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Deciding Whether to Read a Book: Some Wildly Reductive Heuristics

Smiles!People send me lots of books, so I have to decide rather quickly whether one should be added to the ambitious pile of stuff I already really want to finish reading.

On the off chance that you care or find it useful in developing your own filtering, here's my insanely reductive, mean-busy-guy way to make a 90-second decision on whether to read a new non-fiction book from an author I'm not familiar with.

It does not matter whether you agree with these; that's how you know they're personal heuristics. Also, they are almost uniformly unfair and unkind. So.

For each question, my preferred answer would be "No." Few of these are dealkillers, but they do quickly aggregate to make the decision easy and obvious for me.

  • At the highest level, is this book's topic based on the typical "zeitgeist" product that gets greenlit by someone who watches lots of golf on TV and who seldom finishes reading the 1,000-word "features" found in in-flight magazines?
  • Does the book have one of those irksome, "Everything You Know About Everything is Completely WRONG!" titles?
  • Is the author's large, whitish face the primary feature of the cover?
  • Mistral!Does the cover art contain high heels, Mistral, or any reference to either Oprah Winfrey, Joel Osteen, or "Dr. Phil?"
  • Can you find the word "secret" anywhere on the cover of the book?
  • Is the book published by a company that you've never heard of -- or, far worse, does that company appear to share the last name of the author or his yacht?
  • In the event that this is a book by a "famous" person: if the book were written by someone you'd never heard of, would your interest in the book or its topic wane significantly?
  • Sssssssh!Are there a very large number of "intentionally blank" white pages at the beginning and end of the book? Are there an astonishingly large number of pages that have been provided for "Notes?"
  • Does the Table of Contents lack at least 10% stuff that sounds kind of familiar to you (and at least 30% stuff that does not)?
  • Does the first non-front-matter material in the book (often a "Preface" or "Introduction") seem like a damp hotel room towel that's matted with the author's self-congratulation? Is it primarily a sales tool for persons who will never read any further? Does the author seem more arrogant than confident?
  • Does the book's body or heading text suffer from careless or illegible typesetting? Does the book look like an unfinished government manual? Should the designer be horse-whipped for choosing a bold display face for body text?
  • Does the book suffer from the overlarge margins, giant type, two-paragraph pages, and "inspiring quotations" that often suggest a rushed, shoddy, or lazy manuscript?
  • Heels!Have you already found erors and misspelings?
  • Does the book's index seem weak or does it not contain entries for the topic or person whom you most associate with the book's theme or title?
  • Does page 69 bore, vex, or annoy you?
  • Can you imagine a future in which closing this book on the last page will make you angry that you didn't just go back and re-read A Confederacy of Dunces instead?
  • Now that you know about this book and have thought about all these horribly petty little things, can you imagine not reading it this week?

No on all counts? Good! You've found your book. Happy reading.

And, a propos of nothing, here's my current non-fiction pile. If you wanted your book to earn a spot, you'd need to beat this competition (some of which do break at least one of these rules, but all trump on quality and great writing).

Noted in passing: all the books on the list were purchased by me with actual money. One data point on how many freebies currently make my cut.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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