Recently, I went on one of my regular visits to one of those bookshops which have racks filled with books which I knew I want but can’t. This is common, to anyone who’s a regular reader, and it’s quite sad: you get a little downhearted because you cannot buy them all. It might not be a matter of monetary cost, but you might not have the time to read them all even if you can buy them. The world is filled with scarce resources, and it’s how mother nature intended the world to be.
In Cosmos (TV series), Carl Sagan visits a library filled with books, and conceptualizes one the most iconic phrases that are applicable to all of us bibliophiles:
“If I finish a book a week, I will read only a few thousand books in my lifetime, about a tenth of a percent of the contents of the greatest libraries of our time. The trick is to know which books to read.” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos
So how exactly do we step out from this conundrum of choosing a book, from these piles of books that you see in a bookshop? Well, it depends. One thing we all have to emphasize to ourselves is that reading is a voluntary task: you can forgo it for something more fun (depends on what you regard as “fun”) and/or adventurous. So we have to understand that it’s not something we have to do, but it’s something that we want to do. Thus, we have to summon all our inner values to choose a book, for what we read are what we are. You can, most of the time, infer a lot about a person from the books that he/she reads. I’ll write some tips and tricks on choosing a book, and you can construct your own what’s and why’s having these concepts as groundwork.
Understand that you cannot read them all.
Before anything else, we have to comprehend reality. As Sagan’s quote, it’s not possible for us to read every book. So we have to make our peace with that. There are certain phenomena we encounter in life which we long for them to last to eternity, but they simply don’t. So when you go to a bookshop or a library, before anything else, make a mental note that you will find what’s best for you, and do not get carried away. What most of us do is that we don’t have a clear-cut intention when we visit the bookstore, and we end up buying something that we don’t adore, not to mention the price that we pay for it. The bookshop I visit has five floors with so many magnificent books. In the beginning, I was bewildered by the vastness. However, with time, I learned the tricks to tame the wandering mind inside the bookstore. The first trick is coming to the realization that I’ll handle this one step at a time.
Find your “Why”.
There’s a popular book by Simon Sinek, called “Start with Why” which attracted a lot of attention when it was published (and it continues to do the same today). We’ve been living our busy lives for a long time, and we have attuned to a mundane, ordinary and unchanging lifestyle that we don’t care to ponder on little details happening inside it. Sinek emphasizes the importance of why we do what we do, which we pay a little attention, and he heightens the fact that it is the most important to a successful life.
So before we move on to buying books to read, we need to sit down, relax and understand why we’re going to read whatever we buy. In my experience, the why of reading either can be specific and granular, or very abstract. It depends on the situation. For example, if you’re studying, say for an exam, the purpose is more specific: to pass the exam. Its consequences are mostly short term (you can make them long term). We tend to go back to those books when we lose the touch of the principles and theories they elaborate. In contrast, what we learn from categories such as biographies and non-fiction tend to stick with us for a long time. There are a lot of life lessons to pick up from these biographies and if you heed them, they tend to stick with us throughout.
In my experience, what happens is we figure out this why after we go to the bookstore and check the books out. This approach led me to buy the books on a sudden impulse which I thought would be interesting but eventually turned out to be the opposite. This is because our minds can be swayed by the vastness, and the fact that any book cannot be judged by its cover.
It’s better to find your why before going to the store. How do you find your why? It’s the reason that you decided to buy a book in the first place. Sometimes, the feeling cannot be articulated, and that’s where you need to be extra cautious. We, avid readers, have this insatiable desire to buy books: and it’s good: it’s what makes us unique. But I guess it can be fined-grained if we figure out the why of doing things. For example, say that I get a sudden desire to buy a book: What I do is to reflect or reminisce the past few weeks. If I’ve struggled in an academic problem, I’d know that I need knowledge more about academia and that’s what I need to focus on. If I feel that I had a tough week, I’d go for a book more relaxing: it can be either fiction or non-fiction, it depends on your preference. If I have a tough week ahead, I’d go to a biography of inspiring people who “put a dent in the universe”.
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.” — Vincent Carlos (Linkedin Top Voice)
But here’s the rub: what happened to us in the past few weeks might be obsolete in another week’s time. So it’s important for you to filter out the facts which are likely to become obsolete. Generally, it’s better to invest in books that provide you with long-term benefits, based on your recurring reminiscences. You have to understand that personal reflection is a must, and it shouldn’t be avoided: but it should be done carefully. How each of us lives our lives are different. So have an idea of what you’re going to buy before going to the store. For those who are starting their reading habits: figure out why you’ve started reading in the first place. Spend a little time on this, and you’ll figure out why.
Choose your Genre: but you don’t have to.
I know many avid readers. I know people who have completed the “50 books per a year” challenge. Every one of them has a preference of genre: some like non-fiction (like me) and biographies, and some are into novels. But their preferences don’t refrain them from reading other genres. Each genre has its own pros and cons: for example, a person who adores novels might not get to know about life-experiences of the great people who lived in days of yore. On the other hand, nerdy people like me might not get to feel the aesthetics of a classic or the thrill of fighting with a fiery chasm of a dragon.
It’s always the balance that we need to look for, because we can heed a lot from every genre. Most of the avid readers I’ve met have a preference but they read other genres as well. We can’t get rid of the temptation of having favorites: but what we need to understand is that the person who wins the world and inspires us is not the dilettante, but the polymath.
Discern the time you have.
When it comes to time, there’s a line in Lord of the Rings, which for anyone us, is so familiar.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Tolkien could not have emphasized the importance of time any more than he did in his books. Every one of us endures a busy schedule, and it’s very hard to find a timeslot to carry out investments for the future. In my case, I get up at 5 AM, leave home at 6, and take a 1.5-hour bus ride to work. I leave work at 6–6:30 PM (for now), and the bus ride stretches up to a 2-hour one, and it’s a tiring ride, amidst the intense traffic. We all work hard, but we need to find time to work for ourselves.
One stirring fact about the technological revolution is that it has been able to find solutions to most of our problems (albeit introducing a lot more). So, through the feats of technology, I was able to utilize my time a little more effectively. I switched to audiobooks. Thus, if you’re having a tight schedule and running a busy life, it’s time for you to consider the medium of books which you consume. If you’re in a bookshop, and you have a little time to read, it’s better to invest that in a more realistic alternative such as audiobooks or e-books (Kindle is a good alternative). Deciding on which medium you choose is a feat you need to carry out through experimentation. Do not spend time reading something you don’t like.
All life is an experiment: the more you make, the better. — Ralph Emerson
Discern your spending limits.
We’re not born with a tree-of-money beside us: we all work hard to gain what we want. So it’s our responsibility to spend with limits. When it comes to buying books, there are some tricks you can follow so that you make the most out of what you spend. I’ll list them here, but these are my experiences: you might have your own. You can always add them to this list.
- There are different forms of the same book. You have hardcover books, paperbacks, and books with different types of paper, and different types of prints. They vary with the quality and material that the publishers put in. Publishers target different types of audience, that’s mainly why there are different types of books. The cheaper ones are the paperbacks without fancy color-images. I recently bought Walter Issaccson’s Da Vinci, (the biography)for $17 where I later found that my friend had bought it just for $5 from Big Bad Wolf. The book that I bought had color images and good quality paper but I didn’t want those fancy features: I just wanted the content. Thus, figure out your needs and stay aware of fairs such as Big Bad Wolf. In bookshops, they have many of the variants of the same book. It’s your responsibility to buy the one that suits you, and avoid paying more than you need.
- Find out where the Bargain Stores are. In bargain stores, they sell already-used books for a lower price. Again, it doesn’t suit you if you need fresh books with fresh images: but if you’re more involved with the content (which I recommend you to be), bargain bookstores are heaven for you.
- Understand that when an author writes a book if the author is a recognized, and proficient one, it’s likely that a lot of research had gone in prior to writing a book. Therefore, the author deserves credit and a small price for his/her costs. Therefore, get rid of the mentality that the books cost too much. “Everything comes with a price. Everything. Some things just cost more than others.”
Reading requires both effort and will.
I know some people who are afraid of books: they regard books as if they’re capable of “great demotions”. And many others regard books as useless waste. Many of these thoughts arise because they don’t comprehend the fact that the human mind cannot grasp every little detail of a book. But that’s how books are intended to be! You have to make notes and re-read. It’s just how it works.
Another fact is people get scared of the sheer volume (number of pages) of a book, or the use of language. What we have to understand is, as I’ve said before, that reading is a voluntary task. Nobody asks whether how many pages you’ve read. We have to understand the fact that reading is an investment that we commit to ourselves. It is okay to take it slow.
Whatever you buy, do not come out emptyhanded.
It’s infinite times better to come out from the bookstore with a book in your hand rather than coming out without one. I have pointed out some tips and advice on picking up the right books and you may have other points to add to the list. But DO NOT come out emptyhanded. A book which is half-read is better than a book which is not read at all. But always try to attach a meaning to the books you buy. Buy books that you can heed from and put the heeded concepts to practice. It might not be possible in the short-term, but in the long-term, it can benefit you immensely.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
― Mother Theresa