Choosing what to read

Finding the right non-fiction book to read is a challenge for me. My Goodreads list is overflowing with choice. Every book on my list is interesting to me in some way. It wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t. I’m also often looking for a book that contains the information I need now not information for some point in the future.

Determining whether or not a book is the right match can be tricky. Unless it comes directly from someone who knows your situation, or is currently living a similar one, their recommendation likely just means it caught them at the right time. It’s an issue I’ve been trying to figure out solutions to for the past few years. And, I’ve only come to one conclusion so far. It involves asking yourself on question. How often am I highlighting?

This rule is more applicable to non-fiction books than fiction, in my experience. That’s not to say I’ve never highlighted passages or interesting turns of phrase in a novel. It’s that the opportunity presents itself less often for me. Generally when I’m reading non-fiction, I’m looking to improve upon or expand my thinking on a given topic. In the quest to get to this “enlightened” state, I typically pick out mental models, or lenses, that I’d like to continue referencing in the future.

The act of highlighting has become a way to gauge the importance of a book to me at that point in time. This process of picking out insights has become the signal I use to decide whether I continue with a book, or ditch it and move on to something else. Paying attention to my highlighting has probably saved me thousands of hours of reading time in total. It’s also probably saved me a few hundred dollars in book purchases, too.

So, how do I go about applying this rule? Well, it starts with book samples. Pretty much every major digital bookstore offers samples of a book to download. Typically, it lets you look at the introduction or first chapter of a book. This is often just enough to get a sense of whether or not it’s the right fit for me. It also allows me to gauge the way I highlight in the sample. Which led me to developing a guide that I can follow when assessing the sample.

While reading, if I find myself compelled to highlight more than 3 thoughts, lenses or sentences, that typically means I’m more likely to want to read the book through to the end. The logic being that, if in the opening of the book I’m already gleaning insights I want to reflect on, there’s probably many more in each chapter ahead. So, I might as well get the full thing, and commit myself to the body of work.

Beyond this point, I’m still free to drop the book at any point during my reading. There have absolutely been times where the author has made all of the good points they’re going to make in the introduction of the book. If I get through a few chapters and notice my highlighting waning, it’s likely a book that doesn’t contain the value I anticipated. Occasionally this rule also breaks when the writing or the topic is engrossing, but doesn’t offer many applicable take-aways.

A great example of a book that engrossed me without many new life lenses is Moonwalking with Einstein. I loved that book! I highlighted a few parts because it spoke about memory in an interesting way, but more than anything, the story was too compelling to put down.

On the whole, though, this technique has worked for me more than it hasn’t. I do think it’ll work well for the folks with massive reading backlogs who struggle to pick a book and commit. You might find that how often you highlight in a sample is a good enough proxy to determine if you should commit your time to finishing a book.