0518 – refactoring my personal library

So it’s the second day of the new year, and it’s a weekend, and so far so good. I hit the gym, did some squats. Didn’t go past my PR– maybe I could’ve, but I felt like it was more important to focus on getting the form right so I dropped the weights and did that. Will probably be doing more of that.

I spent some nice time with the wife watching Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars getting Coffee, which we’re really enjoying. I also went through a bunch of my books. One of the things I want to do this year is to really start getting to know the books on my bookshelf better. Spend a little time with each one, figure out which are worth getting to know better. Even the lousy books often tend to have something in them that’s worth teasing out– a few good quotes or references, maybe.

I found a business book that I found to be… “stock”? It said all the good things that you expect in a business book, but somehow it felt like it didn’t quite… “click”. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it’s the problem with a lot of mediocre content out there. A book is less mediocre than a blogpost because it invests in some amount of scope, and there’s noticeable editorial effort put into it. But I don’t know, I feel like it was just doing a particularly good job of talking through basic concepts and ideas that everybody already understands. And to be fair, simply implementing the most basic principles better is enough for anybody to gain a competitive advantage over most people – but how do you do that? How do you get around to internalizing everything that is in the textbook?

That might be precisely it. It was a business textbook, but with seemingly inspiring stories (which I’ve grown to be very skeptical of) thrown in. Whenever I hear a story that sounds a little too nice and good, I have to be a little wary. Real success is usually a lot messier than the stories told about them, and often I think the most critical things really tend to be in the messy stuff that gets left out. I don’t know, maybe I’m just sour grapes or something. But I don’t know. It wasn’t really doing anything for me, and I decided to move on from there.

I’ve also re-discovered a few books that might be more interesting, useful and relevant to me than I had previously recognized. It’s a little more nuanced than what I’ve just said. I obviously got the books because I thought they were a good idea– many of them were bought at a library book sale, without too much examination. If it seemed to fit my general scope of interests (which is pretty broad), I’d throw it into the “buy” pile– they were all $2 each anyway. But then I never really got around to reading most of the books. I would occasionally pick one out and get started, and some of the times I found stuff that was really really good. The User Illusion was one. Balzac’s Lost Illusions was another (and I read that one because another author I liked recommended it). The Nurture Assumption I read because of a recommendation. Some biographies here and there, those are pretty easy because I’m interested in the people (Carl Sagan, Steve Wozniak. I still haven’t gotten through Linus Pauling, maybe because I don’t have enough context about why he’s interesting. I think I’d be more eager to read Peter Drucker’s book than Linus Pauling at this point.)

So the plan is to keep going through the books and to at least get a sense of what each book is really about. To spend 10-15 minutes figuring out whether or not it’s a good fit for me, whether it’s going to be useful to me in some way or another. Idealistically it would be nice to read everything, but realistically I can only read limited number of books in my lifetime so I have to prioritize great books over good books.

I notice that there are certain clusters that pop up. I have a whole bunch of books about the basic sciences– maths, physics, chemistry, biology. Things like how we discovered the brain, evolution, genetics, cells, light. I have a bunch of books about consciousness, technology and the interplay between the two. I have books about language, words, linguistics, writing. I have books about democracy, politics, power, history. Then I have self-help books about managing yourself, transforming yourself, self-esteem, dealing with misery. And there are some business books– pursuit of excellence, good to great, etc. There are some pop-psych and pop-econs books– freakonomics and so on. Books about thinking. There are also more esoteric books like “how to manage uncertainty in complex systems”, “heidegger’s analytics”, etc. Some stuff about philosophy (which I’m actually not all that interested in any more, at least right now). And then there’s a bunch of fiction– there are the scary classics (Lolita, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Infinite Jest, etc) and there are a bunch of contemporary things in there too that I haven’t really looked at more closely.

What are my thoughts about all of this? I think… I think actually I have been wanting to get some new books to explore, but I’ve been feeling really guilty about that because I’ve basically filled my bookshelves to the brim. And the problem is that I’m not sufficiently clear about what each book is in the bookshelf for. If I knew, then I’d be able to sort and/or prioritize them as appopriate and see where things fit, and whether or not it actually makes sense to get any new books. So I’ve been sort of “deadlocked” in my information consumption because I haven’t gone over my existing collection thoroughly enough.

So the hope is this– with some minimal effort going through each book, I will get a sense of what I’m most excited about reading. If there are books that I don’t think I’m ever gonna read, I can let them go. And if there’s a book I’m more excited to read than my top 10-15 highest priority reads, then I can buy it without any guilt. Yay books!

I also just want to quickly remind myself that I actually really did enjoy spending time holed up in my study, with the air conditioning on and the sunlight coming through, just sitting around poring through books. It’s a cheap pleasure that I’ve been neglecting. Not this year!

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