Books you MUST read fallacy

There are long lists of books you MUST read. What are the common qualities of these books, and how are these books beneficial? How reading books can be both an advantage and a disadvantage? How do books compare with the alternatives? This article starts ordinary and then takes an unexpected twist.

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Are books important?

I am not aware of people suffering from not being able to read a particular book – except for the Bible and some writings of communist authors in totalitarian regimes. Yet some books are considered “important” for personal growth.

Today books are still the main way of consuming large quantities of organized knowledge cheaply. Actual physical meetings and courses are often more effective but tend to be more limiting and significantly more expensive. Video resources tend to be more entertaining and often more memorable, but they lack some structure and depth. Short articles are extremely popular for raising awareness and showcasing innovation, but less effective for organized presentation.

And yet, books are important not just as a sort of information but as a source of spiritual transformation. Good books are often a treasure of accurate quotes and entertaining anecdotes. “Important” books showcase the way language can be used to formulate thoughts so that we can improve the way we argue and talk.

Classical reading lists

There is no MUST-read book list that fits everyone. Clearly, book recommendations should be filtered based on age, interests, religion, education, linguistic and historical context, and more. Some books should be read pretty much by anyone.

The Bible – is probably the most important and popular book. It is full of good stories. The language and the presentation changes all the time, and while there is something in it for everyone – not everything is equally exciting. Honestly, I prefer some commentaries over the originals, as good commentators notice and analyze things we are likely to miss. Also, they tend to focus attention on the important ideas and explain why some short pieces of text are more important than other longer passages. They also provide colorful stories and questions to supplement the dense language of the origin.

Next, we have some great books on strategy. The Art Of War by Sun Tzu is great but somewhat overrated. There are books of comparable qualities in other cultures, like The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. While such books were originally used by political and military leaders, today they are mainly used by businessmen. Such texts are inspiring, but they are also morally ambiguous.

Strategy books are relatively short and practical. Historical novels are long, and their practical use is not immediate. Yet, many reading lists will include something like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy or Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. These books offer many colorful heroes with interesting story arches and quotes to die for. Some historical novels are formulated as poems, for example, works of Shakespeare and Homer.

Most schoolbooks include some exploration of moral and existentialism. In my school, we learned The Plague by Albert Camus and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. Americans usually focus on Hamlet by Shakespeare and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I personally prefer Faust by Goethe. Such books focus on what it means to be human, to feel and desire and suffer.

The books recommended for high-school reading should probably be read again and again as we mature. The things we notice at each age are very different.

Reading as education

Clearly, what I described above as good “classical” reading is only a small subset of what people might want to read. In the section above I did not mention Lao Tsu or Nietzsche and almost no poetry, or romance. I did not even mention Chekhov and Kafka. And these are the authors I really like.

While “classical” reading is a part of formal education, it is profoundly impractical. By the time any masterpiece becomes “classical,” the culture and technology change multiple times. Only the eternal elements of human nature do not change. It is cool and satisfying to connect with “being human”,  and feeling what good writing and good language sound like. Typically when we read “classical” literature we do not really speedread as we want to enjoy the language itself.

Once we go to more practical books, it is good to start speedreading – because the list is huge and the earlier we acquire the relevant skills the better. While we start reading classical books in K-12 school,  practical reading typically starts in the university with more basic publications. Then during higher degrees or internship it is good to supplement reading with blogs and more specialized materials. In fact, not reading blogs is a sure way to become obsolete.

The most important stuff is never on bucket lists

Quite often the most important stuff we should be doing is transparent for us. People do this all the time. We have a long list of things that we think we want to do and that do not make us happy. Then we step out of the comfort zone, do something unexpected and get an elightening experience.

Nobody I know puts reading professional and newsworthy blogs in their bucket list. And yet, when we read this stuff (which is often very boring) we discover jewels of subjects we would not look for otherwise. The best discoveries are usually not planned, but the stuff we stumble upon doing something else. The wisdom here is discipline or focus control: being open to new experiences without losing one’s way. I know this is tough. I have ADHD, and yet I usually can apply strategies to balance my behavior.

With that in mind we switch to more things most of us have on our bucket lists.

Life skills

Professional reading is rarely on someone’s bucket list, unless we want to learn some life-altering skill. Typical examples include investment, psychology,  programming, culture and history, basic medical skills, arts and music. In each set of skills we may want to learn there is some classical literature we should absolutely learn.

The classical texts will probably not provide the cutting edge skillset, but they are likely to provide the basic attitudes and moral codes. In each discipline the attitude is different. In investment, the basic books teach to avoid speculation and “busy work” focusing on few simple things that work really well.  In psychology, each stream of therapists has its own set of books with unique ideology and the basic idea is choosing the stuff that works for you and truly actively listening. Medicine is usually about attention to details and discipline, learning all the relevant details and following the relevant protocols, even when it is messy, hard and uncofmortable.  Programming often deals with deconstructing complex challenges into simple and hopefully independent tasks.

Acquiring the right attitude and the professional framework for evaluation of decisions is often more improtant than learning a specific idea. And we usually get the approach from reading more “classical” texts in any given disicpline. It is relatively easy to create something complex and unsustainable. Creating something simple that works really well is harder, but it is really satisfying. To do that we need a lot of fundamental reading.

Things that should be wiped from bucket lists

Return on investment is really important in everything that we do. Take for example foreign languages. Most of us have a long list of languages we want to know really well. Guess what, nobody really has time for all of them. So what if I know 3 languages really well, 4 languages fluently and 5 more beginner level. There are dozens of other languages I really would love to know much better, and I would love to improve my control of the languages that I use. Yet I have to prioritize. People who know one language, should probably learn another one. If you already know two or three languages, there are better ways to spend the time we have. Learning languages is hard and time consuming. Do this only when you have a really good personal or professional reason, when immersion into the relevant cultures is inevitable.

This applies to other things. Bucket lists should contain short experiences of stepping our of the comfort zone, as well as long and complex challenges that make life worth living.

It is fine to read poetry you enjoy because you enjoy it. Forcing yourself to read poetry because someone told you that it is “important” is ill-advised. We should not do things that are important for others, but focus on what works for us. And if you do not enjoy “classics” and prefere sci-fi and fantasy, than why not read that instead? There are plenty of good authors in any literary genre.

Reading will not make you smart

Correlation is not causality. Smart people read a lot because we are interested in many things. A person that reads a lot does not automatically become smart, even if that person learn a lot of data and acquires useful knowledge.

A person that is smart typically will focus on the areas of interest: as a human being, as a professional, as a useful member of the community and so on. It is not about how many books you read, it is about finding answers for some fundamentally difficult questions. Setting up a number for the books worth reading can become a trap.

I remember in the first year of my PhD 80% of the books I read were chosen by my thesis advisor and not by me. This expereince was frustrating. I was reading stuff because I was told to read it, not because it answered the questions I had. Never before or after I felt so dumb and useless. After a year, I understood the subject and started to form my own questions. Then my reading became meaningful once again.

Meaningful reading usually answers some questions, even when these questions are poorly formulated.

Reading is not the ultimate experience

For me reading is complementary experience. We immerse into some project or culture, travel to new places or do stuff hands on, watch videos and discuss with people. Most of our expereinces are fragmented or superficial. Books can go deeper and cover the subjects in more organized form. They supplement other experiences.

I do not really recommend reading romantic literature without having a romantic prospect or reading about a culture without viewing the relevant artifacts. Quite often when reading, I personally stop reading the text and focus of understanding the  cultural context or the commentary. Even a smart person will often miss important stuff, unless told by someone else where to look.




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