On the Interestingness and Usefulness of Books

tags: books

I’m reading more now than at any time in my life. I set a 2014 goal of one book per week (52 in all), and as of the second week in November, I’m at 58.

Additionally, I’ve been keeping track of my reading at Goodreads, and I try to write a short review of each book when I finish it. This has the effect of forcing me to think critically about each book and what I might have gained from it.

More and more, I’m encountering a phenomenon where a book is “interesting but not useful.” These are books that are very entertaining, and that I enjoy reading, but that don’t stay with me in any meaningful sense.

This has laid bare the fact that I read for two reasons:

  1. fun
  2. education

I enjoy the process of reading – working through new chapters of 2-3 books each morning over coffee is truly one of the great joys of my life. But I also enjoy the legacy of reading, which is the hope that reading a book makes me a better person in some way – that it leaves “footprints” on my life, and develops me mentally and emotionally.

The best books are both “interesting and useful.” These are books which you love to read, and that educate you at the same time. I thinking now of Where Good Ideas Come From and The Innovators and Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea – three books I couldn’t wait to read every morning, and that have extended me as a person. I refer back to ideas and concepts from both books often.

Books that are “interesting but not useful” are books that are fun to read, but have no lasting impact on your life. Malcolm Gladwell is famous for this. He writes books which are essentially collections of fascinating anecdotes wrapped around some flimsy premise that ostensibly ties them all together (but which usually doesn’t). I love to read Gladwell, but he doesn’t effectively make a case for anything, and I can’t say I come away from any of his books better educated than when I started.

Right now, I’m reading The 20% Doctrine, which is about the idea of “20% projects” as a source of innovation. It’s a collection of business stories which ostensibly prove that 20% projects can be a source for great ideas. The stories are great – for example, the last chapter was about the Off the Bus project that HuffPo did for the 2008 campaign. But can I draw any larger premise out of it? Is there a lesson to be learned? Can I say I’m better off for having read it? …. No, sadly, I really can’t.

Can a book be “useful but not interesting”? Maybe a textbook or something else that’s extremely information-dense. Perhaps we don’t enjoy reading it, but we learn a lot. However, for me, learning a lot makes me enjoy it, so this would be a harder sell. (There are, however, books which are so dense that I get frustrated because I find the topic entertaining, but there’s just so much information to absorb that I can’t take it all in.)

How about fiction? Can it be both? Mostly, fiction is about entertainment (interest), but it can be useful. Historical fiction, for instance, can teach you a lot about how the world works. So-called philosophical fiction can make you think about the world in new ways (sadly, I abandoned Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a quarter of the way through).

Additionally, fiction can give you points of cultural reference that you might not have otherwise. I’ve gotten through five of the seven Harry Potter novels, both because they’re fun reads, but they’re also cultural touchstones of the last decade-and-a-half. I can’t count the number of references to Harry Potter that I notice now which I wouldn’t have before (“Ten points to Gryffindor!”).

I’m currently reading War and Peace. I’ve actually gotten into the story quite a bit (which surprised me), but it’s manifesting other benefits as well. It forced me to research the Napoleonic era and the things Napoleon did in Russia just after the turn of the 19th century. Additionally, it’s introduced me to the vagaries of Russian naming, which is critical to understanding all the characters, and I’m beginning to understand the social protocols of a bygone era, which are considerable (and seemingly arbitrary). I’m looking forward to the second half of the book (I’m precisely at 50% right now) when I’m told that Tolstoy expounds on several philosophical concepts about war and life.

So, is “interesting but not useful” all bad? I don’t know. Obviously, I’d rather have both interesting and useful, but perhaps the former category is useful, but just over a longer term. I absorb something from everything, and perhaps these books resonate later in my life in various ways. Perhaps I absorb small things that bounce around in my head and come out somewhere down the line, in some morphed form, when combined with other ideas.

Without a clear answer, the only reasonable strategy is to read as much as possible, of all types of books, at all times. That’s a burden I’m happy to live with.

(And before anyone complains about the title – I checked, and both “interestingness” and “usefulness” are legit words, even if my spellchecker disagrees. Wikipedia even has a page on interestingness discussing how the concept is not a valid measure for if something gets page on the site.)

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