My post on what one should read was quite popular, so I thought I would share what I am reading right now, as an illustration of the principles in action.
I usually try to pair an easier and harder read together. This once meant non-fiction during the day and fiction at night, but I increasingly prefer biography or history as my bedside reads. I usually have a Spanish novel at hand and read a few pages each morning to practice – it’s more interesting than Duolingo.
Una historia de amor y oscuridad – Amos Oz
Black Swan – Nassim Taleb
The Essential Keynes – Edited by Robert Skidelsky
Something appealing while browsing a bookstore on a sunny Saturday is not always what I feel like reading standing in front of my bookshelf on a Tuesday night. The solution has been to buy liberally, and have as many options as possible at home. Add to that Christmas, and my ‘to-read’ has swelled to a largely aspirational status. Still, I find it comforting to sit surrounded by little rows of colorfully bound and titled mysteries.
The Path to Power – Robert Caro
On the Genealogy of Moral / The Gay Science – Nietzsche
Debt – David Graeber
Assorted Poems – Keats
The God Delusion – Dawkins
The Mediterranean (Abridged single volume) – Fernand Braudel
Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
The lucky country – Donald Horne
To this must be added the impossible-to-catch-up-to pile of London Review of Books back editions. If you don’t already, you really should consider subscribing. It truly is the best magazine in the world.
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
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.