How I Decide What To Read

This month I’m posting every day, taking the top voted question from readers and answering it.  With 37 votes, today’s winner was:

How do you decide what to read?

From what I can tell, you are a voracious reader. Do you read just one book at a time, or multiple books at a time? Advantages or disadvantages to either?

I read 20 to 30 books a year, sometimes more if I’m working on a new book and there’s research I need to do. I don’t worry much about what I read. I keep a big supply of good books around and what I read on a given day is driven more by whim that anything. If I buy good books, which one I’m currently reading doesn’t matter.

I read primarily on my iPad through Kindle. It’s convenient given that I travel often, it’s easy to buy new books on the fly, and I like their highlighting system. But I’m not particular: I read print books often too.

I try hard to read one book at a time. It’s very tempting not to, but like all multitasking you waste energy when you switch as it takes time to recall everything that was in the book up until the point you reached last time. If I switch away from a book it’s a good sign I should abandon it completely. If I’m not convinced by the 50 page mark I will abandon a book with no regrets. I used to have 3 or 4 partially read books around but I’ve gotten much better at avoiding that trap.

As long as I’m reading frequently I don’t worry much about what the particular books are. But if you forced me to make it into a formula it’d be something like this:

  1. Books I should read. I’m interested in writing books that will be read long into the future and I read old books that are still read today to learn something about how it’s done. I read many books that were published decades ago and largely avoid trendy topics or bestsellers. There’s plenty of classic literature I’ve never read and I try to knock off one or two of those a year. Some books are purely recommendations from friends who know the kinds of books I love.
  2. Books related to a book I’m thinking of writing.  I have a table in my office with 5 piles of books, each pile represents a future book project. I don’t know exactly when I’ll get to these projects, but I do look for books that line up with future ideas I have for my own projects. Sometimes I put them aside, other times I bump them to the head of the queue.
  3. Books in different subjects. My strength as a thinker is I have wide interests and I grow that strength by reading books in many different subjects. The last few books I’ve finished include Glittering Images by Paglia, The Origin of Satan by Pagels, A Drive Into The Gap by Guilfoile, and Broken Music by Sting. I rarely read books about management or creativity anymore as I have far less to learn in those subjects than I do about art, religion, sociology and dozens of other ways of looking at the world. I also believe I become a better expert at what I already know by reading different subjects as there are always ideas from one field that can be applied to others and that’s where many  breakthroughs come from.
  4. I rarely read bestsellers and seek more challenging books. The bestseller list is conservative in the kinds of authors and topics that will be widely popular immediately on the book’s release. Plus it’s not a level playing field, which is a surprise to most people. I prefer more ambitious books that are too challenging to ever see this kind of popularity. Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity or The Great Big Book of Horrible Things are good examples. I love books where a smart expert who writes well takes on a big subject without ever claiming a gimmicky solution to all the world’s problems (a sad cliche of the non-fiction bestseller lists).
  5. I read good writers. I sometimes read books purely because of the talents of who wrote them or the approach they took. Writing is a craft and I want to learn from other craftspeople. I’m a regular reader of The Best American Essay series since it’s an easy way to find new writers and essays are short enough that if I don’t like one I can just skip to the next one.

You can see My Favorite Books and Why I love Them for more on what I read and why.

13 Responses to “How I Decide What To Read”

  1. Phil Simon

    Interesting. We have similar litmus tests with regard to finishing books. I won’t keep reading hoping that a book gets better after 50-ish pages, and sometimes less than that.

    In 2014, I need to expand beyond business books. I have reached the point of massive diminishing returns with them. They rarely challenge my thinking anymore.

  2. Sean Crawford

    You mentioned Sting. I really like his book, for various reasons. For me it worked to skim the first chapter (Too weird) and read the rest with my usual word for word attention (I didn’t know other people skimmed until the Internet came out)

    Perhaps the most useful lesson for most folks would be that Sting became so skilled at writing songs because he had to come up with one (or more?) per week when he was part of a house band, in order to keep from boring his faithful regular audience.

  3. Mike Nitabach

    I’ve never understood the mindset of continuing to read a book past the point where you are convinced that the remaining potential gains are outweighed by the costs of time and effort. I guess it’s a version of the sunk costs fallacy. I’m like you, Scott, and I’ll stop reading at any point.

    1. Scott

      Sometimes I merely decide I’m not ready to read a book. That it’s perfect good but I’m not in the right frame of mind to read it so I keep it around for later. It’s not always the book’s fault if I’m not receptive to it at the moment.

      I’ve read books twice and have had very different experiences with the same book and I try to keep that in mind.

  4. Jay Oza

    I tend to re-read good books since it is amazing how much you pick up after you have more familiarity. Typically I will read a good book three times, so I am never done reading a book. It is always being read.

  5. Pedro Ferreira

    Thanks to you I got to know An Intimate History of Humanity (I guess you recommend it in the end of your Making Things Happen), and its one of my favorite books. I take it with me in every trip I make. Even if I only read a random chapter it keeps me company… its so good when we find a book like this!

    1. Scott

      You’re welcome. I’ve thought about rereading that one.

  6. Luis Villafuerte

    Hi Scott!
    The thing with reading only one book at a time is when it’s a good book, but it’s too big. Right now I’m reading Mandela’s auto-bio and I’m alternating it with a fiction book and your TYWP.

  7. Bonnie Biafore

    I read only one book at a time, unless I’m researching a book or course I’m working on. My mind is too scattered with multi-tasking assignments as it is.

    Since I started writing books, my tolerance for poor writing has plummeted, so your #5 is my #1. I read good writers. (However, when I find myself reading a badly written book, I don’t drop it immediately. I think about why I don’t like it so I can avoid those mistakes.) I have persevered past 50 pages on a few books that I ended up liking (Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson). But, the 50-page rule is a good one. I have had to train myself to stop reading every book I start. Life is too short. As a writer, I believe that I have to hook my readers within a few pages.

    Scott, you are one of the non-fiction writers I read religiously (and I am NOT a religious person). I admire your wit, humor, and good story-telling. As a trainer and speaker, I can’t tell you how much I learned from Confessions of a Public Speaker. I try to channel your approach to make my humorous take on business and technology better. My other idols in this area are Bill Bryson and John McPhee. I’m reading Bryson’s At Home right now and love learning about the etymology of phrases we use but don’t even think about.

    With many business books, I feel like I’ve learned everything I’m going to learn in the first 20 pages. The rest is just fluff to make the book long enough to publish. As soon as I get that feeling, I stop reading.

    I also wrote a novel, so I now belong to several fiction writing groups. That has expanded my reading list enormously. I have discovered so many favorite fiction writers I didn’t know about before. Some are best-sellers, and for good reason, like Robert Crais (crime) and Tim Dorsey (funny crime). Some aren’t best-sellers, but should be (Warren Hammond who wrote the noir/sci-fi Kop series).

    1. Scott

      Thanks Bonnie.

      I’m a fan of Bryson, although I confess I’ve only read A Walk In The Woods. I very much want to be a fan of McPhee but I’ve had trouble with some of his books. Do you have one you’d recommend? I’ve read many of his essays and enjoyed those more.

      1. Bonnie

        Hi Scott,

        For your next Bryson books, I highly recommend Notes from a Small Island (about walking around the UK), A Short History of Nearly Everything, At Home, and his books on the implementations of the English language (Made in America and The Mother Tongue).

        For McPhee, read his earlier books. I was transfixed by Control of Nature which covered mudslides in LA, the attempts to contain the Mississippi River, and a volcano in Iceland. I also liked Oranges, about — you guessed it. Also his books on Geology — Basin and Range, and In Suspect Terrain.

        I hope you enjoy them.

  8. Dave Burt

    If you ever get back to reading two books at a time, I’ve found that if their subject matter and styles are different enough, it’s not as much of a problem. They can coexist in your consciousness, as it were. As for McPhee, try The Pine Barrens. It’s a good intro into his writing, and it’s short and surprising.


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