I have a few rules for choosing non-fiction books: I won’t read a book promising to reveal the “insider secrets” of an organisation or field. (The author only knows 1 per cent of the secrets, and they’ll oversell them.) If I find a book too broad or challenging, I go down a reading level — or even find a comic book version with a reliable co-author. And I don’t commit the way I do to fiction — sometimes I only need to read one chapter.
Programmer Herman Schaaf has his own quality filters when he picks non-fiction books: Look for an author who’s an expert in the specific subject matter, a Goodreads rating above 4, and a title that doesn’t include the word “surprising.”
While I take issue with the specifics he lays out for all three rules (journalists can be experts! Goodreads ratings are a sign of marketing, not a good book!), I’m with him in principle. There are a lot of bullshit books, and they don’t have a big label on the cover saying “this is bullshit, please ignore,” so you need to form some kind of rubric for figuring out what’s worth your time.
The Great Gatsby is overrated. It’s a good book! A great book! It’s just not the very best book ever, especially not the best book to teach teenagers about the power of literature. If it were, then teens wouldn’t celebrate the glamour that the book tries to deconstruct. But it’s stuck in the high school literary canon, along with Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. And at this point it seems like the main reason it’s taught to every high schooler is because it was taught to all the teachers, and no one’s bothered to check if it’s still the best choice.
“The quickest way I rule out health/medical books is to see if the author is a doctor in a totally different specialty than the subject of the book,” says Lifehacker health editor Beth Skwarecki. “You’d be surprised how many books are Your Thyroid Is Causing All of Your Problems by so-and-so MD, specialist in a field that has nothing to do with your thyroid. They think because they’re a doctor and they’re smart that they understand everything, so they get one idea about the human body and don’t have the info to fact check it.”
Since she reads so deeply into the health beat, Beth recognises authors from their other work, including articles and research papers, so that’s her second rule of thumb. For the rest of us, that could mean looking for books by the authors of our favourite articles, or finding authors who have bylines in particularly respected outlets like the New Yorker.
Lifehacker’s social media editor Tim Mulkerin has a very specific version of Beth’s rule: “My rule is to pick books by Mary Roach. She writes how I wish I wrote.”
Book rules can be highly personal — I’ve sworn off all “business books” and overly specific-yet-broad books like “the history of spoons” — and they should always be subject to the grand rule, “read books that you like.” But now we’re ready to hear yours, and whether you learned your rule the hard way.