This filter doesn’t apply to reading for pleasure or for curiosity. I’m referring to the mounds of business and self-help books out there which say that they can help you with ______. The secret to filtering out the bad books is to only read the ones that have been written by practitioners.
In most cases, this means that you should avoid reading books written by academics, unless you want to become an academic.
But why does this work?
For one, it’s because practitioners have earned their knowledge. They’ve incorporated it into their actions. They know what they’re talking about in practice, which means that you can actually go out and use what they have to say because that’s where the knowledge comes from.
Compared to this, academics (but also many sleazy marketers too!) are just gawkers. Because they never participate in the thing they discuss, nor have skin in the game, the knowledge that they produce is only theory. This comes about by gawking: you see patterns in front of you, assume there’s causality, and then explain the phenomenon based on that.
Here’s an example of this kind of thinking. Let’s say you wanted to write a book that sells well on Amazon. Here’s how a gawker would find out how. 1. Go onto Amazon’s best seller list. 2. Look for patterns shared by the best sellers. 3. Write them down. 4. Assume that those caused the books to succeed. For example, perhaps books sell super well because they have “low intensity” backgrounds with few or no discrete objects (like faces, toys, etc) – there’s just text and a consistent background. Oh, and there should be no more than two or three colours on the cover.
See the issue with this form of knowledge production? I can easily find a book with a low intensity background and fewer than colours on the cover, and it would be #135,720 on the best seller list. “There’s more to it than that” he’d say. Of course colour and background aren’t everything. But that’s exactly the point! There’s so many things to take into account that you can’t even compute it, nor should you try! Instead, go learn (from one of those top sellers) how to write a good book and then learn how they advertised it.
This filter is not a panacea. There’s still survivorship bias. It may be random chance that a book is at the top of the Amazon bestseller list. But it sure as hell is better than Mr. Gawker trying to figure out all of the right causes. Plus, reading what Mr. Gawker has to say is just the first third of the task. The other part left out is the implementation: even if you found out that the top books have a compelling story and provide advice and read at a 9th grade level, consciously writing a book with these attributes is probably too difficult to accomplish consciously and planned. Thus, even if you figure out all of the right causes, it’s not useful.
Also, don’t get me wrong, I love theory! I must confess that I sometimes enjoy reading bs theory when it’s on an interesting subject. For eg., I like Roger Scruton’s book on architectual aesthetics. But Scruton is not an architect. He’s a philosopher. He doesn’t intimately know the limitations that a building has like an architect would. Thus, only read Scruton’s book if you want to end an art critic, or if you’re curious about architecture. But if you’re looking for useful information, read a book written by a practitioner rather than a gawker.
Read from people who learn and are tested by practice because you become who you read.. Try and be like that yourself too – test your assumptions to see which ones are wrong. Anyways, chances are that the book will be better if written by a practitioner.
That’s one filter you can use to avoid bad books.