Thinking About Books “Not Worth Reading” – (And, What Makes a Book Worth Reading?)


(Note – I am not writing about “pleasure reading,” or “fiction/novel” reading, or “escape” reading. I’m sort of writing about “work, reading-to-learn” reading. The other is a different matter entirely).

——————-

Here’s what prompted this. I was about to read a book, and I mentioned the title to someone I respect greatly. He had read the book. (It directly dealt with his area). He told me, in no uncertain terms, not to read it – it was a complete waste of time, utterly wrong-headed… not useful! So, I did not read the book.

Choosing my next book to read is always a challenge.  And, you will never have enough time to read all the books that would be useful for you to read. Never…

These all go into the "Yes; worth reading" stack
These all go into the “Yes; worth reading” stack

But, we keep trying… so…

There are two kinds of books.

There are books that are worth reading.
There are books that are not worth reading.

And yes, this is a spectrum.

Tyler Cowen, the economist, prolific blogger and book writer, wrote about his practice of traveling with a stack of books. He opens one, starts reading it, and decides pretty quickly “yes, a keeper,” vs. “not worth reading.” He then simply leaves the “not worth reading” book on a table at the airport for someone else to find.

So, how do we decide what books to read, and what books not to read? The shortest short cut would be this – find someone who knows what you are interested in and what you are dealing with and ways that you want to grow better at what you do, than you know such things yourself about yourself; someone who reads a lot more widely than you do; and ask them what to read, and what not to read. (The Amazon “recommendations – people who like this also read these books” — are intended to work this way).

Now, since you likely do not know that exact person, you have to rely on substitutes for that person. It could be a book reviewer, and after reading many of their reviews, and following their lead, you have learned to trust them. Or, maybe you have developed the ability to read a few pages of a book, and you realize – yep, that one is worth reading, and no, that one is not worth reading.

But, ultimately, there are some books that you really do decide: I should not read this book. How do you reach such a decision?

Let’s start with how not to make such a decision.

#1 – Don’t decide not to read a book based on the fact that the author does not “agree with you.” Disagreeing with an author may in fact be a great reason to read a book.

#2 – Don’t decide not to read a book based on the fact that the book is “too old.” Are you crazy? Some of the best, most valuable books are old – decades, even centuries old. (Everyone should read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, first published either in 1513 or 1532, at least once).

#3 – Don’t decide not to read a book based on the fact that the book is “outside your area of interest.” You need to read outside your area(s) of interest, fairly often.

#4 – Don’t decide not to read a book based on the fact that the book is only a problem identifier but not a solution identifier. Some problems are big problems we’re still working on, and maybe refining our understanding of a problem might help us discover a workable solution.

I suspect you could come up with more reasons. But here’s one good reason to actually read a book:

Do decide to read a book based on the fact that the book is useful — useful to your thinking, and useful in your interactions, and useful to your business strategies. Useful!

But, there are some books that are simply too shallow, too simplistic, too wrong-headed, or just wrong… When you discover that about a book, just don’t read it.

But when you find a book that is useful, make time to read it. Your life, and your work, will be richer for it.

2 thoughts on “Thinking About Books “Not Worth Reading” – (And, What Makes a Book Worth Reading?)

  1. Can I simply say “I just know?”.
    For many business books (and certain other non-fiction books), the preface and/or introduction, along with the concluding chapter, give me a real sense of the whole book. So, I frequently read those sections first. (By the way, for such books, I seldom read the chapters in the order they appear).
    So, those are a few hints.
    And, plenty of times, I can stop reading pretty quickly… You can “just tell” many times…
    That’s my approach and experience…
    Good comment/question.

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