An excessive devotion to books

Books on a night table

It’s the book on the bottom!

I’ve had a book on my bedside table since July and I still haven’t read it. This is highly unusual since I purchased it myself. I only buy books that I want to read, but I just can’t get into this one. No kidding, the title is Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now.

I saw it in the Harvard bookstore when I was on a course and thought, “Someday I should read that.” I returned a week later with my family to sight-see and I of course went back to the bookstore because that is what I do – I buy books, lots of them. And I saw it again. And I thought, “Well, if I don’t buy it now I guess that proves I am a procrastinator.” And since that conflicts with my self-image (although not necessarily with my experience), I bought it and I felt great.

But now it’s the last thing I see before I climb into bed every night, and every night I feel a little more guilty about not reading it. I even turned  it over so I couldn’t see the title anymore. But then I finally felt so abysmally guilty that I read the first chapter, Understanding Procrastination. And then I put it down. And there it sits.

The need to be selective

This got me thinking about how I choose whether or not to read a book, and I thought my evaluation criteria might be helpful for you. Now, it is true that sometimes I choose to read or not read a book just because I feel like it. But most often, when it comes to reading for my work or for self-development, I use my criteria. I have to. Reading is a key source of fresh ideas that are critical to providing good leadership, yet there are so many books, far more than I could possibly read in several lifetimes just on leadership alone! Amazon has 90,239 leadership books including 11,864 in the business leadership category and another 8,997 in the Christianity category. That’s way too many! And I want to read far more widely than just leadership.

Solomon was a wise man, and he said “…My son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” I might add “And to the mind too!”

So, I’ve become very selective over the years as to which books I will read. I thought I would share with you how I evaluate whether or not to read a book.

But first, for help finding good books read my post that contains a paragraph on how I find books. One thing that I didn’t mention there is that when I visit leaders in their offices, I always scan their bookshelves to see what they have read, and I also ask them what they are reading. I love getting recommendations from people because they’ve already vetted the books and they usually find authors I might not have found on my own.

Book Selection Criteria

Now, here’s how I consider whether to read a book or not.

  • First thing I note, after the title and author name, is the publisher. Although it is not foolproof (sometimes a publisher will surprise you), generally the publisher tells you a lot about the book right away because each publisher has its position in the market. When you know the publisher, you have a pretty good idea what type and quality of book you are looking at.
  • I read the book description, the flaps and the back cover looking for what makes this book special. Is the topic and the angle interesting?
    • I don’t want to waste time reading idle theories, so I go first for books that are based on solid, credible research.
    • Even if the topic does not lend itself to objective research, I will ask, “What does this book contribute to the field of knowledge?” I want to know how it will add to my thinking beyond all the other books I’ve read on the same topic.
    • Another reason to read the book is if the author is a contrarian. We tend to follow the herd in what we think, so contrarians are very good at forcing us to do a reality check.
    • I’ve also found it fruitful to occasionally read books that I expect to disagree with. Sometimes I’ve been surprised to find the author has a point and I need to adjust my thinking. Other times, it helps me to understand a position that I disagree with, or crystallize in my own thinking why I don’t agree with it.
  • Next I consider the author.
    • Is it by an author I already enjoy reading? If so, is the author saying something new or is it a rehash of what has already been said?
    • For an author that is new to me, I ask “What are the author’s credentials for writing this particular book?” Do they have a PhD? Are they a consultant with a vast amount of experience? I find professors are generally the thought-leaders and the researchers. Many consultants write their books far too early in their careers, and so have little worth reading. I look for consultants who are nearing the end of their careers and find them particularly good, the few that I read, for practical application of ideas. With new authors, I ask if I have seen them quoted elsewhere or heard their names before.
  • I check the publication date. I will read classics that are still classics regardless of how old they are, but otherwise I give preference to books published in the last ten years or so. Both in theology and in leadership, there have been significant advances since the 1980’s.
  • Now it’s time to flip through the book.
    • I review the table of contents to see how broad or deep it is. Sometimes I want broad, especially if the topic is new to me, and most times I want deep.
    • I check the book’s bibliography to see who the author is reading.
    • I’ll scan an interesting chapter and/or the book’s conclusion, to see where the author ends up and whether or not I think that will be helpful to me.
    • I’ll look for an illustration of a model, to see what the author is proposing, and decide if it looks reasonable.
    • I check who is endorsing the book. Who they are is more important to me than what they say. An unknown author can borrow the reputation of a person who endorses the book.
  • Then, if I’m at a computer rather than in a bookstore, I read book reviews, either at Amazon or by googling for a review. (Amazon.com has a whole lot more reviews than Amazon.ca by the way). The important thing is not whether the reviewer recommends the book or not, but why the reviewer does or does not recommend it. Maybe they see things differently than I do. Perhaps they had different expectations of the book than I have.
  • Has it been recommended to me? Or is it required or recommended reading for a course? (I do check course syllabi for books.)
  • Is there a good reason to read the book that is not related to the book itself? Sometimes, for example, you read a book because of who gave it to you.
  • Finally, with so many books to buy, I come back to the question, “In light of everything else that I want to read, how important or urgent is the topic to me right now?”

So where did I go wrong in my evaluation criteria for the procrastination book? I think it was the last one, the topic just isn’t all that urgent! Some day…

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Thoughts on An excessive devotion to books

  1. Jessica Pellowe

    This is hilarious!

    The criteria you’ve listed are all excellent – and I think you’ve nailed the order, too.

    I remember the first time I checked syllabi for book lists (for courses I wasn’t taking at a university I wasn’t attending…) – it’s like a gold mine!

    Another similar approach is to look at what books the faculty of a specific program are writing. The bulk of my wishlist was developed this way!

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