I used to believe that every book has an objective value. And I used to believe that this value is fixed and universal.
Now, I believe it’s much more useful to say something in this form: this book has this value to this person in this context.
For example, Mindset by Carol Dweck was life changing to me when I read it in 2016.
The “me” part is important because I grew up thinking that intelligence is fixed and my skill in each activity I tried was based on talent and was fixed. So I thought I should to do the things I had a knack for, and I thought that the things I found difficult would stay difficult. Learning about a growth mindset was extremely valuable to me.
The 2016 part - the context - was also important. I’d just spent the last three years working at the Recurse Center, a place and community suffused with the idea that people can grow. I was primed for these ideas.
A second example. Around ten years ago I read You and your research by Richard Hamming. This is an essay by a mathematician who did ground-breaking research into telecommunications. He relates this anecdote:
I had been eating for some years with the Physics table at the Bell Telephone Laboratories restaurant…Fame, promotion and hiring by other companies ruined the average quality of the people so I shifted to the Chemistry table in another corner of the restaurant. I began by asking what the important problems were in chemistry, then later what important problems they were working on, and finally one day said, “If what you are working on is not important and not likely to lead to important things, then why are you working on it?” After that, I was not welcome and had to shift to eating with the Engineers.
I read that ten years ago without effect. I read it again a couple of years ago and it led me to the work I’ve been doing for the last three years. The same text and the same reader. A completely different outcome.
I think what changed is my context. Ten years ago, if I’d even tried to work on foundational problems in my field - programming - I’d just have kind of paddled around and had no idea how to make progress. I didn’t have the knowledge of the history of computing or programming to be able to make any kind of headway. In 2021, I did, because I’d accrued it.
The idea that a book’s value is best judged alongside the notional reader and their current context has some corollaries:
First, reading the books that your heroes cite as important will not necessarily be rewarding. If you admire Bret Victor for his work on computing interfaces, only some of his library will be high value to you because his library also includes lots of books that have nothing to do with UI.
Second, yes, it’s likely that “great books” may be high value in some more universal sense that is independent of reader and context. And, yes, this high value may come from something inherent in the quality of the books, rather than from the fact that they are about themes that are more relevant to more people. Yes, I probably wouldn’t dispute this. But I suspect that relevance to person and context is a better guide to what to read.
Third, book recommendation systems based on your reading history can be helpful, but only so much. You, now, are not represented by your reading history. You’ve changed. Making recommendations based on books you read twenty years ago might produce good books for you, now. But probably not.
What aspects of me and my context affect the value of a book?
First, what are my fantasies? Some of my friends have sci-fi fantasies. They love the idea of living on a space ship and landing on planets and fighting aliens and using advanced technology and all that bilge. That fantasy life appeals to them. Whereas I love the world of P.G. Wodehouse. The gentleman’s life, the flitting from manor to manor, the purloining of cow creamers to avoid the homicidal fellow guest. I don’t think either world is any more rich or meaningful or worthwhile than the other. It’s just personal taste.
Second, what is new to me? A while ago, I started reading The Little Kingdom. It’s a book about the early history of Apple. But I put it aside quickly. It wasn’t a bad book. I just already knew everything in it because I’ve read many other histories of Apple. This same thing can happen when coming much later to a book that was ahead of its time. It can seem like old hat because it’s already part of your cultural context.
Third, what am I ready for? I’m trying to get better at graphic design. I recently read a book about grid systems. It was pretty good. But I’m not really ready for that level of depth, so the book wasn’t very high value to me. This type of context is perhaps the most powerful. It was what was missing with Hamming and present with Dweck. I think it’s the main difference between learning slowly and learning quickly. Vygotsky called it the Zone of Proximal Development. One of my programming students at Makers, Jasper, a skateboarder, called it the Goldilocks Zone.
Fourth, what am I doing right now? I have a book on my shelves called Game Feel that is about making video games that feel physically good to play. I’m really excited to read it. But I’m holding off because I’m not currently making a game where the focus is on a good feel. If I read it at the moment, I’d retain and adopt a lot less of it than if I were to wait for when I can apply it.
These things helps me make better choices. There is another set of techniques that help me make a book as good as it can be for me, now:
First, skipping sections that aren’t good. This is tricky. Reading is a place. The more you skip, the more it becomes browsing. And browsing is not a place. You want to be in the place.
Second, dropping books that aren’t good. I find this hard because I feel good about finishing lots of books. But dropping bad books means I will be able to read so many more good books in my lifetime. When I drop a book, I try to say, “it’s not me. It’s not the book. It’s just not the book for me, now.” Even this is hard. Not getting very much out of Anna Karenina, supposedly one of the aesthetic and emotional heights of human expression and experience, doesn’t feel great. But, that’s the way it goes.
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