Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books

A large el­e­ment of in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity con­sists of fil­ter­ing, pri­ori­tiz­ing, and fo­cus­ing. It’s true for tasks, for emails, for blogs, and for the mul­ti­tude of other in­puts that many of us are drown­ing in these days[1]. Do­ing ev­ery­thing, read­ing ev­ery­thing, com­ment­ing on ev­ery­thing is sim­ply not an op­tion—it would take in­finite time. We could sim­ply limit time and do what hap­pens to catch our at­ten­tion in that limited time, but that’s clearly not op­ti­mal. Spend­ing some time pri­ori­tiz­ing rather than ex­e­cut­ing will always im­prove re­sults if items can be pri­ori­tized and vary widely in benefit. So max­i­miz­ing the re­sults we get from our finite time re­quires, for a va­ri­ety of do­mains:

  1. Fil­ter­ing: a quick first-pass to get in­put down to a man­age­able size for the higher-cost effort of pri­ori­tiz­ing.

  2. Pri­ori­tiz­ing: briefly eval­u­at­ing the im­pact each item will have to­wards your goals.

  3. Fo­cus­ing: on the high­est-pri­or­ity items.

I have some thoughts, and am look­ing for more ad­vice on how to do this for non-fic­tion read­ing. I’ve stopped buy­ing books that catch my at­ten­tion, be­cause I have an in­pile of about 3-4 shelves of un­read books that have been un­read for years. In­stead, I put them on my Ama­zon Wish­lists, which as a re­sult have swelled to a to­tal of 254 books—ob­vi­ously un-man­age­able, and grow­ing much faster than I read.

One ob­vi­ous ques­tion to ask when op­ti­miz­ing is: what is the goal of read­ing? Let me sug­gest a few pos­si­bil­ities:

  • Im­prove perfor­mance at a cur­rent job/​role. For ex­am­ple, as Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of a non­profit, I could read books on fundrais­ing or man­age­ment.

  • Re­lat­edly, work to­wards a cur­rent goal. Here is where it helps to have iden­ti­fied your goals, per­haps in an An­nual Re­view. As a par­ent, for ex­am­ple, there are an in­fini­tude of par­ent­ing books that I could read, but I chose for this year to work speci­fi­cally on pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy par­ent­ing, as it seemed like a po­ten­tially high-im­pact skill to learn. This mas­sively filters the set of pos­si­ble par­ent­ing books. Essen­tially, goal-set­ting (“learn pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy par­ent­ing habits”) was a con­scious pri­ori­ti­za­tion step based on con­sid­er­ing what new par­ent­ing skills would best ad­vance my goals (in this case, to benefit my kids while mak­ing par­ent­ing more pleas­ant along the way).

  • Im­prove core skills or at­tributes rele­vant to many ar­eas of life—pro­duc­tivity, hap­piness, so­cial skills, diet, etc.

  • Ex­pand your wor­ld­view (im­prove your map). My­opi­cally fo­cus­ing only on im­me­di­ate needs would elimi­nate some of the great­est benefit I feel I’ve got­ten from non-fic­tion in my life, which is a richer and more ac­cu­rate un­der­stand­ing of the world.

  • Be able to con­verse in­tel­li­gently on cur­rently pop­u­lar books. (Much as one might watch the news in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate so­cial bond­ing by be­ing able to dis­cuss cur­rent events). Note that I don’t ac­tu­ally recom­mend this as a goal—I think you can find other things to bond over, plus you will some­times read cur­rently pop­u­lar books be­cause they serve other goals—but it may be im­por­tant for some peo­ple.

So it seems like the ba­sic pro­cess should be to de­ter­mine the goals for your non-fic­tion read­ing, then de­ter­mine what books will best ad­vance those goals, us­ing sources like friends, Ama­zon re­views, ap­par­ent rele­vance of the book to the goal, etc. Here is where it seems like Web 2.0 could re­ally help through some sort of recom­men­da­tion en­g­ine, where peo­ple rate the books that most im­pacted their un­der­stand­ing of the world, or most helped them learn how to achieve a goal, and the en­g­ine com­bines these recom­men­da­tions, per­haps us­ing some trust sys­tem. LW posts like The Best Text­books on Every Sub­ject are a step in this di­rec­tion, but suffer from the gen­eral flaw of be­ing a blog post rather than a struc­tured data store. If some­one knows an effec­tive sys­tem like this, please com­ment—per­haps we can co­or­di­nate on a sin­gle one.
Some ad­di­tional thoughts & is­sues:
  1. One needs to figure out how to di­vide up read­ing time be­tween these var­i­ous goals, but I think any rea­son­able ap­prox­i­ma­tion based on rel­a­tive goal pri­or­ity & en­joy­ment of read­ing var­i­ous book types will work pretty well.

  2. Any­thing that max­i­mizes the speed of in­for­ma­tion ex­trac­tion from the book is ob­vi­ously a win—whether learn­ing to speed-read /​ skim or find­ing sum­maries[2] or “Cliffs Notes” or Anki cards. The ex­is­tence of a sub-skill of op­ti­mal ex­e­cu­tion that strictly im­proves perfor­mance at the higher-level goal (“Get max out of each book in min time” clearly sup­ports “Get max out of your read­ing in min time”) is very com­mon in in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity.

  3. You should stop read­ing a book if it isn’t achiev­ing your goal (or isn’t fun, and thus has a higher than an­ti­ci­pated read­ing cost).

  4. There are some ob­vi­ous ways that a ra­tio­nal­ist book group could im­ple­ment this col­lab­o­ra­tively, choos­ing shared goals (ie core life skills), split­ting the work of sum­ma­riz­ing books, per­haps pre­sent­ing or dis­cussing sum­maries in live ses­sions, or even bet­ter dis­cussing per­sonal ex­pe­rience im­ple­ment­ing the les­sons. Here so­cial pres­sure would help en­sure that the read­ing/​sum­ma­riz­ing gets done, plus in­ter­ac­tion may help learn­ing for some.

(2) seems like the biggest win—surely any pro­gram of ra­tio­nal read­ing has to start with learn­ing to read effi­ciently. Re­lat­edly, Nick points out that if there are any books (or ar­ti­cles/​blogs) on how to pick books well, that would be an ob­vi­ous start too. I haven’t done ei­ther of these, which means that my read­ing has been ex­tremely in­effi­cient and my pro­cess has been deeply ir­ra­tional, which is what of­ten hap­pens when one doesn’t con­sciously op­ti­mize. Please com­ment with recom­men­da­tions in these ar­eas.

I would most like to hear from any­one who has used a sys­tem for con­sciously choos­ing which books to read, and am also in­ter­ested in any thoughts y’all have on the topic. Non­fic­tion read­ing used to be fun and mind-open­ing, but now it is an area of stress in my life. I never know what I should be read­ing, when I read some­thing I worry it isn’t the most use­ful thing, and when a great book gets recom­mended to me, I have no idea if I’ll read it, which is sad. I’d like to know that books are go­ing into some trusted sys­tem and that I’m then read­ing the right ones. I can figure out my own goals, and how rele­vant a book seems to be to them, but the qual­ity eval­u­a­tion—what are truly the best of the hun­dreds of great books that ap­ply to my goals—is an im­por­tant miss­ing step. And start­ing with read­ing book sum­maries seems like it would tremen­dously im­prove read­ing effec­tive­ness.

Fi­nally, one of the neat things about Ra­tional Read­ing is that it has so much in com­mon with op­ti­miz­ing any­thing. Filter, pri­ori­tize, bal­ance, op­ti­mize ex­e­cu­tion, ex­e­cute, and re­fine—these are gen­eral in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity skills. Those not yet ready to ap­ply these skills to other ar­eas of their life may want to con­sider be­gin­ning with read­ing as their prac­tice, hon­ing skills there, and then ap­ply­ing them to more in­timi­dat­ing ar­eas (task man­age­ment, email, goals, etc.) Re­lat­edly, in my case, mak­ing sure that my read­ing sup­ports my per­sonal goals is a way to en­sure that I am mak­ing some progress on those goals even if I fail to work on them in other ways.

[1] I can imag­ine a reader who is not drown­ing in in­puts feel­ing su­pe­rior be­cause of it, but I must sadly in­form you that this is not ra­tio­nal ei­ther. If you read a book ev­ery two weeks, and your so­cial net­work sug­gests a book that sounds fun ev­ery two weeks, it is true that your read­ing is “bal­anced” and you are likely to feel un­stressed about it, which is great. But it also means that you can’t be read­ing any­thing like the best pos­si­ble books, be­cause you are draw­ing from a tiny pool of sug­ges­tions from a few peo­ple, rather than the vast ocean of ma­te­rial that ex­ists. Yes your so­cial net­work is a filter, but it’s not a great one, so if that’s your only filter, I highly doubt you’re read­ing any­thing like the best & most use­ful books you could be read­ing.

[2] For ex­am­ple, Cos­mos has writ­ten use­ful sum­maries of a num­ber of books which he sent to the NY ra­tio­nal­ists, but has not yet gone the last mile & made them available on­line. I am nag­ging him to fix this, if you know him then you should too :).