The other day, my friend Matt asked me how I discovered good books and how I chose what to read. Here are some thoughts:
If I really love an author, I tend to read whatever else that author has written. I especially love authors that write across several very different fields to create a unified picture of the world. For example, I discovered Thomas Sowell reading his columns in my local newspaper. I liked reading him so much that I have read over 15 of his books. Each new book was like adding a puzzle peice to the unified picture that author was creating. I use this same strategy for college courses. If I really love a teacher, I tend to sign up for whatever they are teaching.
Sometimes I find good books through videos. If I find great TED talk for example that really makes me think, I look for other videos from that speaker. After a few really great videos, I will often buy their books. When I first saw Bjorn Lomborg's TED talk, I looked for other videos about him. Then, I purchased his book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming which I very much enjoyed. I did the same thing after I watched one of Steven Pinker's TED talks. I now have 3 of his books. Milton Friedman is another great speaker with whose online videos persuaded me open my wallet. I have since purchased 4 books by Milton Friedman among which is Capitalism and Freedom which I highly recommend.
Sometimes my professors will recommend or require books to read. In my econ 110 course my professor Jim Kearl introduced us to "Armchair Economist: Economics & Everyday Life" by Steven Landsburg. I now have 3 of Landsburg's books on economics. In one of my philosophy courses, we read 2 essays by the philosopher John Searle. After reading those articles, I have ended up reading over 15 books written by or about John Searle. Like Thomas Sowell, I love reading Searle because his breadth is so broad and he ties everything he writes about from the mind, to language, to society into one unified picture of reality.
Recommendations or gifts from friends are always great. I remember my friend Andrew Cottle saying, "You have got to listen to this" when he gave me the audiobook "Atlas Shrugged" which I enjoyed. My cousin's husband Chris Williams gave me "Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg for Christmas and I very much enjoyed that book and I now listen to the author's podcast. My close friend Scott has recommended some great books including "The Theory of the Leisure class".
Sometimes I books because I attended a lecture from a specific author. When Arthur Brooks came to speak at BYU for a devotional, he talked about his book, "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism". It presented an interesting narrative of charity in America that I also bought "Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It."
One strategy for finding books is to not feel obligated to finish the ones we are currently reading. I like this quote by Tyler Cowen who said, “We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels. Many readers have the urge to finish whatever they start. This urge is non-productive. People have this innate view — it comes from friendship and marriage — that commitment is good. That view shouldn’t," he says, "carry over to inanimate objects.” If we find that the book we are reading is uninteresting or has low relative value, we should immediately stop and read something else. What we have read is a sunk cost as they say in economics. We should begin reading with the question, "Is this the best available thing in the world that I could be reading right now?" It is okay to start a lot of books and not finish most of them.