“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
Reading books is the most powerful way to improve yourself and grow as a person. Someone else has gone through all the trouble and hard work to learn some valuable knowledge, and now all you have to do to acquire it is to read their book!
There’s no subject out there that a book hasn’t been written about. Want to learn how to invest your money? There are books written about that, even by the greats such as Peter Lynch and Jack Bogle. Want to learn social skills and psychological influence? There are books written about that, even by masters like Robert Cialdini and Casanova. Strategy (Sun Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi), Business (Andy Grove, Peter Drucker), Sales (Zig Ziglar), Entrepreneurship (John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford), Philosophy (Marcus Aurelius, Plato) — books have been written about it all!
That certainly begs the question: how does one pick out the best books? How do you know which books will have the most valuable information?
Let’s answer those questions right now.
Old is gold
Older is better when it comes to books. If a book has been around for many years then it is more likely to stay around for many more, since it has been time-tested for so long.
The book The Art of War was written around 2500 years ago and its tactics are still used today in fields such as business, politics, sports, warfare, and general strategy. Time breaks all weak things and makes strong things even stronger. That doesn’t necessarily mean new books are all horrible, but it is certainly to read older books as the chances of their ideas being good is higher.
Keep in mind that the ideas from older books are still just as applicable today as they were 2000+ years ago. Core subjects such as psychology, philosophy, strategy, love, relationships, sales, and business have remained the same in their fundamentals. Old problems have old solutions.
“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”
— Rene Descartes
Follow your interests
The best way to get the most out of any book you read is to only read what you find interesting. When you’re interested in the subject you’re reading about, you’re able to absorb a lot more of the material. You’re actually enjoying the act of reading, which opens your mind to every word and every lesson on every page.
You could pick out the absolute best book in the world on philosophy that’s 1000 pages long. But if you don’t care to learn about philosophy, then it doesn’t really matter how good the book is, you won’t care to read it or absorb the lessons from it!
You should always follow your interest. The books themselves will be easier to read and you’ll get more value out of them, regardless of the subject. Also, your interests may change over time, and that’s totally OK! Just use your changing interest as a guide and you’ll always be learning the most knowledge possible from every book.
“The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether — when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement. The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Friends with benefits
Especially for non-fiction, it is best to pick books that you will actually get value from. You’ll be far more motivated to read the books if you’re able to directly apply what you learn to get tangible results in your real life.
If there is a particular subject that can benefit you, try checking out a book about it. That way, you specifically target your reading to a specific goal in your life and ensure you get real value out of it.
I find it personally useful to think of some of the challenges I’m facing in my life, and then match books to them. For example, if you’re looking to get promoted at work, you might search up something like “best books for succeeding at work” — you’ll likely get a bunch of hits referring to books about working smart, business, and influence. That’s your start. It’s like getting a packaged solution for your problem.
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have laboured hard for.”
Written by experts
Thousands of books have been written for each and every subject out there. To make sure you’re getting the most valuable information, it’s best to go straight to the books written by the source experts.
For example, you could pick out any one of the thousands of books on Amazon about investing. But the vast majority of those books are mainly a bad re-hash of things smart investors have said before. People will go in and just paraphrase what Warren Buffett or Peter Lynch said, rather than offering new and fresh ideas.
Stay away from those gurus. Instead, read Buffett’s annual shareholder letters or Burton G. Malkiel’s book. These will be all the education you ever need about investing. The original source is always better since it presents the core ideas in their rawest and most valuable form.
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
— Haruki Murakami
Curated writings open doors
There is one class of books that I still recommend even though it’s not written by the original source expert: curated writings. By curated writings, I mean books that take a subject matter and attempt to summarise the most important ideas. Think books like The 48 Laws of Power or The Daily Stoic.
The beauty of such books is that they give you a condensed summary of the subject before you dive in. Thus, you get your foundation and can pick out the more specific sub-topics based on your needs and interest.
On top of that, curated books also open doors to more books written by experts, since the curated books often contain references to all of the original experts. The 48 Laws of Power has over 300 references and tells many stories from history that I further ended up reading, and they turned out to be super valuable. Same thing for The Daily Stoic, where quotes from several stoic philosophers were referenced, which really opened the doors to reading about more stoic philosophy.
“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”
— Walt Disney