A simple system for feeding your mind what it needs most.
I used to feel guilty about all the books I haven’t read. I would walk into my home or college office and see all those unread books and feel like a loser. The same thing happened when I saw all the unread books on my Kindle app. The guilt would be compounded every time I saw a list of “must-read books” or “best books of the year,” or came across yet another book I really wanted to read.
Then one day I spent some time developing a system to help me choose which books to read. This simple, three-category system has transformed the way I look at books and how I choose which ones to read.
Let’s start with some truths that will help set the context for how to decide which books to read:
4 Surprising Truths About Reading
I call these “surprising” truths because they go against a lot of the conventional wisdom about books. (I’m referring only to non-fiction books in this post.) These can also be a little surprising for those of us who write books!
Truth #1: Reading is only a means to an end.
I’m not saying that reading has no value. I’m just saying that it only has value if it contributes to something beyond itself.
There are only two reasons to read:
- For entertainment—fun, escapism, and pleasure that make life enjoyable.
- For education—knowledge, strategies, systems, and perspectives that improve our lives.
When we talk about the importance of reading, we’re really talking about the importance of the results it brings.
Truth #2: The value of most books lies in about 20 percent of its content.
Sometimes we feel guilty about not finishing a book because we have a notion that all parts of a book are equally valuable. Not true. In any given non-fiction book, most of the book’s value is in about 20 percent of its content.
The trick is finding out which 20 percent is the most valuable to you. (And it’s not necessarily the same 20 percent for every reader.) This is why concentrated skimming is so valuable—you can identify the most important parts and focus on extracting the most value. There’s no reason to read the parts of a book that aren’t helping you.
Truth #3: Reading a book is not necessarily more valuable than reading other types of content.
Some would argue that a book is more valuable than a series of blog posts or podcasts because a book goes more in-depth into a subject or contains a sustained argument on a topic. That is sometimes true, but it’s not true nearly as often as we’d like to think.
Most non-fiction books in the personal growth, business, leadership, and creativity categories contain 8-15 chapters. The chapters are usually arranged topically, not sequentially. In other words, the chapters are like spokes around a hub, rather than links in a chain. You can read the chapters out of order and it wouldn’t make a big difference.
You can think of most blog posts and podcast episodes like chapters in a book. They are mostly self-contained units that are not always directly related to other posts or episodes on the same blog or podcast. (This is why many books written today originate from blogs and podcasts—the formats lend themselves to book chapters.)
Likewise, you can think of most books as having chapters that are like episodes of a TV show. You can usually watch one episode and know whether you’ll like the whole series.
For instance, I had never seen Big Bang Theory until a few months ago. I watched a couple of episodes one evening and enjoyed it. However, I didn’t feel guilty because I didn’t watch every episode. I still received value (entertainment) from those episodes without having to watch the whole season or series.
My point is that many times, you can read the introduction and selected chapters (that interest you) from a non-fiction book, and you will get the same value as if you had read the whole book.
Truth #4: “Best book” lists have limited value.
I have written my share of “best book” lists (case in point) and still read lists put together by others. (One of my favorites is a site devoted to the best presidential biographies.) There can be great power in curated lists.
The thing to remember, however, is that whenever someone puts together a list of the best books in a given category, that means those are the best books according to them. That list is only valuable if it’s a writer whom you respect, or it’s a list of books in your field.
A book may have changed someone else’s life, but it won’t necessarily change yours. It may have come into their life at just the right time, but it may not be what you need right now. Someone can go nuts for a book, but you shouldn’t feel badly if you don’t have the same love for it.
For example, everyone seems to love John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, but I just don’t dig their writing. I have tried, really. But it’s just not my thing.
On the other hand, my all-time favorite book is Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. It’s had a profound impact on the way I view teaching, leadership, and ministry. But I know plenty of people who have read it and didn’t care for it.
In order for a book to be life-changing, it has to the be the right content, but you also have to be ready to receive it. I’m 41 years old, there are some books I am ready to read now that I wasn’t when I was 30 years old. There are also some books that were meaningful to me when I was younger, but aren’t as helpful to me now.
Those are four truths about reading that help set the context for how to choose books. Now let’s look at the simple system I mentioned earlier.
A Simple System for Choosing Books
All books fall into three categories: those you want to read, those you feel you should read, and those you need to read. Let’s break this down:
1. Books you want to read.
These are books that won’t necessarily improve your life, but you want to spend time with them. This might include some fiction or other books that aren’t related to your goals, but that provide some enjoyment. (For me, this would include Stephen King books and graphic novels.)
2. Books you feel you should read.
These are books that other people say you should read, but you aren’t highly motivated to read them because won’t get much enjoyment from them.
3. Books you need to read.
These are books that you know will help with your goals, family life, career, finances, spiritual development, or other areas that are important to you.
This is my simple system: In order for a book to be on my “reading list,” it must be in either the “want to read” or “need to read” category. Sometimes I don’t know if I want to read a book until I read a bit of it. If it’s something that’s recommended and feel I “should” read, I’ll sample it and move it into the “need to read” category if I like it.
But what happens when you have dozens, or even hundreds of books in the “want to read” or “need to read” categories? It’s simple: I pick the ones I’m most interested in at the moment and go from there. If a book doesn’t hold my attention, or isn’t valuable, I won’t finish it. Then I go to the next one.
If I feel like I “should” read a book, but don’t really want to and don’t feel I need it, I won’t read it. Life is too short to read something that won’t bring me joy or improve my life, no matter how important others think it might be.One caveat, though: Don’t underestimate the value of discovering great new books you didn’t plan on reading, but you may love. The joy of discovery is part of the fun of reading. You can usually get a quick feel for whether you’ll like a book by looking at the table of contents.
I would love to hear your thoughts on how you choose books, and whether you feel guilty about books you haven’t read (or finished).
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Photo: Flickr/Renaud Camus