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The 4 Kinds of Books You (Almost) Never Need to Read
Avoid these time-wasters.
There’s a difference between reading widely and reading foolishly. Reading widely expands your interests, introduces you to new authors and ideas, and keeps you from being locked in to your own psychology. Reading foolishly is a waste of time. The best case scenario of reading foolishly is that you end up with some zingers to write in a review, but even that is dangerous since it could be practicing what C.S. Lewis called “flippancy.” The worst case scenario is that what you know to be foolish ends up looking less foolish over time, for no better reason than a desire to fit in and read the Right Kind of Thing.
Nobody wants to read foolishly. There are, however, things you can remember to avoid doing it. Here’s a quick list of four kinds of books that you almost never need to read. As always, remember that these are reliable generalizations, not absolute rules; you may find the rare example of a book in one of these genres that’s actually good.
The “Hidden Cause” Book
The Hidden Cause book will argue that a very real, very serious problem, struggle, or question in your life can be solved easily by what the author has discovered that nobody else has.
Marketing copy often gives away the game here. You will read blurbs and descriptions that use words like, “unprecedented,” or “for the first time ever,” etc. Hidden Cause books can come in the form of self-help, social analysis, or historical research, but the patters are reliable across genres.
The author of the Hidden Cause book wants you to believe that nobody before him or her has had the intelligence, the insight, or perhaps the courage to tell you what they will tell you now. And 98.9% of the time, there is another book that does exactly that (and the author probably used that book as a comparison title when pitching the publisher). Hidden Cause books are often shallow and simplistic; the supposed novelty is the point, so don’t expect impressive argumentation or evidence.
The Social Media Influencer Book
Notice that I did not say “Books written by social media influencers.” I said, “The Social Media Influencer Book.” There is a huge difference. Someone who happens to be a social media influencer can write a good book; no one can write a good social media influencer book. The latter is a bait and switch. It is a marketing gimmick, designed to try to monetize what a minor celebrity does for free. In many cases it will be ghostwritten; in all cases it will be vapid, obvious, and forgettable.
I don’t think most people are drawn to these kinds of books for what they are. I think instead that in a wild and wooly book world, people can be persuaded at a non-cognitive level to buy books with familiar names on them. And that’s what the publisher is counting on. Generally speaking, if you see a book with a cover that features its author making what you might call a whimsical expression, surrounded by their phones, cameras, and streaming equipment, run the other way.
The Under-40 Memoir or Parenting Book
These should be self-evident, but they’re often not. I don’t care how accomplished your favorite celebrity is; if they’re writing a memoir before the age of 40, they are either making stuff up or ridiculous. There’s no reason I can think of for someone under the age of 40 to believe that the fruits of their autobiographical introspection are valuable. For one thing, a 35 year old is not the same person they will be at 45, much less 60. Second, there’s something a little backward about the idea that someone in their twenties or thirties should be able to see their life clearly enough to make it teach. Isn’t that what parenting children is for?
And speaking of parenting: that’s a genre that should be reserved for writers for whom it is clear they actually know what they’re talking about. I’m glad you’ve learned a lot parenting toddlers, but it does get harder. Parenting books by people who haven’t finished the race are typically full of aphorism and cliches, or worse, some pseudo philosophizing about human nature. Go seek out a book by someone whose adult children still respect them.
The Hashtag Chaser
It’s hard to sell books. So you can’t fault publishers and authors for doing whatever they can to attract mass appeal. But this has given birth to an unfortunate genre: the Hashtag Chaser, a book that is written directly and only to a slice of Internet culture.
Make no mistake, I’m in favor of books about the internet. But the best books in this category take something in the digital world and unpack its significance for everyone else. They can connect Internet trends and consciousness to offline life in a convincing and apparent way. This is not what hashtag chasers do. Hashtag Chasers simply copy and paste the terminology of a viral moment and try to make what is otherwise a banal and uninteresting message something bigger merely by virtue of Internetspeak.
By the time Hashtag Chasing books are written and published, the “message” of the book is obsolete. People have moved on. That book will never be intelligible again, because it required its readers to be living inside a certain moment as they read. When that moment passes, the book passes with it.