Picking what books to read is always challenging. Time is limited, and even the fastest reader can only read a handful of books in her lifetime. Through the years I’ve collected some criteria for choosing what I read, either by experience or by stealing from greater minds, which can help you in the process of choosing the right books.
Long-term value: will what you learn from this book be relevant in the long-term, say, in 10 years or more1?
If you apply this rule, you’ll soon discover that most of what “everybody is reading” won’t make the cut.
For books, time is like a test of quality. Trust book recommendations, but not too much. Most new books follow the “book-marketing manual”, paying the media to get attention, having their authors interviewed in popular podcasts, etc. Suddenly it seems that everybody is reading that new, shiny book. Meanwhile, Marcus Aurelius cannot rely on paid advertising to promote his outstanding Meditations, written almost 2,000 years ago.
Leverage: “Leverage is achieving results significantly greater than the force you put in2.” Will reading this book give you leverage? If yes, what kind of leverage? Where can you apply it? How can you keep it?
The Great Mental Models, Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts by Shane Parrish is one of the best books I’ve read in the last years. This is a book that will stand the test of time, and will provide great leverage, because “the skill of finding the right solution for the right problem is one form of wisdom3”.
Thinking and decision making: will this book help my thinking process? Will it help me make better decisions?
How to Take Smart Notes by Sónke Ahrens, explains Luhmann’s Zettelkasten could help you improve not only your note-taking but also your thinking process. Expressing what we’ve read about by writing our insights confronts us with our lack of understanding.
Step out of your domain of expertise. Will reading this book give a different perspective on a particular topic, or are you falling in some kind of confirmation bias? Will it require effort on my part to understand what the author is proposing? (For non-fiction, books that don’t challenge you or that don’t require any effort to read are usually not worth your time.)
Some people don’t read books like Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning because they fear to confront their long-term purpose and motivation. Or because reading about Nazi’s concentration camps make them feel uncomfortable. Other people can’t stand Nassim Taleb’s attitude, even if some of his books are of indispensable reading. Some people criticize James P. Carse for writing Finite and Infinite Games as it were a theological treatise from centuries ago, but the book it’s definitely worth your time.
What questions do I expect this book to answer? Sometime you read a book because you trust the author. In those cases, even if there is an emotional component involved, you implicitly know the topics the author writes about, and how the book can help you. Most of the time, however, you should have in mind what questions do you expect the author to anwser in the book.
Book Reading 2020 (non-fiction)
In 2020, I read 17 non-fiction books:
- The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, by Josh Waitzkin
- What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly
- Stillness is the Key, by Ryan Holiday
- Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, by Charles Duhigg
- The Great Mental Models, Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts , by Shane Parrish
- You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education, by Ken Robinson
- The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, by Scott Berkun
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, by Mathewe Walker
- Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse
- The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, by Andy Puddicombe
- Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, by Bryan Caplan
- Hell Yeah or No. What’s worth doing, by Derek Sivers
- How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens
- Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done , by Charlie Gilkey
- Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio
- The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, by Seth Godin
- The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, by Eric Jorgenson
If you are looking for non-fiction book recommendations for 2021, you can’t go wrong with The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish, How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens, and The Practice by Seth Godin.
Even if in 2020 I read more non-fiction books than in previous years, I didn’t accomplish my goal of two books per month. I broke my reading routine several times for days and sometimes even weeks. So, borrowing from one the Knights Radiant ideals4, this year I’ll focus on journey before destination. I’ll focus on reading at least 25 five pages every day.
Book Reading 2020 (fiction and fantasy)
I also read 6 novels, some of them very long:
- Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
- The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal
- Attack Surface, by Cory Doctorw
- Rhythm of War (The Stormlight Archive, Book 4), by Brandon Sanderson
- I re-read books 1 and 2 of Patrick Rothfuss The Kingkiller Chronichles, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.
I love both fiction, hard science-fiction, and fantasy books. But if I had to pick one book from the list above, I recommend Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The plot happens in two parallel timelines, alternating between code-breakers and tactical-deception operatives in World War II, and their part-decendants building a data haven and anonymous cyber-banking in the late 1990’s.
There are exceptions to this rule, for example, when you want to learn something specific and tactical. But those exceptions should be few. ↩
The Great Mental Models Volume 2: Physics, Chemestry and Biology, by Shane Parrish, p. 110. ↩
cfr The Great Mental Models, Volume 1, by Shane Parrish, Kindle Edition, loc. 98 ↩
Taken from Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, from the Stormlight Archive series. ↩