There’s a lot out there teaching people how to read. “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” “How to Read Like a Writer.” I’m neither of those things, and I don’t plan on becoming either of them. What I am, is a cheapskate, who through procrastination or intense periods of work caused by procrastination, often has less leisure time than I would like. Here are some tips I have on reading non-fiction efficiently, and cheaply. And no, no gimmicks like speed reading or listening to an audio book while asleep from salvia.
Selecting a Book.
The important determinant of efficient reading is picking the right type of book to read. Reading is an investment that requires a use of your time and energy, both of which are finite. So picking the right books and avoiding the wrong ones is a large part of reading efficiently.
Unfortunately, since publishers want you to buy their books, they all do a decent job of marketing them, ensuring they have punchy titles, nice reviews, and shiny covers. Since these are all relatively cheap things to do, it is difficult to use superficial signals to separate out the lemons. But here are a few rules of thumb that I’ve found helpful.
The first step is to figure out the depth of knowledge that you want to learn. I want to make clear that the following discussion of deep and shallow are not judge-y, there’s often good reasons to read shallow books. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to grasp the basics first. There’s also an inherent trade-off, between depth and width. The more shallow the book i.e. the less detail, the wider the scope of coverage. That could work well for a reader just starting out in an area, or someone more interested in broader trends. Of course, the trade-off is that a broader book has to skip a lot of detail, and rely on generalizations and simplifications. Those generalizations could be questionable, made off of a few visceral but non-representative examples. Those simplifications may be subject to qualification, or even debunkment.
But once the depth is determined, the next step is look at the authors of the books. In my experience, you can tell how deep the book will be based almost entirely on the type of author.
There are your popular writers, including journalists, podcast narrators, and non-fiction popularizers (popular science and popular history for example). These writers will generally write very readable books, but it’ll mostly be based on secondary sources, meaning that the author has normally not done original research on the matter. Again, this can be useful for someone who’s seeking exposure or scope, since someone is gathering a variety of sources for you to read. But often the material might be slightly outdated, since it takes time for ideas to become adopted, and the popular author may also be working off of other popular authors.
On the opposite end are academics writers, who devote their careers to particular niche subjects. There will be original research, and cutting edge theory and work. But the trade-off is that, typically, academics write for each other and, as a result, assume a working knowledge of certain assumptions and vocabulary that the average reader is clueless about.
The small caveat to this generalization is that occasionally once, an academic has made tenure and wishes to cash out (or having a difficult time acquiring tenure in the traditional matter of niche-scholarly research), he or she will write instead for a popular audience. These books fall somewhere between the two ends I’ve described and can generally be distinguished from for-other-academics work by the publisher. Academics trying to reach out to a broader audience will use more general presses/publishers, while for-other-academics books will ordinarily be published by a press associated with a university.
Beyond those ideas, there’s a few other markers of quality. Reviews on the book itself can be tricky. They are sometimes written by other authors trying to promote their own work. You can tell this is the case if the review lists the reviewer, followed by the reviewer’s most recent work. There is back scratching as well: you give me a good review and I give you one back. It takes some time to have an idea of who is in whose networks. Or worse, publishers occasionally will excerpt reviews by leaving out the criticisms from the reviewer by cobbling together what appears to be a laudatory review. (“No, I will not date you, you are too short” becomes “I will . . . date you, you are too [tall]”).
Actually, if one is looking for approval from authorities, the better place to look is the Acknowledgments section. There’s an implication for those acknowledged that they 1) actually read the work (which isn’t a guarantee for reviews, sadly) but also 2) are associating their name/reputation more closely to the book than a mere reviewer is doing. Once you are comfortable enough in a particular field to recognize the big names in that field, reading the Acknowledgements can be very useful because at least you have some comfort that the author’s ideas have been put forth, and, to some degree have been vetted by other experts in the field.
Another quick rule of thumb is to look at the citations. This is a good way to make sure that the author has actually done his homework and reviewed the field before clacking away (one thing I’ve concluded from reading is that, much like 12-year old atheists, many original thinkers are less brilliant and more ignorant of classical traditions). Looking at citations is also a good way to find new books and recommendations: if the same few books are cited over and over, chances are that those are excellent books. And if a book on a subject does not cite these excellent books at all, that should be a red flag.
Finally, a random pet peeve. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to particular works, not an author’s body of work. It always rubs me the wrong way when a book says, “Pulitzer Prize” when the author actually won the prize for another book, or has Pulitzer Prize under the author’s name. Why wouldn’t I just want to read the book that actually won the prize? And it feels like the publisher is trying to trick me into reading the book at hand, which is always a bad way to start.
A big part of book pricing is price discrimination. Price discrimination is a term of art in economics, it has a specialized meaning that is different from what one might think it ordinarily means. Discrimination, rightfully, has strong connotations, but price discrimination is less insidious than the social discriminations that come to our mind.
Everyone has a dollar amount they are willing to pay, but the seller can’t know that amount exactly. Sellers can only guess it, and offer a price. If the customer’s valuation is lower than the price, they walk. If the customer’s valuation is higher than the price, they buy. The difference between the customer’s valuation and the price is called consumer surplus. Sellers don’t like seeing too much consumer surplus, which is money left on the table for them, so they charge people different prices to try to get as many sales at as close to the customer’s valuation as possible. Charging different people different prices, because they have different internal valuation, is called price discrimination.
The major way this applies to book prices is what is called second-degree price discrimination or versioning. By creating slightly different products with different prices, the book seller manages to price discriminate between different customers more efficiently. The versions of course are hardcover, softcover, and e-books. But there is another dimension to the price discrimination: that of time. Price discriminating on this dimension, the book seller usually uses market skimming which means setting a high price and letting it fall over time, so that the more impatient readers pay more. The upshot is, if you want to just read the book and don’t particularly care about hardcover or softcover, don’t buy the hardcover immediately when it comes out. Rather, wait some time, and if the publisher expects a wide enough audience, they will issue a cheaper soft cover.
One qualifier is that there are actually situations where the hardcover is cheaper than the softcover if there are remainders. Remainders occur when a publisher overestimates the demand, prints an excess of the books, and would rather get rid of them for anything than have them sit for nothing. Remainders are a great way to get books at a great price, and generally show up at used book stores with a marker dot on the bottom pages.
So if it’s a popular book or is expected to have a wide readership, there really is no reason to buy the book immediately. Wait for the cheaper soft covers, or even wait for the remainders.
This general rule of thumb doesn’t apply to certain academic works. Some works are expected to be only read by a few, so the total number of printed works is low, and there’s unlikely to be a reprint. In that situation, waiting can only increase the price, as the press runs out of books to sell and people hold on to their copies. Unfortunately, these books often come with a heftier price tag than popular books, as the publishers know that the typical buyer is normally a library, or a specialist who is less fickle than the average reader; and in either situation, the buyer will shell out more for the book than the average reader ever would.
This situation is unbearable for a cheapskate like me. But there’s some relief. Normally these academic books are printed well and can last a long time. They often show up for much cheaper used (but they hold their value surprisingly well, especially if the book becomes well received). With the advent of the internet, there’s plenty of useful sites for comparing prices and scrapping the internet (the discovery costs have decreased with technology). Camelcamelcamel shows prices of books on Amazon overtime (separating out used, and new). Bookfinder and Dealoz scrape the internet for the best prices. The issue with buying used online books is that often sellers have varying beliefs on what is good condition. One pet peeve is when the seller fails to mention that the book used to be a library book, complete with stamps and difficult-to-remove stickers. That’s why I prefer to go to used bookstores and just check the conditions myself before buying. The trade-off is that it then requires the maintenance of a wish-list (I use Goodreads or Librarything) since used bookstores rarely have a searchable catalog and books tend to show up somewhat randomly and unpredictably in those stores.
I hope this article has been useful, and I’m always happy to pick up more tricks myself, so please comment and we can all be more efficient and cheap together.