Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books

by patrissimo4 min read27th Mar 201144 comments


Scholarship & LearningRationality
Personal Blog

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 :).