Brilliant, Boorish, Biased Or Boring?
The invention of the printing press was one of the turning points of history, allowing the worlds’ knowledge to be gathered, shared, and built upon. A brilliant book can convey decades or even centuries worth of experience to its readers within the space of a couple of hours. However, not everything deserves to be printed, and, especially today when publishing is virtually free, there has been an explosion of irrelevant or even harmful publications. Drawing the useful knowledge from this unlimited well requires a sifting process which narrows a booklist down to those which are factual, unbiased, and well written.
The most obvious qualification for a good book is that it be written by someone who knows what they’re talking about. Unfortunately, the silliest people are the most confident that their “brilliance” deserves sharing and many books are therefore sheer nonsense. More often, the author is quasi-educated, and the book will be sprinkled with some combination of good insight, the obvious, and errors.
For example, a frum medical doctor wrote an investment book which is entertaining but offers some very wrong investment advice. Published by a well-known frum company, those who followed its well-meaning but errant advice lost a lot of money. Since the first requirement for a good book is that the author be an expert in the subject, this one fails, and the good doctor should have stuck to his medicine. (Unfortunately, this book is still on the market. Reach out to me for the title if it’s relevant.) Just by reading a book’s cover and the author’s bio, it’s often easy to get a sense whether the book is written by an authority- the first step in the filtering process.
Beware the Sales Pitch
Even someone very knowledgeable may be a poor source of information if they are biased. In fact, due to their aura of credibility, a biased expert can do more damage than an unbiased novice. Say a doctor is trying to sell a specific diet system or product, he is more likely to report on the evidence which supports his income and gloss over the negative data which undermines his case. As we know, shoichad is a powerful force making it very difficult to remain balanced and objective. While everyone has some agenda, honest professionals try to minimize their biases and disclose their conflicts of interest.
One expert who doesn’t do this well is Ric Edelman, a well-known financial adviser, radio show host, and the author of some mostly excellent books. Edelman weaves sales pitches right into his radio show and criticizes others for overcharging while hiding his overly generous fees in fine print! Even when written by a pro, if a book is actively selling something it’s usually worth passing it by.
Great Writers Make It Interesting
But not every unbiased professional can write a great book. Only the best educators and authors have the clarity required to organize their thoughts clearly and convey key insights in a concise and even entertaining fashion. Using charts, anecdotes and analogies, someone who really knows their subject matter, is often able to teach and illuminate without being dry and boring.
For example, Economist Thomas Sowell knows his complex subject exceptionally well and illustrates its intricate principles without resorting to the standard textbooks’ math and charts. As they teach bachurim in yeshiva, “If you can’t explain it well, you don’t know it well,” and when an average reader finds a book confusing, the failing is in the author. Thanks to easy access to the world’s millions of books you can find books which are both illuminating and readable on any topic.
Get Insider Information
While there are many professional, unbiased and well-written books, it does take some detective work to find them. A great shortcut in this effort is asking people knowledgeable in a specific field of interest what their favorite books are. In addition to getting some outstanding recommendations, discussing books is a great way to make substantive conversation with industry insiders. They are usually thrilled to talk about their favorite authors and connect with a respectful entrant to their field. Whether you do it yourself or through asking others, filtering your reading is very important. Life is too short to be wasted on bad writing.