside 15 to 20 minutes once every couple of weeks to go through all the books I’ve stumbled upon, and I can usually filter through a dozen books in under 20 minutes. In the past, I’d finish 50 percent of the books I started. But with this process, I now finish close to 90 percent of all books I buy and start.
Be stringent about the books you add to your “Want to Read” list. Say no to more books than you say yes to. Ask yourself, “Will I gain as much or more from this book as the energy and time I exert?” It’s a hard question to answer prior to starting a book, but it’s a good one to keep in the back of your mind once you do. If a book ends up draining you (and that’s different from challenging you), it’s a good sign that you should set that book aside and walk away. There’s no shame in not finishing a book. As AngelList co-founder and CEO Naval Ravikant would say: Give yourself permission to quit!
How to pick the best book for right now
Now you have a reading queue with dozens, perhaps hundreds of books. What next? The paradox of choice will probably still be an issue for you even after you’ve narrowed down your pool. You might be a one-book-at-a-time reader. Or maybe you’re like Naval Ravikant, who advocates for reading 10 to 50 books at any given time. There are pros and cons to each method, and it’s up to you to experiment and see what resonates.
Most of the time, I pick my next books by feel. Sometimes I’m feeling a fiction book or a memoir or a sci-fi novel. But at other times, I might be feeling a nonfiction book about relationships, communication, or cognitive psychology. Even then, there are a few guiding questions I’ll run through in my head to help solidify my choice of what to read next:
What genres were my last two to three books?
If I’ve just finished a fiction book, I’ll usually switch over to nonfiction. If my last several reads were nonfiction, I’ll usually search through my queue for a new novel. A little diversity is nice.
How, when, and where have I heard about this book?
Often, my choice will be clear because it seems like the universe is pointing me toward a certain book. Maybe someone on a podcast will randomly mention it, or it comes up in conversation at dinner, or someone posts a quote from the book on their Instagram story. Once a book has manifested itself to me three times, I’ll bump it up in my reading queue.
Is this book a full departure from what I’ve been reading, learning, or thinking about lately, or will it round out my knowledge on a topic?
I try to segment my readings and learnings into themes, which allows me to dive deeper into a topic, develop an informed, well-rounded opinion, and possibly even formulate a fundamental operating life principle or philosophy. Reading one singular book on a topic can only get you so far (unless it’s fiction). For example, in the past several months, I’ve been really into spirituality, psychedelics, meditation, yoga, and Buddhism. Thus, I’ve been focused more heavily on books about these interconnected topics.
How urgent and important is it that I read this book?
Sometimes I’ll pick up a book because I need to learn something quickly. Books about business, marketing, sales, and startups provide new ways of thinking through existing problems, or they can help you get ahead of a problem before it transpires. I picked up Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and James Fadiman’s The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide just before my first-ever full hallucinogenic experience.
What will be occurring in my life in the near future?
I like books that complement and supplement my schedule, lifestyle, and activities. If my partner and I decide to go for a big health reset (whether we’re going keto for a few months or choosing a full-blown elimination diet), I’ll read books related to health as a way to unify my intellectual and experiential learnings. If I’m going on vacation, I’ll pick up a fiction or sci-fi book. If I need to hone my writing skills, I’ll gravitate toward books about writing and literature.
It’s possible I’m a freak for having such a meticulous process for simply deciding what to read next. It may seem excessive, inefficient, or time-consuming to some, but this process is so entrenched in my weekly routine that it takes me no more than 15 to 20 minutes to filter through a dozen or so books every few weeks. It’s a heavier upfront investment in time, but the advantage is how much time and money I end up saving long-term when I finish 90 percent of the books I purchase.