How should we pick what to read? If there are always more books than time, hard decisions must be made. I’ve been thinking about it over the last few weeks and want to share my conclusion. It probably only applies for reading where the goal is to learn new things, particularly about social dynamics.
The starting point is four assumptions:
- Very few ideas are truly novel.*
- Most insights into social life are relatively transferable
- Humans tend to overweight the importance of what is happening in front of them
- The best way to judge the relevance of insight is hindsight
- The corollary to this is that with ever greater number of books being published, you’re more reliant on trends and filters.
From this it follows that it is generally not worth reading books published more recently than five years ago. Instead, filter out all the noise, and focus on what has stood the test of time. Now to make sure that instant classics do not slip by, there is an exception for books recommended by three different people I trust. Filters are always necessary, you just need to be discerning with who/what they are.
The rule should hold even more strongly if you happen to be motivated by a desire to get some competitive advantage from what you learn. Reading the same best-seller as everyone else only shows you what everyone else thinks.
Let me know if you take issue with any of the assumptions or the conclusion.
*This does not mean that non-novel ideas are unimportant. I suspect the constant recycling, recalibrating, and recontextualising of old ideas may be one of the most crucial creative tasks for each generation. Still, I personally find it more interesting to look in unfamiliar contexts, you get the added benefit of being exposed to a different intellectual/political/social context.