A steady diet of high-quality nonfiction can help you solve many of life’s problems. But it also creates one:
What to read next?
New books are published constantly. Many are good books. Some are great books. All are competing for your reading time. Even for a discerning reader with well-defined interests, there are more worthy books published each month than there are hours in which to read them. What’s a reader to do? Increasingly, I believe the answer is this:
Read more old books.
I don’t necessarily mean old, exactly. I’m talking about the really important books in any field—the books that are central to a given field of study, whether that field is abstract mathematics or just personal productivity. Let’s call these books foundational texts.
A foundational text could be 30 years old, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or it could be 2500 years old, like The Art of War. What’s true of all foundational texts, though, is that it’s easy to skip over them in favor of newer books (which are usually easier to read but of lower quality). I was reminded of this lesson just the other day.
Mowing the lawn with Peter Drucker
Last Sunday afternoon, as I was mowing the lawn, I put on an audiobook of Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. I’ve had this book on my reading list for years, ever since Tim Ferriss recommended it in a podcast. I knew it was a classic in the productivity/personal development genre and that I “should read it eventually.” I even bought a paper copy about a year ago, but I’ve never cracked it open.
Two minutes into the audiobook, I could tell I’d made a big mistake in putting this book off. It is more than a classic—it is clearly a foundational text. I know so because it was written in 1966, yet it’s full of ideas—“make few decisions instead of many,” “manage your time ruthlessly”—to which I’ve been introduced through much more recent books. Now I know where they got ‘em.
The problems with new books
There are some great new books, of course, but each one is a bit of a gamble. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “a new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” Foundational texts rarely have marketing departments, but they’re as close to a guarantee of a rewarding read as you can get.
Furthermore, newer books—especially good ones—often assume you’re familiar with foundational texts. C.S. Lewis (who seems to have known something about old books) also said that books are conversations between authors, and that “if you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.” This is what I experienced when mowing the lawn with Peter Drucker—having read The Effective Executive years ago might have helped me get even more out of the newer productivity books I’ve read since.
As you work your reading program, do some planning. To really understand a field of study, you must understand the basic ideas on which the discipline is built. There’s no better way to do that than to read the books containing those ideas.