I recently asked Twitter for help deciding what book to read next. It was more of a meta-question, actually: I wanted to know how people generally approach this problem.
Many people responded. Their recommendations can be sorted into 6 approaches:
Comparative: read the easiest, or shortest, or the one with the highest Goodreads rating.
Interpersonal: read the book most aggressively recommended by your friends.
Edifying: read the book most obviously on your personal syllabus, most likely to answer a key question of yours, most inspiring, or most relevant to world-historical events.
Vibes-based: read the first page of several books and see which hooks you, or read the first and last page to decide (this struck me as heinous).
Specific: some partisans called for ignoring the list, in favor of Stoner by John Edward Williams, or Blood and Ruin: the Last Imperial War, 1939-45 by Richard Overy.
Chaos: throw them into the air and reading the one that strikes your head, throw darts at the books, or utilize augury.
But the most common advice was 7. Start them all. A representative argument from Chris:
Chris claims “if you're ‘completing’ more than 5% of the books you start, you're not getting distracted enough.” This is a problem: I am completing far more than 5% of books I start. Moreover, I have an instinctive aversion to leaving books unread: it feels crude and unreconstructed. I don’t like admitting that I couldn’t get through something, or (worse) that I got 100 pages in before realizing something wasn’t very good.
However, maybe this is an unwise fixation, borne out of cataloguing finished books on Goodreads (and competing in their yearly Reading Challenge). It’s true that tracking my completed books over the last 3 years has directly caused me to read more books. But by metricizing reading in this way, am I falling prey to a high-modernist and extractive mode of engagement? Is tracking books on Goodreads, like runs on Strava or calories on a macros app, pulling me away from true engagement with the text and toward reading as performance?
I’m not sure that the alternative approach better avoids this pitfall. Tyler Cowen claims to read 200 books a year, is open about the fact that he skims shamelessly, and certainly seems to derive insight from his approach. But it seems like regular incompletes risk the same kind of problem: treating reading as a process in knowledge extraction. One risks losing the joy of reading entirely. Of course, it depends on why a book is aversive: an ungainly academic text is different from a badly written pop-science bestseller, which is different from a slow burning novel of manners. Being so interested in the world that one is constantly pulled to new books is also a valid excuse. But I still feel one owes a kind of debt to a book one thinks is good, even if it proves a slog.
On that note:
Recently read, old to new
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq.
Having only read his Submission, I did not realize Houellebecq was this funny. Vicious, at times shockingly grotesque, quite sad, but hilarious. It’s about being scared of becoming your dad, but your dad is a nihilist Frenchman, old, and very drunk.
A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Fermor, whose most famous books are about walking across the entirety of continental Europe at age 19, is the rather surprising author of this short set of essays about going to monasteries and staying in them for long periods of time. They’re quite lovely meditations, but too brief.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger. Jünger came highly recommended by both friends and online figures, and he didn’t disappoint. Steel is famous for being the World War I memoir/novel from someone who enjoyed the war. I’ve heard it referenced as the epitome of a Germanic or proto-fascist love for mechanized bloodshed that foretold the Nazi war machine. After reading, I’m not sure it deserves that reputation. Jünger is serious about martial virtues (although the Penguin Classics edition removes some of his highest praise for the German soldier). Multiple manners of being noble in war appear: there’s a noble, chin-up attitude alongside regular encounters with raw terror. Most of his reputation for loving war seems to come from his acceptance of risk: Jünger regularly sunbathes in range of enemy artillery, conducts a series of ridiculous raids, and is shot fourteen times. But he describes his habit of risk acceptance as an attempt to conduct himself in a way that’s increasingly impossible over the course of the war, to practice knightly virtues in a war of mass attrition. Despite the deadpan tone, Jünger is horrified by the slaughter he encounters. But he does get a kick out of the sunbathing.
The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism by Nick Land. Here’s one I will likely put down. Land is always interesting, but teeters on the edge of unreadability here. But it probably doesn’t help that I’ve never read Bataille.
Lastly, some books for a seminar at the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto last month, but will save them for another time.
William Petty said this about Robert Boyle’s well known reading habits (paraphrased): “the man reads 12 hours a day ... but I think one can learn more from their own thought than from tracing the cobwebs of others.”
Boyle was also a lot smarter and more successful than Petty, but Petty started his life as a fur hat salesman and his grandson became prime minister of England.
Read until you have to get up and think, think until you have to sit down and read. That’s what I say!! - BHK
Some great thoughts in here. I'm on Goodreads too and follow some Booktubers (on Youtube) and some Booktok people (on tiktok) and there is often an emphasis on how many books one can read in a year and an emphasis on those types of challenges. I find it pretty lame because it's not what I think reading should be about but to each their own.
That book by Fermor sounds interesting. I have a few of his books on my TBR.
"But I still feel one owes a kind of debt to a book one thinks is good, even if it proves a slog." I really agree with this. There are so many fantastic books out there that are tough to get through and can be a bit of a slog but worth it.