How I choose what to read

Published 2021-05-13

A useful distinction is between a book and a reading. A book is a static artifact: an author wrote and published a sequence of words on such-and-such date. A reading is an experience of interacting with a particular book. A reading is partially defined by the book in question, but it’s also defined by many other factors, such as:

  • The medium in which you read the book (audio, electronic, paper)
  • Your purpose for reading the book (entertainment, education, comfort, etc)
  • The manner in which you read the book (linearly vs nonlinearly, carefully vs casually, sampling vs consuming fully)
  • Whether you have a natural outlet to discuss the book with others
  • What else you’ve read previously, both recently and in the distant past
  • What is currently happening in your life

Rather than trying to identify the best possible books, I try to identify the best possible readings. In my experience, good readings have one or more of the following qualities:

  • The medium is appropriate for the material. I consume most narrative by audio—this includes novels, memoirs, biographies, and some history. I consume most informational nonfiction by Kindle, because it’s distraction-free but easy to save highlights, which I can later turn into flashcards.
  • My closest friends have read the book before, or are reading it currently. This makes it way easier to have deep discussions about the book, which makes for a substantially higher-quality reading. In fact, this discussability factor can reliably produce a high-quality reading even out of a low-quality book, since you can get tons of pleasure and insight from conversations about why the book is bad.
  • The book has at least one clear connection to something that is meaningful to me. This can mean a lot of things. Maybe it’s that the book is related to a hobby I’m exploring, or that it influenced the author of another book I loved. The point is that the more such connections I can make, and the stronger they are, the better I expect the reading to be.

To find books and contexts that reliably produce good readings, I use three tactics:

  1. Maintain a contextually rich want-to-read list.
  2. Assemble project-specific reading lists.
  3. Always participate in one or more reading groups, with a preference for groups that meet chapter-by-chapter rather than book-by-book. (See James Somers’ post, Most book clubs are doing it wrong.)

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