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
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.
There are obviously exceptions to the above.
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.