Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books

27 Post author: patrissimo 27 March 2011 07:54PM

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 :).

Comments (43)

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 12:00:44AM 13 points [-]

Note that despite it being a blog post, I continuously update The Best Textbooks on Every Subject in response to commenters leaving qualifying recommendations.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 March 2011 10:12:08PM 1 point [-]

If anyone has suggestions on an easy way LW might get a LW specific product review/discussion site, I would be interested. If it were easy enough, I would be willing to put in coding time.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 March 2011 01:08:39PM 8 points [-]

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.

Note that Anki is useful even if you don't have pre-made cards. Probably even more so. I've been working my way through CLRS lately, and I notice that I'm able that extracting all of the important content in a chapter and transforming it into cards takes maybe about 30-60 minutes. Previously I would spend much longer on the same material, and comprehend it much worse.

Admittedly this is my second read through the same material, after my first attempt to pass this course failed. So part of the speed advantage is probably in that I've had exposure to the same content before. But I also worked through a statistics course not too far ago, and even though I wasn't that fast there, I was still definitely quicker than if I'd have tried to read it the old-fashioned way.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 28 March 2011 01:58:10PM 3 points [-]

writing down and summarizing in your own words are both extremely powerful in achieving higher retention and comprehension.

Comment author: djcb 28 March 2011 11:08:27AM *  5 points [-]

I've mentioned it in earlier posts, but I like to emphasize once more the use of audio books; as they allow you to fill a lot of your otherwise-idle time (say, commuting, running, shopping etc.), you can effectively get a lot more 'reading' done.

Obviously, audio books are not very good (unfortunately) for really technical expositions, but one can use them to read a lot of fiction, popular science, history, that kind of thing. I've been doing that for a few years and I got more 'reading' done than I ever thought possible.

Another little 'trick' for reading more is to read PDFs and the like with 'autoscroll' turned on (at least Evince and Acrobat support this). Using autoscroll forces me to really concentrate and also allows we to sit back and 'experience' the book. Again, this does not work well for highly technical books, but quite well for more 'prosaic' material.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 March 2011 07:15:01PM 1 point [-]

For me what tipped the scale in favor of listening to audiobooks was the 2X feature of my player, which doubles the speed of playback without increasing the pitch. Before then, audiobooks took a very, very long time to get through, which made that format relatively unattractive. Now I will often listen to audiobooks even when I could be reading the books. Another important feature of my player, which greatly increased the value of audiobooks to me, is the "skip back 30 seconds" feature.

Comment author: CuSithBell 28 March 2011 07:34:04PM 0 points [-]

Yeah! I love those. I use an iTouch, and this (+ free NPR podcasts) is what lets the treadmill fit into my schedule.

Comment author: Pastafarianist 10 September 2014 05:23:11PM 0 points [-]

My experience with audiobooks is completely different. I found myself unable to get into the flow of listening, constantly getting distracted and losing track of what's going on. Besides, given that I already put myself under much cognitive load (reading, MOOCs, university), I decided to dedicate the time when I cannot read to reassessing and recalling everything in diffuse mode of thinking. So far, seems like there is no better option.

Comment author: patrissimo 28 March 2011 06:36:57PM 0 points [-]

I use audio books / podcasts some, but I don't run, have a minimal commute, and so don't end up getting much time in.

Comment author: juliev 28 March 2011 12:30:57AM 5 points [-]

I balance non fiction by reading multiple non-fiction books at once and then prioritizing and making time investment judgements based on current needs. I typically am reading 4-7 non-fiction books, where 1-2 are related to the professional development component of my work, 2-3 are related to the research component of my profession, and 1-2 are for personal interest or personal development. I would assume the ability to do this correlates with how comfortably a person is with multi-tasking, which you seem to be. And, of course, I abandon what is not of interest and skim when I am less engaged.

I always keep a subset of these books with me, one in my purse and a couple in my car trunk, and read while waiting in line at the grocery store or other opportune moments. I prefer reading to using the iphone/smart phone when waiting, as I consider myself more productive reading a book and tend to engage in time kill activities on the phone. I also keep 1-2 fiction books going, but limit those to reading at home. 9 books is around my breaking limit for remembering what I read where, but I am sure some people can handle more.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 March 2011 12:54:16AM 3 points [-]

I recall reading that we typically learn best if we take several, say four, college courses simultaneously per semester as is normally done, all of them lasting say four months, as opposed to a hypothetical program in which we take the courses sequentially each one lasting a month.

If true, this may suggest that simultaneously working through several books over a given time period is better for retention than reading them sequentially within that same time period.

As to why, my guess is that this is related to the fact that cramming is very bad for retention.

Comment author: olimay 30 March 2011 04:18:21PM 0 points [-]

My guess is that it's related to what makes spaced repetition work--the process of switching forces the reader to recall the context and previous facts. See if you can even vaguely recall where you read this; I'd like to take a look at any pertinent research.

Comment author: BenLowell 01 April 2011 07:45:32AM 1 point [-]

I read in a very similar fashion. On my favorite days I usually skip from book to book, reading a chapter of two out of three or more books, often directly after one another. I am a terrible multi-tasker though---I enjoy reading and working best when I focus intensely on one thing for about two hours, then switch to another.

I will start reading one book, then keep picking up books until there are too many for me to handle. Then the books that are less interesting to me tend to be left alone and I end up focusing on about 2-3 non-school books and 3-5 school books.

Comment author: juliev 28 March 2011 12:35:02AM 0 points [-]

Oh, I didn't mention in the post that my formula is roughly 50% professional related, 50% personal related, and the personal is divided equally into non-fiction and fiction. I also try to divvy my reading time up at the same proportions.

Comment author: jimrandomh 28 March 2011 02:10:51PM *  4 points [-]

There are two ends to optimize here; you can focus on selecting the best things, or focus on getting rid of the worst things. I used to read way too much news, for example; and after reading something good I'd usually go on to read its comments even if I knew (or would have known if I'd thought about it) that they wouldn't be worth it. Before deciding which of two good books to cut, install a time profiler like RescueTime or ManicTime to make sure you know where your reading time's really going.

Comment author: Mark_Neznansky 06 April 2011 12:57:44AM 1 point [-]

Assuming you're familiar with both, which one do you think works better? RescueTime or ManicTime?

Comment author: jimrandomh 06 April 2011 05:42:05PM 1 point [-]

I'm only familiar with ManicTime, so I can't say which is better; I've seen others endorse RescueTime but haven't tried it. They both do essentially the same thing, though, so the difference between them and each other is small compared to the difference between them and nothing.

Comment author: patrissimo 28 March 2011 06:36:26PM 0 points [-]

I'm pretty good at getting rid of the worst things, still trying to figure out what the best things are.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 March 2011 10:39:51PM 3 points [-]

How do I decide what to read? Here's one, non-optimized, person's response.

For practical subjects, it's pretty obvious within a short period of nosing around what the standard texts are. I also have access to some very knowledgeable individuals whose book recommendations I'd take unquestioningly. I recently decided what Python book to learn from; it wasn't a particularly tricky process, since the consensus on StackExchange and among my friends happened to agree with my own assessment of which books covered the topics I'd need. In my experience, the question "What's the best book to learn X?" usually has one or two clear right answers, and if there's disagreement, then you haven't defined "X" precisely enough. (Occasionally, my favorite textbook is not the standard one, because I'm biased towards simplicity/ease of learning more than most people, so sometimes I have to account for that.)

For pleasure reading, I've developed a pretty fine ability to be sensitive to what I like and only read what I like. I don't find myself mired in crud I don't enjoy. It may make me a bit lopsided (my non-math bookshelf currently contains mostly science fiction) but as long as it's pleasure reading, it ought to be pleasurable, right?

I've kind of refined my internet reading to be in that intermediate place, "good for me in the long run but not immediately goal-oriented." Politics is out -- gives the illusion of learning but I'll never use it down the road. My Google Reader is mostly blogs on technical subjects now -- learning, compressed sensing, that kinda thing. When I'm too tired to think, and I want the internet to soothe my weary brain, I go for a short story or BoingBoing.

I've never really read life-improvement books. I'm don't take advice readily; part of that is just stubbornness, and part is that I suspect that successful people don't usually know why they succeeded, and so they don't know how to tell you how to reproduce it.

Comment author: paulfchristiano 27 March 2011 08:20:34PM 3 points [-]

Rather than deciding independently how much to read and what to read, you might try to read any given book when reading it seems like the best among all possible activities.

Some of the questions you are asking seem like artifacts of fixing a total amount of time to spend reading, which doesn't really make sense unless the act of reading itself is important to you.

Comment author: patrissimo 27 March 2011 08:34:52PM 3 points [-]

Once a prioritization system is set up, it's then trivial to decide whether to read the top book or do something else based on how your estimate of the value of doing so compares to your alternative activities. Without a prioritization system, it doesn't matter whether you have fixed an amount of time or not - there are vastly more books to read than anyone has time in 8,760 hours per year, so you must prioritize.

So prioritization gets you flexible reading time, flexible reading time doesn't get you prioritization, so I don't see how pointing it out is relevant. Prioritization is an independent need. Please explain.

More generally, you seem to be assuming that one can instantly evaluate, without conscious prioritization, what the optimal activity is at any given time. I know that is not even slightly true for me, and I highly doubt it is true for you.

Comment author: paulfchristiano 27 March 2011 08:46:38PM 2 points [-]

My point was that questions like "What is the goal of reading?" don't really arise when optimizing generally, only when optimizing reading.

If I want to improve my performance at some task and reading is the best way to do it then so be it, but its not clear why I would be comparing the benefits of "reading to improve at foo" to the benefits of "reading to make conversation" in particular rather than the benefits of exercise (say).

When I read now it is normally because I have some pressing reason to read a particular book. The things I read (which are typically either very technical or descriptions/analysis of some event or person I am curious about) would not be turned up by trying to prioritize among books.

I do agree that prioritizing books is a useful activity if you spend much time reading, and that thinking about optimization--however you want to slice it up--is generally a good idea. I like your post. I was just offering an observation which I have found helpful (and which has caused me not to spend much time either reading or thinking about which books to read).

Comment author: patrissimo 27 March 2011 09:06:56PM 0 points [-]

I see, that makes sense. I find it easiest to prioritize within a domain like "books", vs. among all possible skill-increasing activities. Also, when it comes to "generally increasing my knowledge / improving my map", that is something that I think it makes sense to allocate a fixed bucket of time to, although one should also compare alternatives like documentaries, blogs, and conversations as ways of doing it.

Comment author: Jolly 28 March 2011 12:14:11AM 2 points [-]

One of the most useful tools I have found to maximize speed of information extraction from books is RSVP technology. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_Serial_Visual_Presentation)

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 28 March 2011 08:03:32AM *  2 points [-]

The video hardware in personal computers got good enough to support RSVP software at least 15 years ago and software has been available on all the major platforms since then, but RSVP has not gathered many adherents.

I gave it a long try, but never learned to overcome the adverse effects of the constant triggering of what the neuroscientists call the orienting response, and I am inclined to think that most people here would have the same problem.

Comment author: D_Malik 30 April 2011 03:34:46AM *  2 points [-]

This is an awesome post. Some thoughts:

  • You can get basically any even slightly popular book for free on the internet. You can use this to compare books before you decide on one to buy. You can get books either through torrents or (more easily) through file-hosting services. For the latter, you can usually find what you're looking for easily by googling the author's name, book title and 'rapidshare'. This is probably illegal.

  • Interest can be a useful heuristic for deciding on books, since it filters out things too far above or below your level.

  • Another heuristic: whenever you read anything, keep in mind that, a year from now, you will almost certainly have forgotten almost all of it except what you put into spaced repetition. I find it ridiculous that so many people, a few years after getting out of school, have barely anything to show for it.

  • Yet another heuristic. Pick a field you like and use, say math. Realize that you will never know all the math there is to know. So whenever you read a book, ask yourself whether you would really prefer to know this over more math.

  • Amazon reviews of books are usually brilliant and show at a glance how well-written and controversial a book is.

  • Perhaps reconsider whether you need to read fiction at all. If everybody else thought immersing yourself in imaginary worlds was some strange perversion, would you still do it?

Comment author: [deleted] 30 April 2011 04:50:08AM 2 points [-]

Perhaps reconsider whether you need to read fiction at all. If everybody else thought immersing yourself in imaginary worlds was some strange perversion, would you still do it?

Perversion? Sounds interesting.

Comment author: ksolez 28 March 2011 03:26:38AM 0 points [-]

For many people overplanning things like which books to read that are usually spontaneous and unplanned is an example of trying to control more aspects of life than is desirable. We need to be free and unfettered in many parts of our lives. There is endless variation possible. For instance if a book is not fun for you, you may persist in reading it all if that fulfills a specific goal for you, or abandon it, or skip to the end etc. depending on the circumstance. Having a list of books to read and having books in front of you you plan to read are both good things, but from that point on anything that happens is fine. Serendipity plays a very positive role in life and trying too hard to organize things that are by nature somewhat disorganized does not enhance the marvelous accidental discoveries of serendipity.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 March 2011 11:26:57AM 2 points [-]

I think you're reacting against the impression that planning one's reading isn't fun. I imagine this is because most of us plan our duties but don't plan our pleasures. I think that you could increase fun by optimizing, though. For example, I've found that book reviews don't work for me, as far as choosing pleasure reading, so I no longer take recommendations from book reviews. That's a very small example of deliberate "optimizing for fun," and it does result in more fun.

Comment author: Cyan 28 March 2011 03:53:52AM 2 points [-]

Shorter ksolez: due to serendipity, the expected utility of planning one's reading is not greater than the expected utility of disorganized reading.

As it stands, this is an unsupported assertion -- as is the opposite assertion. Can anyone think of a quick and easy way to get a bead on the relative expected utility of these two strategies?

Comment author: Strange7 29 March 2011 12:58:37PM 1 point [-]

See if there's anyone who successfully implemented a rigorously prioritized system for reading and then deliberately quit because it wasn't as much fun.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 29 March 2011 03:05:01PM *  0 points [-]

I can tell you with near certainty without doing any (more) experiments that learning new things is one of my main sources of pleasure, and I can say with less certainty but with high confidence (given Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards and other arguments) that spending too much time treating (or even considering) my learning as a means to some other end will significantly reduce my ability to take pleasure in learning and consequently will be counterproductive.

If Patri or anyone else can become more efficient in his learning without significantly reducing his enjoyment of learning, that of course is good and fine. This article however is evidence that Patri wants to go or has gone beyond that. Or so it starts to seem to me.

I am starting to believe that Patri is motivated by status and worldly accomplishment much more than by learning or curiosity, and if Patri is indeed (as this article suggests) forgoing opportunities to take pleasure in learning for the sake of optimizing his increases in status or accomplishment, well, then even though Patri certainly is a fine and commendable young man, that is a mistake (more likely than not, IMHO) since there are some troublesome aspects to the natural human capacity to take pleasure in increases in status (aspects not shared by human curiosity), and making curiosity subservient to the former will tend to strengthen the former at the expense of the latter.

If there is interest, I will expand on these troublesome aspects.

Comment author: patrissimo 29 March 2011 08:47:22PM 7 points [-]

I am starting to believe that Patri is motivated by status and worldly accomplishment much more than by learning or curiosity, and if Patri is indeed (as this article suggests) forgoing opportunities to take pleasure in learning for the sake of optimizing his increases in status or accomplishment, well, then even though Patri certainly is a fine and commendable young man, that is a mistake

Yes, I am indeed attempting to choose my reading based on how it supports my consciously chosen goals, rather than simply the vague non-goal of "learning" or short-term hedonic utility ("pleasure"). There is a name for this - it's called "instrumental rationality", and I'm rather surprised to find an LW commenter calling it a mistake! I thought I could count on it as a shared assumption.

Now, the question of what I'm motivated by & whether that's good is totally separate. I frankly admit that one of my goals is to climb the status ladder, and I can understand why some people might not see that as desirable. On the other hand, I'm again surprised to find "worldly accomplishment" characterized negatively - isn't accomplishing things in the world the point of...everything?

Curiosity is fun for kids, but the world ain't gonna save itself.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 09:42:25PM 0 points [-]

I think his point is that a lot of delusions are high status these days (and probably in any generation, though the high status delusions change from generation to generation), so prioritizing the pursuit of status over knowledge puts you at risk of becoming deluded.

I'm interpreting this:

there are some troublesome aspects to the natural human capacity to take pleasure in increases in status (aspects not shared by human curiosity), and making curiosity subservient to the former will tend to strengthen the former at the expense of the latter.

Since he's reading Less Wrong, he probably is familiar with Robin Hanson, and Robin Hanson frequently writes about high status delusions.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 28 March 2011 06:22:08PM *  -1 points [-]

For any reading that doesn't directly impact my areas of expertise, my selection criterion emphasizes prose quality over almost everything else. To a very great extent, if something is well-written, I don't care what it's about. Well written prose is both easier to read and easier to remember.

A not-very-deep strategy is to follow the prizes. I have never been disappointed by a book that won a Pulitzer Prize.

I deplore the use of tricks like Cliffs Notes and Anki Cards. I don't think that these actually increase comprehension and/or productivity, and they are probably unpleasant to use compared to a well-written book.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 March 2011 07:09:09PM 4 points [-]

Some books deserve "Cliffs notes" treatment, being a relatively simple thesis padded out into a book. This especially true of a lot of the self-help and business literature. I won't hesitate to look for summaries of books which I think contain valuable ideas but which I suspect are mostly padding.

As for Anki cards, these are just flashcards, which you can create yourself after reading a book. My process for reading a book with useful information that I want to retain is to highlight the book while I'm reading, then at the end go back to the highlights and build a summary. I find that it helps me if I write the summary for someone else to read, because that forces me to explain the material and therefore to make sure that I understand it. I do not create Anki cards, but the point is the same: to distill the material in the book to help me to retain as much as possible of what I've read.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 07:18:21PM 1 point [-]


Re: your 1st paragraph. Luckily, Kindle Singles has created a market for this.

Contra Daniel_Burfoot, I love Cliffs Notes. Most books I need to read are not useful to me from beginning to end - I'm usually looking for specific information or an overview of the ideas so that I can use those ideas elsewhere. Cliffs Notes are great for that.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 03:18:57AM 0 points [-]

Some books deserve "Cliffs notes" treatment, being a relatively simple thesis padded out into a book. This especially true of a lot of the self-help and business literature. I won't hesitate to look for summaries of books which I think contain valuable ideas but which I suspect are mostly padding.

Another heuristic in that form: in my experience, books written by journalists often have about as much substance as one long-form article. There are exceptions. Stanley Karnow's Vietnam was the most informative history book I've ever read; but then again, he was an old-school reporter.

Comment author: ksolez 28 March 2011 05:05:42AM *  0 points [-]

drethelin it is an easily solvable formula to determine whether you are right. How many books do you have, how often do you lend them and how many do you lend, how long does it take to read the title of each book, how good is your memory of where books are when randomly distributed? Only if you have a very large number of books or a very poor memory, or both, does it make sense to actually alphabetize etc. On the other hand leisure time activities are personal choice, not everything in life needs to be logical!

Comment author: Sniffnoy 28 March 2011 05:12:38AM 4 points [-]

If you want to reply to another person's comment, you should hit the "reply" button on their comment rather than using the comment box at the end of the entry; otherwise it will be very difficult for anyone to follow the thread.

Comment author: ksolez 28 March 2011 04:47:30AM -1 points [-]

Cyan, you could make an analogy with cataloging and organizing the books you have on your shelves at home. It might make for interesting cocktail party conversation to say you had done that, but it would be of no practical value to you, just a waste of time, an expression of compulsive tendencies.

Comment author: drethelin 28 March 2011 04:50:01AM 1 point [-]

I strongly disagree. If you regularly or even semi regularly want to reread your books or look for quotes/information from them having an organized collection really helps. I regularly like to lend books to people, and this is much much easier ever since I alphabetized.

Comment author: Cyan 28 March 2011 10:56:07AM 0 points [-]

This would have been my response exactly.