The State of Reading

Consider popular experts, influencers, and life hackers.

Whether a social media influencer, success guru, or thought leader, they all pool into a similar sort: they teach—or inspire—you how to optimize your career, your life, your health, and self-growth.

They evangelize this “optimize-your-life” sorcery through podcasts, blogs, social media, and books. They preach their sorcery to a tribe—a tribe often comprising millions of disciples. Many popular thought leaders hail the benefits of reading. They bestow secrets on how we can better learn from books. While I applaud the advice to read widely and often, I don’t applaud the way that this group can vandalize reading.

I’m a bibliophile. I love physical books. I love fiction and nonfiction. I love bookstores. I love reading. I’m lucky that my personal and professional situation allows me to read close to—or more than—one hundred books per year. And when I got lucky enough that writing became my career and then got good enough at writing to keep the lights on—reading a ton became a perk and an asset. But common advice nearly wrecked reading for me.

I, like many, revered the popular thought leaders and gurus. Using their advice, I thought I discovered mystical reading secrets. I thought I could optimize my life, my career, my brain, and my abilities. I bought into the sorcery. And that’s the issue: certain gurus and experts hijack reading and morph it into a life hack—and this weakens what reading can do for us.

We know that reading books is a good thing. Evidence shows that reading offers cognitive, professional, and emotional benefits. Thought leaders wave the flag to read more. They wield intoxicating influence over their audiences. And an influencer’s audience is both curious and eager to learn from books. Similarly, an audience is curious about what books the thought leader reads, has read, and currently recommends—present party included. People want to capture the formula—the expert’s comet’s tail or the magic in the bottle—to hopefully better their life.

When gurus say to read widely and often, it translates to read many books from a variety of subjects to spark insight. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some experts suggest you should read books that only serve your goals. As in, stay in your lane and fuel your purpose. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. They preach their better reading tips across various platforms: YouTube, podcasts, blogs, interviews, emailed reading lists, emailed reading round-ups, and so on. Then we find steps explaining how we can better learn a book’s lessons:

  • After each chapter, write three concise bullets summing up what you read.
  • Mark the most important quotes.
  • Keep a commonplace book with your favorite quotes, passages, or summaries about a book.
  • Write a summary of the book and apply the book’s lessons.
  • Teach what you learn from the book.

These are all excellent tips to gain a book’s insights. I followed this advice for years, and I’m not the only one. I still keep a book journal in my Bullet Journal. I also index and summarize books in the Ex Libris Leuchtturm1917 Reading Journal. I straight up follow the lessons and use the tips.

But the way this advice is taught can be misleading. And when you keep following it as a mystical life hack secret like I did, and like thousands of others do, you miss a book’s point.

Many gurus, albeit well-intended, drill us to find a book’s lessons. However, we end up hunting for passages or quotes that sound cool or motivating or “bad-ass,” and we miss the context. We fail to identify if a book contained a strong or weak argument. We miss whether we truly learned something or if we merely gained a mild placebo effect from rousing clichés. We miss the substance behind a classic work because we force passages into self-serving ends. We miss the lack of substance because the jargon pumped us up.

Certain gurus mutate our reading into a projection by teaching us to slap biased views on what we read. Albeit I doubt experts mean for us to slap a bias on what we read, but by the way many treat reading, it’s easy to morph what we read into a view. This occurs when people begin treating reading as a life hack. A motivational expert quotes a book, and the quote sounds badass. But the quote lacks context. The quote, the phrase, could easily be irrelevant to the point. Yet when we see the quote and hear the influencer, it motivates our senses about being well-read. We begin looking for those Pollyannaish quotes ourselves. We drink the Kool-Aid by thinking those quotes triggered something. At best, they motivate, but in reality, we stripped the quote from context. For instance, ghostwriters pack pithy phrases into most popular business books because that’s what sells. And the writer will also pack pithy quotes from respected thinkers, like sprinkling irrelevant Friedrich Nietszche quotes into a book that teaches “how to make money online.” We end up doing the same thing. We hunt phrases, strip a phrase from context, and mold it into what we want it to say. I think this is why countless vapid business and self-help books pollute bookshelves. The books are deemed nutritious, but because they’re so bloated with platitude filler, in reality, they’re as nutritious as Twinkies.

And sadly, it’s all too common for reading to slip into a personal badge that signals self-worth—a badge signaling busyness and hustle. Crudely stated, reading and learning turn into a dick-measuring contest.

I find nothing wrong with hunting for a book’s lessons. The lessons can motivate us and inspire us to better ourselves in some way. But when we slip into hunting lessons to “level-up,” we end up going to a museum only to shuffle through the museum’s gift shop, never once setting foot into the actual museum, and we leave, hustling to the next gift shop.

I’m not a success expert, self-development guru, literary critic, or lexicographer. But given my eight-year experience working in the same circles as many famed gurus and popular life hackers, I hope to offer better insight into better reading. I hope to shine a light on how we can pick better books, learn more from them, and, most important, increase our joy of reading. What I’m recommending is not easy. What I’m recommending is not the way. It’s a way, and it’s a way that works for me.

My Guiding Principles.

I feel I should share my guiding principles and how those ground rules developed and continue to develop. When someone has principles that drive them to share an idea, such as better reading, we deserve to know what influences and shapes their concepts.

The Backbone Principle.

My reading backbone is How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. The book arguably shows the best way to read a book. It isn’t a cute little hack; St. Johns College in New Mexico bases their entire Liberal Arts curriculum—undergraduate and graduate—around this text. If you dissect great thinkers, writers, innovators—many roads lead back to this book. Those thinkers or innovators may not directly apply the book’s method; nevertheless, many apply the book’s principles in their own way.

Mortimer Adler is the main voice throughout How to Read a Book. Adler taught philosophy and, of course, reading. In his book, Adler explains how we develop a reading touch. He first shows how to recognize worthwhile books versus time-wasters. He then guides us through the process of beginning a worthy book as a student and then finishing a book as both a peer and an equal to the author. He shows us how to converse with the author’s ideas, dissect strong or weak points, and shape reasoned opinions concerning those ideas. Consequently, it’s here I find the key difference between life hack reading and reading.

On one end of life hack reading, people tend to hoist the author onto a pedestal. Sure, an author or book might be above our heads, but that writer is still a person. When we place the author on a pedestal, we don’t engage with the author; we take what they say at face value. We label the author as “expert” when perhaps the author isn’t an expert. We idolize the opinions, when the opinions may just be hot air. And we can slip into hunting for placebos—cool quotes that are stripped out of context and often stand on a weak premise—but they mildly motivate us.

On the other end, life hack reading entails bias hunting. Here the reader misses all context or premises and instead forces quotes or passages into an ideological end. In so doing, the reader sadly mistranslates or even abuses certain concepts. For instance, classic practical philosophies like Stoicism or thinkers like Friedrich Nietszche often fall victim to bias hunting. A certain group may take Nietzsche’s pithy aphorisms and shape them for their own ends.

Adler, however, teaches that we can work to be peers with the author. When we work to get to the same level, we can’t strip context. We must critically think and reason with both context and the author. Adler shows that we can critically think and converse with the author throughout a book. He also adamantly teaches why our post-read opinion must be backed with evidence. We must back our opinion with a sound argument—an argument where we see multiple sides of our opinion. And we do so with empirical reason—not hyperbole, anecdotes, or plain opinion.

In this way, you chat with a book. You ask the author questions and connect to their ideas. Granted, you may never be an “equal” to Richard Feynman (I’m certainly not and never will be), but you can grasp loftier ideas, connect with them, and work to become a peer to the author.

Adler’s Method.

I’ll quickly cover Adler’s method, but I suggest you read his work, How to Read a Book.

This method isn’t for everyone, but it works. It takes time to develop, just like learning a golf swing. And like that golf swing, you’ll shape your style, your touch, and your game. But Adler teaches more than a swing; he shows you how to play the game with sense, skill, and course management.

In golf, you face various courses. This is just like reading—you read various topics and styles. The best golfers’ game—touch, shots, vision, course management—adapts to many courses. One day the golfer plays a park style course; the next he plays a hilly links course. Good golfers adapt their game, alter their shots, and still score well. In the same way, your reading game carries when you apply Adler’s method, but you’re not keeping score. You can take as many shots as you want. You can read a Jack Reacher novel one day and Immanuel Kant the next and read both well because your game travels.

Adler identifies five reading levels:

1. Elementary Level

Adler explains that most people read at an Elementary Level. This means they don’t dig any deeper than surface level viewing, and often, they forget what they read. Adler lays out four steps to help you dig deeper and move beyond this basic level of reading.

2. Inspect Reading—Level 1

Here you survey and classify the book: practical, theoretical, philosophical fiction, a treatise, a puff piece, and so on.

At this level, you learn how to spot books that pack substance or those that pack empty calories. Adler shows you how to dissect a book by looking at its title, contents, preface, index, and last few pages. He recommends “sipping” a few different pages to get a feel for the text. He teaches you how to find the book’s core argument. Then you decide whether the book is worth reading and possibly even worth an Analytical Read.

3. Inspect Reading – Level 2

If the book seems decent after you’ve completed the steps in Level 1, you read the entire book all the way through. No stopping. No notes. No looking up words in the dictionary. Read it.

Your reading pace will develop over time. Of course, if you get a bit of the way through and you realize the book is a puff piece or doesn’t connect with you, drop it. No need to slog through. Move on. Again, with time, you mature a sense, a radar, that helps you find better books.

Similarly, your reading touch develops at this level. The touch? You start seeing things like the book’s arguments. You notice the writer’s technique, how they phrase their ideas, a core premise, or a subtle question posed. You spot poor arguments and strong arguments. You can pick up speed without losing comprehension; you can slow down and reflect. Books you once considered above your head now begin to make sense. Books you once loved, you now find empty. As you link insights between different authors and ideas, your touch sparks an ongoing conversation between you, authors, ideas, books, and various insights. Now, you might think that if you’re not taking notes, you’ll miss out. You won’t. Adler’s lessons work. You’ll be amazed at what you remember.

Though Adler’s method takes time, don’t be surprised if you double the number of books you read. You’ll soon sense passages or chapters worth flying through and ones worth mulling over. Again, the goal in this level is to read the book at the fastest speed possible without skimming. It’s like cruising down an empty highway. You’ll fly through some areas, and in others, you’ll slow down and sip the scenery. Still, you’ll keep rolling down the highway.

Most important, as you read, keep four questions in the back of your mind. (1) What kind of book is it? (2) What is being said in detail and how? (3) Is it true in part or in whole? (4) What of it?

4. Analytical Reading

If the book is worthwhile—often ones above your head or those widely recognized as classics—it is worth an Analytical Read. Here, you reread the book slowly. You dissect key terms, key sentences, key lessons, key arguments. You take detailed notes. You break down the book’s structure. After reading, you outline the entire book and write how the author developed their arguments.

You make a detailed outline as if you are going to write the book. Then, you see if you understand and agree or disagree with the book. If you agree, you must provide sound evidence for your opinion and not just “yeah, it’s cool!” If you disagree, it can’t be based some old bias. For instance, if you’re a hardcore libertarian and you read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto—you can’t just answer by saying, “Marx is stupid.” You must detail an argument with evidence and without hyperbole explaining why you disagree with Marx. You do so in a way that Marx himself, and his devoted believers, see as reasonable. The same goes if you agree; you must show why.

5. Syntopical Reading

In this final stage, you pick a topic, build an extensive bibliography related to it, and Inspect Read all the books. A few books you pick may be read analytically.

Here you control the topic. You pose a question and look to answer it. Your question fleshes out a thesis. It’s almost like doing a mini-doctorate program. You, the reader, ask a question, create a thesis, and then read an entire bibliography to answer that question.

But—and this is a big BUT from my own experience and others—you only read at this level once you have the Inspect and Analytical Reading down. I mean down pat. If you’re not at Hillsdale College being guided by pro’s, getting to this level takes a few years. I hope to be there in about two years.

No shortcuts, no hacks.

I thought I could jump right into this level. Like I mentioned, I read close to one hundred books a year. And armed with that little bragging right, I felt entitled. I thought I could easily hop right into Syntopical Reading. Wrong. Syntopical Reading takes time, no matter your reading level. If you just jump right in, it’s like making a common New Year’s Resolution to exercise more and lose some weight. You plan to go to the gym every day at 4 a.m., workout like crazy, and follow a strict diet. Like most, you’ll make it maybe three weeks before you burn out.

Stick to basics. Work your way up.

Adler’s Reading List—The Great Books.

How to Read a Book features Adler’s famed recommended reading list: The Great Books. The books are classics. They cover history, economics, philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, and politics. Adler proposes that we should read the books in order. And the order begins with the earliest classic works—Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. From there, Adler subsequently links 137 authors up to Aleksandr I, Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and Cancer Ward.

Adler’s order results from his belief that each great book and author talks to previous greats. In other words, some books react to a previous work or evolve the previous work. For example, Aristotle responds to Plato, Epicurus to Aristotle, Epictetus to Epicurus, Schopenhauer to Kant, and Joyce to Proust. Adler advises we read them in order. I like that idea, and it certainly works. But I think we can craft and shape our own list: a list tailored to our likes, professional growth, personal growth, or our own curiosities. And I believe certain bona fide experts exist in particular fields, and they can help us shape our own list.

My Method.

My reading list differs slightly from Adler’s.

I converse with what I’m reading in my Bullet Journal. And in that journal I created my own commonplace book formula.

I use the Bullet Journal—BuJo. My BuJo serves as a daily planner, a personal journal, a place to plan professional goals and ideas, and my workhorse reading journal. You don’t need to Bullet Journal. But I do think keeping a notebook, or your commonplace book or book journal, betters your reading.

Recently, and I think this is more specific to my situation, I began using the Ex Libris Leuchturmm1917 Book Journal. Since I read a lot, the Ex Libris journal serves as a nice index to organize what books I read. The journal provides space for a book’s summary, where and when you read a book, and how you rank it. You don’t need this journal, or maybe this is your sole journal. Either way—I like it. It’s the best book journal I’ve seen, and it works for me.

I’ll get back to how I use those journals in a moment. But first, let’s look at the tweaks I’ve made to Adler’s method:

Reading Levels Updated.

1. Thought Leader: Read Widely, Consume Content Level.

Adler’s first reading level is elementary reading. With elementary reading, we’re more or less taught to swipe superficial nuggets to pass a test. We study for an exam, take the exam, and then forget what we learned. We move onto the next class and repeat the process. But self-growth gurus teach reading by exacerbating the worst parts of elementary reading—swiping to pass tests.

Certain self-growth evangelists like Lewis Howes or Tony Robbins hail the concept of reading widely. Although the intent—read books—is sound their guru complex warps reading into a Pollyannaish life hack. They seduce people into hunting placebo platitudes. Using their advice, the reader misses a book’s point or misses if the book contained a point. Instead, the reader hunts phrases and cooks those phrases into the desired placebo effect: motivation, hustle, independence, discipline, and beating obstacles.

Adler’s lessons solve this issue. We sense what books are solid, well-written, and meaningful. Reading widely is important, but becoming a discerning reader is where we develop ourselves.

2. Inspect Level 1.

Here’s what I do:

In my Bullet Journal, I create what the BuJo community calls a Collection. Basically, at the top of a blank page, I write a book’s title, and next to that, the word Inspect. For example, (PHOTO MAYBE) I Am Dynamite Inspect.

I Am Dynamite is by Sue Prideaux. Inspect means this is an Inspect Read, which, as I’ll show, generally goes through two levels.

I then write the author’s name, publisher’s name, and date of publication. Then I write the date. (When I finish the book after a Level 2 Inspect Read, I mark the date I finished.)

Then I jot down the following questions:

  1. What kind of book is it?
  2. What seems to be its general structure, and how do the ideas unfold?
  3. What looks to be the book’s core thesis?

Then, I follow Adler’s framework, which involves seven steps:

  1. Study the title and read the preface or introduction.
    • Look for the scope of the book.
    • See if you can pigeonhole the book: practical, theoretical, philosophical fiction, history, biography, etc.
  2. Study the table of contents.
    • See if you can find the book’s basic structure and meaning.
    • Read the contents carefully.
  3. Check the index.
    • Size up the range of topics, people, places, and ideas.
    • Read the cited passages for any crucial terms (these are often the ones where a bunch of sub-terms are listed).
    • Look for key arguments or what the author finds important.

Important Note: If a business book or self-help book lacks an index or in-depth notes in the back—chances are it’s a puff piece. Another sign is that the book is published by an offbeat publishing house and not a major publishing house. Granted, not all authors are fortunate enough to get picked up by a major publisher. But marketing agencies infest the world with vapid business card books. The books follow a canned formula, and the author paid a lot of money to buy what’s termed A Book in A Box. As in, you buy yourself a book. The more you spend, the better perks you can buy. For example, the company may exploit loophole algorithms so you can legally—and barely—call yourself a “bestselling author.”

I’ll be blunt, these books—suck. It’s nothing against the ghostwriters. They adhere to an etch-a-sketch formula. But the books are hot air. The tactless advice taught in the books is motivational jargon. I think professional publishing agencies who scrutinize a book, deciding if they will publish it, serve an important role. They generally try to pick good writing. We’ve heard stories of how some books got rejected 20 times and then went on to be Pulitzer Prize winners. But this is a rarity, and it’s certainly not the norm. Professional agencies with standards who select books and publish them lend credence to a book’s reputation. I’ll be honest, and I’ll be snobby, I own little respect for anyone who writes a book as a “business card.” My advice? Move on.

  1. Read the publisher’s blurb.
    • A summary with substance is ideal.
    • Decipher whether the book is a puff piece or not.
    • Dissect if it says anything important.
    • If you’re unsure, check to see if the book lacks an index, if the blurb promises benefits, or if it says the author has been featured in Forbes Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Inc. Magazine, or The Huffington Post. If so, it’s a generic puff piece.

As you work through these steps a few times, you develop an intuition about a book. You sense a book’s argument, core thesis, or core narrative. Adler says to go quickly; however, I like taking my time here, especially with the contents and the index. I find it helps me capture the book’s argument.

  1. Read the intro and closing paragraphs and chapters that appear crucial to the book’s argument.
    • Read a chapter’s opening paragraph or what looks like the opening summary.
    • Carefully read either the first few paragraphs in a chapter or what looks like the chapter’s closing summary.
  2. Dip into a few pages here or there.
    • Jump into a few pages of the book. Sip a few paragraphs or a few pages.
    • Look for some main points.
    • See if you can find the book’s core pulse.
  3. Read the last two to three pages or the book’s epilogue.
    • Find the summary.
    • Look for the author’s gist. Most authors recap the book’s core thoughts in the last few pages.

Once I finish this, I then answer the Level 1 Inspect questions I asked. I try keep the answers brief. I write a sentence or two for each.

A note on how I classify the book: I don’t classify it like a bookstore—fiction, reference, etc. I use Adler’s framework. I mainly classify books as theoretical, practical, or fiction.

Now, the practical classification isn’t always a how-to book. Certain subjects, like economics or philosophy, are often practical, whereas science texts, yes science, are theoretical.

Here’s the difference. A practical text shows an action you can take. It teaches you how to do something. Whereas a theoretical book shows “that is the case” or presents knowledge. For instance, a book that details how the body’s metabolism works falls into the knowledge classification, so it would be considered theoretical.

Note, some books contain a bit of both. If you read Adler’s book and try this method a few times, you develop a sense of what books fall where.

Since fiction books rarely contain an index and often no chapter names, most of these steps are skipped. How do I pick fiction? You’ll see this in the section detailing how I pick books in a bookstore.

3. Inspect Level 2.

Once I finish the first level, I then write these questions:

  1. What is it about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail and how?
  3. Is it true in part or in whole?
  4. What of it? (This is where you offer your reasoned opinion. You take what it’s about as a whole but take firm stance. You want to state where the book resides amongst the ongoing conversation with other books or ideas. Remember, if you disagree, you must explain why. It can’t be pure opinion. If you agree, the same goes; show reasons why you agree.)

If it’s a practical book, I add:

  1. What does the author want me to do?
  2. How does the author propose I do it? As in, what actions or steps can I apply?

If it’s a fiction book, a few things get changed.

Question three becomes—is the story believable? Do I follow? As in, does the author create a plausible world no matter how crazy it is? Also, as Adler recommends, I do my best to put myself into the story and exist inside what the author created.

If it’s a philosophical book, I add:

Does the book ask first-order questions or second-order questions?

A first-order question is based on how we should live our lives. These books are often practical philosophy, ethical philosophy, or some political philosophy.

A second-order question asks, more or less, a hair-splitting question. For instance, Philosophy of Language asks hair-splitting questions. A text or thinker expounds on what the word “is” means, what it means subjectively, and even if we can know the meaning of what “is” because of sensory impressions. And those sensory impressions can be subjective—or objective—depending on your view. I think you get the gist.

Last, what is the main question the philosopher tried to answer and solve?

If it’s a biography or history, I will read it like a story. I add these questions:

  • What moral lessons can I use?
  • What is important?

Then I read.

I read through the book just like Adler advises: no notes, no stopping for the dictionary (I do jot down the words I don’t know into my BuJo, but I look them up later)—all the way through. Once I finish, I answer the questions. I keep the answers brief, three to five sentences. I then write one sentence that I think captures the book’s core thesis.

Then, I index the book in my Ex Libris Reading Journal. I mark which BuJo the book is in, the dates I started and finished, and where I read the book. In the summary section, I generally rewrite the answer to “What is the book about as a whole?” Then I rank it. Ex Libris ranks books from one to six. Books with a six get a possible shot at an Analytical Read.

If it passed the Level 1 Inspect filter, but I don’t connect with the book, I drop it. I don’t slog through. I drop it and move on. I don’t count it as read. It didn’t make the cut.

Analytical Read.

I mainly stick to what Adler teaches. I reread the book much more slowly. Granted, I know I can fly through or just skip some sections, and this comes with developing a reading touch. Whereas other sections, I’ll spend time on. But as I reread the book, I also study the writing because it suits my professional purpose.

A. BuJo Pre-Read.

Before I begin rereading, I start a new Collection in my BuJo. I go to a blank page, and I write Book Title Analytical Collection.

For example:

The Power Broker Analytical Collection

The BuJo contains page numbers. A basic BuJo step is called Threading. Since bullet journals handle many duties—daily planner, journal, habit tracker, book journal—sometimes you need to jump to different pages. For example, you write out a daily plan on page 23. On page 24—25, you flesh out a work project. Then on page 26, you create a new daily plan. But let’s say you didn’t finish fleshing out your work project. So on page 25, you write a slash next 25, and you write the page number where you continue fleshing out your work plan, say page 27. And on page 27 you mark what page you came from.

When you work on bigger projects, you naturally use more pages. In this case, you create a Master Collection. You then create an index or a table of contents to organize your thoughts.

Let’s unpack my process.

B. The Power Broker BuJo Setup.

As of this writing, I’m Analytically Reading The Power Broker by Robert Caro.

I turn to a blank page in my BuJo. At the top of the page, I write The Power Broker Analytical Master Collection. (IMAGE)

Then I go to The Power Broker’s table of contents. Normally I would write the names of the chapters, but The Power Broker lists seven parts, each with chapters composing those parts.

I write out the parts and then I list the chapters contained in that part. (IMAGE)

Now, in the Master Collection page I will then write where inside the BuJo those chapter’s notes are located. (IMAGE)

I now go to the next blank page, and I write The Power Broker Analytical at the top. (IMAGE)

Then, I write Part:1 The Idealist. Then I move down a line and indent and write Chapter 1: Line of Succession. I make sure I mark in my BuJo index which page these notes are on. I do this for each chapter and part. (IMAGE)

Then I dig in.

Adler advises writing in the margins; I prefer keeping notes in my BuJo. I take flow-based notes on each chapter. I learned about this style of note-taking from learning expert Scott Young. Here’s how it works: I jot down, in my own words short thoughts or notes that pop into my head. The notes flag certain thoughts. These notes are quick and more or less signify a thought or opinion that popped up.

I do make marks in the book; I don’t earmark or fold pages. I write a slash mark (/) on the top left or right corner of the page. This marks a page where I’m noting an important passage. I use that mark to potentially come back to the book for research. (IMAGE)

I do not underline. Some say underlining and highlighting saps our reading comprehension. As for me, I just don’t like doing it. I mark sentences with a parenthesis. If I’m marking a longer passage, say a whole paragraph, I make straight vertical lines on both sides. (IMAGE)

I also use a few BuJo methods. I’ll unpack these methods the best I can.

The basic method of Bullet Journaling entails note-making that works like a code. You use marks such as asterisks, dots, circles, and dashes as signals. You can use your own, but the Bullet Journal’s creator, Ryder Carroll, shows a simple way to get started. Here, I will quickly cover the marks I use.

Let’s say I’m reading, and on page 154, a quote resonates with me. I’ll make the slash mark on the top left or right of the page. (IMAGE) Next to the quote, I’ll put parentheses around the sentence. For a longer passage, I make the straight vertical lines on either side. In the book, I’ll put an asterisk next to the quote. I then go to my Bullet Journal, and I write the quotation (“) mark. I’ll write, pg. 154. If I have any thoughts about the quote, I’ll jot them down underneath (and indented). Then in the book, I’ll mark next to the asterisk the Bullet Journal and page where I wrote my thoughts. It may look something like BJ 3.82. (Bullet Journal Volume 3, page 82.)

Later, I type the quote into a folder on my writing software, Ulysses. Here, I might use the quote later for an article or just store it.

C. Key Terms or Phrases.

As I read, I circle key terms or phrases within the text. Adler explains that a writer uses key terms or phrases, and these key terms and phrases unpack the book’s core argument. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re rereading a book. You’ll notice that each chapter, and oftentimes the entire book, will use a number of words repeatedly. The word might be, for instance, power. You’ll see the word power, its synonyms, and even phrases alluding to power. You’ll notice phrases tied to power, like “the downsides of power.” Or, “held power.” These words, the ones often repeated, help reveal the author’s theme or argument. You begin seeing the question the author tried answering for that chapter, the book, or maybe their general ideology. You’ll notice these key words laced throughout the entire book. Each chapter or letter or aphorism contains these key terms or phrases.

Once I finish the chapter, I write the key terms in my BuJo. I chew them over a bit, then write Context. There, and in my own words, I write out the context of the key terms. I strive to keep it short, three to five sentences max. I summarize what the author is saying, and I do my best to make sure it’s my own thoughts. I try to make the summary so simple that a five-year-old can understand it. If it is too abstract or if I’m recycling thoughts, I rework it.

An important note: make the context your own as if you wrote that chapter. You can’t slavishly recycle thoughts. You must make the summary concrete, simple, and easy to understand. You will polish this skill with time, but the process helps you engage with the author.

After I write out the context, I then write the question(s) that the author tried to answer in that chapter. In either quick sentences or bullets, I explain how the author answered those questions. I’m looking to uncover the author’s argument in that chapter.

D. Difficult or Arresting Sentences.

I unpack any sentence that is above my head. I grab the dictionary, thesaurus, and a usage manual and examine and dissect the sentence. I study the parts of speech, the punctuation, and how the sentence was written. I study the style. Even if I know the words and what they mean, I still examine the style, so I can potentially improve my writing.

Why do this?

Writing is my purpose and my craft. I’m constantly working to improve my writing skills. I want to grasp good writing and understand the styles that resonate with me.

E. Key Sentences.

Adler says that every book, no matter the length, contains a handful of key sentences. I agree. In my experience, most books generally contain four to seven key sentences. This lesson still rings true with books that are mainly treatises or aphorisms. Key sentences state the author’s argument and show how the argument unfolds.

How do you spot key sentences? Key sentences are often ones we struggle with. The sentences aren’t verbose and aren’t the ones you find cool. Often, these are the sentences you don’t quite grasp. They may elicit a “huh?” or a “wait a minute” response.

When I find one of these sentences in the book, I mark the sentence with a big number. If it’s the first key sentence, I use a 1, the second, a 2, and so on. I also write the big number in my BuJo with the corresponding book page number. I write a few notes regarding the argument or premise posed in the sentence. Like a challenging sentence, I study this sentence and dissect it.

Finding key sentences eliminates cherry-picking. Adler shows how sentences you think are cool are often the cake’s icing. The key sentences may be short, long, pithy, or blunt. Often, these are the sentences you don’t grasp immediately, are the meat. Those are the ones you dissect. These sentences arrest you: they offer a lesson, an idea, or a viewpoint.

I agree with Adler: study these sentences. Get out a good physical dictionary, maybe even a usage guide, and parse out the words. In so doing, you start talking to the author as a peer. When you finish the book, reread the key sentences. You’ll find that you “get” the book. You’ll see the key argument and where you agree or disagree.

F. Finish.

When I finish reading, I outline the entire book in my BuJo. I outline it as if I’m the author. I start with my core argument and flesh out the argument. I write quick bullets containing my arguments. Again, I do it as if I’m going to write the book. I do my best to put ideas into my own words.

This step takes some time, but it’s worthwhile.

Take your time. Some Analytical Reads are relatively quick; some take a while. Follow Adler’s advice; it works. You won’t be perfect the first time; the skill develops with repetition. Your goal is to leave the book with deep understanding. This step isn’t a race to Analytically Read every great book. Nor is it a humblebrag contest to show how deep you are. It’s you, chatting one-on-one with the author. You go in a student, and you walk out as an equal peer.

My Lists.

Here’s how I created a malleable yet tailored “Great Books” list.

Adler recommends a rich source of classic books and posits why we should read the classics in order; however, I think he misses the fact that we can shape a list tailored to our purpose.

I think certain professions, curiosities, and subject loves embody their own lists. Certain areas feature a true expert who can point to or even give a list suited to your wishes. For instance, Jerry Seinfeld studies comedy, inhales comedy, and knows comedy’s rich history. If you’re into comedy writing, Seinfeld naturally flags a few places to look.

And I think we can mix, change, and evolve these lists as our interests and goals mix, change, and evolve. Similarly, I think Adler leaves out simple beach reads. After an Analytical Read, I like to read a book or two or five for pure pleasure. I still follow the Inspect Read steps, but I’ll pick a lighter nonfiction or a fun fiction book.

I suggest finding and creating a reading list tailored to your purposes. You can create one guiding list, or you can mix it up. You can draft a mini-list (i.e., read a set number of books about a specific topic). No matter how you do it, make your reading list suit your goals. And it doesn’t have to be professional. Maybe your list is filled with Jack Reacher books, or Dave Barry, or whatever you want. Spend time finding your list and let it gently guide you.

My Core List.

Bryan A. Garner is my driving force. My great book list is heavily guided by him.

Among grammarians, journalists, linguists, style experts, legal writers, authors, and usage experts, Bryan A. Garner is arguably the leading lexicographer, grammarian, usage expert, and style expert today. As stated in Garner’s Modern English Usage, he’s the authority on grammar, usage, and style. He’s the Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University and president of LawProse. And he’s arguably the top legal lexicographer. He’s the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, the most widely used legal dictionary in the United States1. He’s written over 25 books, many of which are award winners. In short, Bryan Garner knows what creates good writing.

Here’s why Bryan Garner maps out my direction.

As I said, Bryan Garner drives my principles. I believe his advice sharpens my writing skill. The guy knows writing. Top writers, like David Foster Wallace, revere Bryan Garner. He’s an expert on writing, the best books on writing, and the best books exhibiting the best writing.

I advise examining and scrutinizing who influences your reading lists. In fact, I advise the same for any expert who influences you.

Bryan, like a real expert, is steeped with experience. When he was a kid, he read dictionaries for fun—yes . . . dictionaries. He adores language. He loves reading. He studies writing. His educational and professional background confirm he’s an expert.

Why am I harping on this?

I stress the importance of critically investigating any guru, thought leader, expert, intellectual, coach, or consultant.

I Googled “Bryan Garner wrong.” I sought his critics. He held up. Even his critics respect him. Granted, it’s tougher now to find an accurate background. Many gurus buy or rig search algorithms to present themselves as flawless; nevertheless, try to find criticism. When you do, you’ll be amazed at how fast people like Tony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuck, or Dan Pena fail to hold up.

I feel it’s important to peel back the curtain. As you know, I worked in the same circles as many top thought leaders. Many experts chase whims. Some wield superb marketing talents and capitalize on whims. But they’re not experts. On average, most experts devise new schemes to stay relevant and keep their careers afloat. Here’s a reality: the more boastful the hype, the more “fire and passion,” the more likely the expert is financially scrambling. Many gurus often leap into new areas without any expertise and preach “secrets.” Then when the money dwindles, they leap into another field. Although these gurus may be smart, you can spot constant product changes. For example, they may start in fitness, then sell “how to make money online,” then “how to make money on Instagram,” then “how to meditate.” Take whatever they say with heavy handfuls of salt.

True experts take their craft seriously; they aren’t bouncing around or life hacking or suddenly life coaching. If you take a skeptical, critical view and examine “experts”—you’ll find far better experts.

Anyway, I’m lucky because Bryan Garner carefully organized a list of books he recommends. In most of his books, Garner recommends specific books that teach better writing. But in all of his books, Garner points to his bibliography in Garner on Language and Writing. Here we find my great books list.

Lifetime Reading Program.

Chapter 15 in Garner on Language and Writing is called “A Lifetime Reading Program.”

Here, Garner recommends 12 must-reads. Five are geared toward legal professions, and seven are general books that teach writing. Those seven are included in my Analytical Reads:

  1. John R. Trimble, Writing with Style (Garner consistently says this is the best book that teaches writing.)
  2. S.I. Hayakawa & Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action
  3. Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers
  4. William Strunk & E.B. White, The Elements of Style
  5. Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist (8th Ed.)
  6. Aristotle, Rhetoric
  7. William Zinsser, On Writing Well

But that’s not the only gold mine. Garner offers an extensive Recommended Resources in the back of Garner on Language and Writing. He features 12 categories, each with multiple subcategories and recommendations.

Anything you can imagine regarding reading, writing, English Language, fiction, philosophy, science, journaling—he lists it. And these categories are not limited to books about writing or dictionaries. He recommends fiction and nonfiction—he points to writers who write top-notch prose. It’s a gold mine.

Each category contains subcategories. For instance, the writing category contains 42 subcategories. Here is a sample:

  • 2.2 Writing process
  • 2.7 The writing life
  • 2.11 Plain English
  • 2.15 Novels
  • 2.17 Nonfiction
  • 2.19 History
  • 2.26 Philosophical writing
  • 2.33 Reports and memos
  • 2.37 Diaries
  • 2.42 Writers as wonderful friends

In each subcategory, Garner might recommend one, or he might recommend a dozen or more books. Garner marks each recommendation with either a dash or an asterisk. He considers those marked with asterisks must-reads.

If you research Garner and peruse his usage manual, it’s safe to say that he examines each book he recommends. He recommends great reads that are enjoyable instead of complicated because he likes good writing. His fiction recommendations are great, as are his recommendations for better science writing.

I’m lucky I discovered this gold mine. Adler laid out his great reads; Garner laid out my great reads. But his choices don’t compose my entire list. I’ve added my likes and wants, which I’ll cover in a moment.

But first, here’s how and why I use Garner as my compass pointing north.

Writing is my purpose. Writing keeps my lights on. It puts food on my table, pays for pet food, and feeds my book addiction. In the last two years or so, I’ve grown to love reading about writing. I’m not sure why, but I love reading books on writing. Garner helps my profession, and he enables my reading curiosity. His book list, fortunately, serves both professional goals and personal curiosities.

My Analytical and Inspect Reads.

As I said, Garner marks his highest recommended books with an asterisk. For me, many categories he features either suit professional or personal purposes, oftentimes both.

I will Analytically Read the books that Garner marks with an asterisk in a category because they matter to me. I follow my steps. I do an Inspect Read and then an Analytical Read. I’ll likely Analytically Read some books not marked with an asterisk because they suit a specific goal—for instance, Philosophical Writing by A.P. Martinich. I stumbled into philosophy a few years ago, and I love it. Lately, and to sound a little self-aggrandizing, a “Marketing Philosophy” concept percolates in my head. So Philosophical Writing nicely captures two different goals, general philosophy and marketing philosophy, into one book.

The other books that Garner recommends and marks with a dash stay on my Inspect Read list. Again, not all these books are books teaching writing. As I said, he features many subjects. I’ll read his fiction recommendations, his history recommendations, and others. These books exhibit sterling prose and writing. For instance, Garner recommends famed nonfiction works by authors like Robert Caro or famed fiction works by authors like Cormac McCarthy.

Consequently, the authors Garner recommends influence other picks. Garner may not specifically recommend a book, but I’ll look on Amazon or peruse a bookstore for books seemingly related to what Garner recommends. This keeps my lists fresh and adds spontaneity.

I’ll cover the order I read these books below, but Garner’s recommendations get top priority.

The Panpsycast Podcast.

After Garner, The Panpsycast Podcast guides and influences a large part of my list.

The Panpsycast Podcast is a philosophy podcast hosted by Jack Symes, Olly Marley, Andrew Horton, and Dr. Gregory Miller. In full transparency, I’m a big fan, and I support the show on Patreon.

Sadly, I stumbled into philosophy only a few years ago, but since taking the plunge, it has sparked big life changes for me. I first stumbled into Stoicism and then into Schopenhauer. Through luck, I was standing next to someone at Stoicon in London and overheard him mention the Panpsycast Podcast. That was the lightning bolt.

The method they use to discuss topics shapes how I talk with a book. Generally, they first do a topic overview, then dive into the topic, then surface and discuss that topic’s many sides. They begin by unpacking the context and fleshing out meanings. Next, they discuss how certain elements apply to life or how the idea does or doesn’t hold up. Last, each host offers their view. What resonates most with me is the way they examine topics with warmth and humor.

Sometimes, if we’re honest, we sometimes try to be serious or take ourselves too seriously when reading. It’s easy to just hunt “lessons” and not let a book capture us emotionally. We slip into viewing an author sitting on a lofty pedestal. To me, the Panpsycast offers a wonderful example of having fun, enjoying what we’re learning, and approaching topics with reason and humor.

Humor opens our mind and fosters critical thinking. It packs a subtle ability to take lofty subjects, people, or ideas and place them on equal ground. Humor makes challenging topics accessible.

The show covers an array of topics, not just philosophy. They cover classics like Plato, current affairs, and fiction books. The hosts, like Garner, are smart, self-aware, self-reflective, and each owns a solid academic background. They’re also good-humored. Like I mentioned, humor allows us to keep an open mind and maintain a healthy skepticism regarding specific topics.

The show influences books that are second priority on my list. They influence both Analytical and Inspect Reads. For instance, they did a show on Albert Camus. I Inspect Read The Fall, and I loved it. Later, I plan to Analytically Read it. Similarly, they inspire other picks linked to a show topic. One episode covered existential philosophy, which inspired me to grab and Inspect Read At the Existential Cafe by Sarah Bakewell.

Certain Patreon supporters gain access to an after show. Here, the hosts have an aptly titled: Non-shit Book Club. A host mentions a book they’re reading and rates it. If it sounds interesting to me, I’ll get the book. The topics mentioned are wide-ranging, from Brexit to biology.

And the recommendations inspire and influence other picks. For example, when I spend time at Denver’s famed Tattered Cover bookstore—known for staff recommendations—I may ask for philosophical fiction. I’ll mention a show topic—say Albert Camus—and the staff will recommend something. Sometimes while perusing the bookstore, I’ll notice an author or related show topic, and I’ll buy that book. I do filter each book—more on that below—but if it passes, I buy it.

Many books on this list are philosophy classics like Plato’s Republic or Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I will Analytically Read these. Others cater to my philosophy interests like Stoicism, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Albert Camus.

E. Hatchards Booksellers

For my birthday, I received a Hatchards Book Subscription.

Hatchards Booksellers opened its doors in London in 1797. It’s since become a world-famous bookstore and earned three Royal Warrants. Royal Warrants mean the royal family or royal personages buy products from that retailer, and the Warrants also denote stellar quality.

Hatchards is known for their staff book recommendations. They offer a subscription service to those, like me, who unfortunately can’t live inside Hatchards Bookstore (one can dream though). Here’s how it works: a Hatchards clerk interviews you. Based on that interview, each month, their expert staff handpicks a book and sends it to you.

So far, Hatchards lives up to their standards. The books have been excellent, and many are ones I would never have found.

F. Fiction List.

This section will likely update after I Analytically Read—a Garner must-read—Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer. This book teaches you how to read fiction. Currently the list is mainly guided by Bryan Garner.

G. Tyler Cowen Business Compass.

Most business books suck.

Most famous books that teach copywriting or marketing are disturbingly bad. Most famous books about business—how to run a business, how to lead, how to find customers, how to have discipline—suck. Most are vacuous, vapid, and bloated with vogue phrases, pseudo-business babble, circular reasoning, begging the question arguments, and placebo platitudes.

But I still read business books. As I mature my reading touch, I mature a better sense for finding decent ones.

Luckily, the best hit rate I’ve found stems from Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Conversations with Tyler. He influences, directly and indirectly, most business books I read.

How I Use My Lists.

My lists work like a city map marked with key destinations. But I’m open to trying a few side streets, a few different restaurants, and a few new destinations. To me, this allows new insights and keeps things fresh.

I created ten book lists on Amazon based on my influences:

  • Writing Mastery List: This list mainly contains what Garner recommends. The books here link to my professional goals and personal curiosity. As I said, my career—the purpose that drives me each day—is writing. I want to better my craft. These books fuel that purpose. And I also love reading about writing; this list scratches that curiosity.
  • Considered Life List: This list combines more random influences, my philosophy picks, current affairs, fiction, and other curiosities.
  • Business List: Again, most business books stink. So finding good business books is a challenge, but I still look for decent business books. Like above, this list combines more random business influences. If someone I respect recommends something, or I find a solid review in say The Economist, I’ll put it in this list.
  • Tyler Cowen List: As mentioned, Tyler Cowen inspires this list and it contains mainly business themed books. Also, Cowen is a fellow bookworm. I occasionally put in his general fiction or non-fiction recommendations in this list.
  • Garner Nonfiction List: As I said, Bryan Garner recommends general nonfiction books. They range from history to memoirs to social criticism to biographies and more. Garner recommends books containing stellar prose, stellar style, and stellar reading.
  • Garner Fiction List: Garner also recommends fiction books that highlight excellent prose and style. And the books are great reads; they range from classics to modern greats.
  • The Panpsycast List: Here we find a lot of philosophy books. We also find many of the guests featured on the Panpsycast. I list the books they recommend on their show, as well as authors they will feature on upcoming shows. For instance, they are planning an Arthur Schopenhauer episode. But to know Schopenhauer, you need to be familiar with David Hume and Immanuel Kant. So that means I’ll put Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer on this list.
  • Philosophy List: The above list influences this list. But this list encompasses other ideas or thinkers I spot that look interesting.
  • Reading List: Garner has a category in Garner on Language and Writing called “Reading.” Simply put—these are books on reading. The books generally teach you how to read better, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. Good writers are good readers.
  • General Fiction List: I’d say all the above influences this list. But I’ll add Tattered Cover Recommendations, maybe a review perked my interest, or perhaps just a gut feel.

Like a map, the lists serve as a guide.

I plan Inspect Reads based on upcoming Analytical Reads and how I feel after an Analytical Read. I have an order in mind, but it’s a little looser.

Certain Analytical Reads consume heavy mental bandwidth. If a book consumes heavy bandwidth, I follow it with lighter, more entertaining reads. I might read a few mystery novels, or I might read a few lighter business or philosophy books. I want a break. I want to be entertained with good writing or be introduced to new ideas. I choose books that are likely fast reading. I find this prevents burnout.

I order the list around my top priority—writing mastery. As I showed, the books on that list are primarily Bryan Garner recommendations. And the priority works for both Inspect Reads and Analytical Reads. After Garner comes the Panpsycast combined with philosophy, then Hatchards, then fiction or literature, then the gut picks I make at the bookstore. Then last and lately, Tyler Cowen influenced picks.

I tinker with this current reading order: Garner Analytical, then three or more Inspect Reads including a Garner influenced Inspect Read, then a philosophy Analytical Read, then three or more Inspect Reads, then a Garner Analytical. On any list, some books, after an Inspect Read may strike a chord, and I’ll plan to Analytically Read them. I find this fosters my curiosity while also helping me sense better books.

Reading Pace and Rhythm.

I tinker, shuffle, and feel out my list. I don’t see it as something I must conquer. It’s just an ongoing conversation. I average around a hundred pages a day when Inspect Reading. I don’t skim, and I don’t consider myself a fast reader. I don’t set a goal to read one hundred pages a day. As I said, I’m lucky my life allows a schedule that feeds my reading habit. I capitalize on that luck the best I can.

Analytical Reading a book and going through it slowly takes time. This depends on the book. I roll through some pages, while others can take three hours. My goal isn’t to plow through books and then create a graph showing how many books I read. I like taking my time.

If you’re going to read Analytically, I suggest taking your eyes off the clock. Converse with the book; take your time with it. Reading isn’t a race; it’s a conversation. When you chat with the book, allow it some breathing room, some humor, some disagreement, some questions, and some listening.


I spend hours in bookstores. I often buy stacks of books. If the store provides baskets, I grab one and fill it with books. But I can’t spend an hour examining each book to see if it makes the cut.

My Amazon lists, and my familiarity with what influences each list, serve as a map in a bookstore. But I don’t just stick to the list. Walking around a bookstore is like touring a city. I like exploring a few streets and seeing what happens. If I find a book on my list, I grab it. If I see a related book, I examine it and possibly buy it. I always try to buy a book or two the bookstore recommends. I think this is an underutilized aspect of indie bookstores and even the big chain stores.

Here’s how I examine books in a bookstore:

  1. Use my Analytical Lists as my compass. As I said, I don’t rigidly stick to the list; instead I let it inspire choices.
  2. Keep a book budget. I use a budgeting tool called You Need A Budget (YNAB). YNAB works like an envelope budgeting system. Set your income into particular “envelopes” like rent, groceries, gas, and so on, so you know how much you have. You can also save up for a trip or stash some emergency cash. I budget a few hundred dollars each month to be spent on books. Also, I portion a fair percentage of income into my book budget once I pay pertinent bills. Now if I don’t spend that month’s budgeted amount, all the money that’s not spent gets moved to the book fund. As in, my book fund grows. And it has grown, and I do what I can to maintain it. I’ll brag; I love my book fund. Again, I fill baskets with books at a bookstore. You don’t have to create a book budget. But I find the budget helps me pick books worth my time. I know some books that I buy may suck or fall flat. I may make it 20 pages and toss it aside. Nevertheless, the budget helps me pick better books.
  3. As I said, I always try to buy at least one recommendation from the bookstore, especially indie bookstores. Tattered Cover here in Denver devotes a section to staff recommendations. And sprinkled throughout the store, you’ll see “staff picks.” I like picking a book that I normally wouldn’t choose—fiction or nonfiction. Or, one better, I ask the staff. Generally, I find that the indie recommendations are better than the major chains; nevertheless, Barnes & Noble and other major chains offer decent recommendations.

I recommend asking a clerk for a pick. Don’t worry about coming across as an inferior reader. If you love romance novels, have at it. No need to pretend you prefer highbrow. They are the professionals; let them work. Ask a few questions back but let them make a choice. The book they pick may suck, or it may be great. Either way, keep your expectations reasonable.

  1. Look at the title and contents.
    • If I know it’s a classic, like Plato, I do my best to find a good readable and respected translation.
    • If it’s fiction, I generally go with any awards, nominations, or ask the staff.
  2. Study the table of contents
    • I try to glean the book’s core argument.
    • I see if the table of contents contains some substance.
  3. Check the index and a few pages
    • I look for an index. More and more, I’m finding that worthy books contain an index. It isn’t required, but an index matters—especially if I’m concerned that the book may be a puff piece or a fanboy hagiography.
    • I glance at maybe three or four key words. I go to the passages and quickly read. I look for sentence structure, some key arguments, and to see if the writer resonates with me. I don’t have to agree with the author. I’m looking to see if an argument or the writing lays out a sound premise. I spend a minute or two on this step.
    • This step doesn’t apply to fiction.
  4. Read the publisher’s blurb
    • Hardcovers own an advantage since they come with a publisher’s blurb. Anything that stinks of marketing—promising benefits, secrets, or ways to upgrade your life—I pass. I pay attention to anything describing the book and what its contents contain. If it’s a paperback, the blurb is shorter. I prefer blurbs describing what the book contains versus a blurb selling you how the book will change your life. If the blurb contains superlatives promising secrets that can make you stinking rich or “if the author did it, so can you” . . . this is often puffery, and the book will likely not be worth your time. If you read Adler’s book, you develop a keen sense of how to do this.
    • Who recommended the book? On the title page and sometimes the back, I see who recommended it. If it features a bunch of gurus or all the Sharks on Shark Tank, I pass. It gets serious consideration if it features recommendations from a few heavyweights like Steven Pinker, Nassim Taleb, Tyler Cowen, Rebecca Newburger Goldstein, positive reviews from The New Yorker, “Ten Best” of the New York Times, positive Economistreviews, or others who aren’t overtly marketing. Over time, you develop a sense about what awards carry weight. For example, I generally recommend books that won the Nobel Prize, were considered for the Pulitzer Prize, are a National Critics Book Awards Winner, are on the Ten Best Books New York Times Book Review, or have been picked by a renowned bookstore. Now, these lists aren’t perfect. They come with their faults; nevertheless, they offer decent directions.
  5. Make a decision

I try to do those steps in a few minutes. I sometimes put the book down and come back to it later. I probably spend close to five minutes with a book, maybe less. The more I develop my reading touch, the more my sense for picking better books develops.

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