This post is a part of my Personal Development Project for May 2016.
I read a lot of good books. I also read a lot of terrible books. And I’d say one of the reasons that I wade through all the terrible books and good books alike is to uncover the truly awesome books. If I had to give a totally biased, gut-based statistic for the ratio of good to bad to awesome books I read, I’d say that out of every ten books I read, 7 are good, 2 are bad, and 1 is truly awesome.
How do I define books as bad, good, and truly awesome?
Bad books are sometimes unclear, poorly written, and/or poorly researched. But what really makes a book good or bad is the reaction it stirs in me. When I’m reading a bad book, I feel nothing. When I finish reading it, I usually think, “Well, no complaints.”
It’s not that feeling bored makes a book good or bad for me. Whether or not I enjoy the book plays no part in my book assessment ritual. When I say that I feel nothing, I mean that I don’t feel a pull or push, and I don’t have a frenzy of thoughts, questions, and arguments whirling in my head. Reading a “bad” book is usually a pleasant, non-polarizing experience.
I think of reading a bad book like eating a bowl of grandma’s soup. You know what grandma’s soup tastes like. You’ve had it many times all throughout your life. It tastes great! You love grandma and her soup. But it’s not comparable with the soup from that restaurant down the street. There’s no comparing grandma’s soup to anything– that soup just is. “Bad” books just are. They’re don’t excited me, they don’t challenge me, they just are.
And actually, bad books are most often the books that I agree with and enjoy most. I often give them a 5 star review on Goodreads and a solid recommendation.
Good books give me something to think about, something to challenge, something to chew on or spit out. They elicit some kind of reaction in me, either emotional or intellectual.
The books that take hold of my face and say, “You! Look at this! This is Truth!”, are truly awesome. Sometimes I decide that these books are only half-right or even wrong, but being forced to grapple with big ideas that threaten to change how I view the world is exhilarating. Truly awesome books challenge me. They cause me to seriously question previous preconceptions. They’re the books that I spend hours thinking about, writing about, discussing, and quoting.
Sometimes, truly awesome books are the ones that I delete off my Kindle or toss under the bed and deny ever having read. They’re the books that shake me and make me into who I am, whether I like it or not. They’re the books that I sometimes can’t recommend to others.
Reading through the spectacles of my experiences
Some books are genuinely deeper or more meaningful than others. But when I’m declaring a book good, bad, or awesome, none of that is extremely important. When I read something, I’m coming to the table with baggage on my back and the sunglasses of my experiences. I don’t read anything with a “clear mind”. Nobody does.
So The Golden Compass can objectively be a powerful and meaningful work of literature, but in my case, reading it didn’t inspire any new thoughts in me. It didn’t incite an inner revolution. It was moving and charming, but not world changing. My previous experiences caused me to interpret it differently than other people who read it. In contrast, I’m sure someone somewhere is reading Steppenwolf right now (a book that rattled me to my core), and will feel the same way about it that I feel about The Golden Compass. Reading is personal. Learning is personal. Growing is personal.
One “bad” book I read recently was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, was completely wrapped up in it for the time I was reading, and hope that my kids will read it someday. But it didn’t give me anything substantial to grapple with. Nothing was revolutionary for me.
A good book I read recently was What’s The Big Deal About Bitcoin? by Steve Patterson. I loved it. It made me realize that there’s a lot of trust inherent in economics. (“I trust that this dollar bill will still be worth a candy bar tomorrow.”) The book gave me some fascinating things to consider about economics, and also inspired me to learn more about investing.
The last truly awesome book I read was Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. When I finished it, I felt hollow. That book has been in my mind daily since I finished it a few weeks ago. Everything relates back to it. Every time I laugh, every time I cry, every time I feel anything, I think of that novel. I think about the issues that arise from self-abasement. I think about just going with the flow instead of being so uptight all the time. I think about the parts of myself that I’m tempted to suppress. I think about the nature of half-truths, and the tragic hero of Nietzschean thought, and personal destiny.
The most awesome book I’ve ever read, a book that literally changed my life, was The Crisis of the Modern World by Rene Guenon. I can’t recommend it to anyone because I think it’s pretty much utter crap, but I can’t deny that it was a book that had a profound impact on me. Reading it is what caused my interests in philosophy, metaphysics, theology, comparative religions, and geopolitics to really sink their roots into the ground.
Right from the beginning, I thought the book was ridiculous. It tried to assert some “crisis of humanity” without providing any distinct factual support. Crudely paraphrased, Guenon said that people nowadays don’t care about God, and so by extension, they don’t care about Truth. All “progress” is actually a farce because people are focused on things that don’t matter, temporal things, material things, things that will pass away. He said that the truly progressive people were the people from Medieval Europe, caste-observing India, and other traditional, devoutly religious societies throughout history. He also asserted that the Italian Renaissance wasn’t a period of innovation, renewal, and beauty, but a perversion of old truths.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first picked it up. I thought it was laughable and ridiculous. I was especially irritated because this intellectual wasn’t using any data to back up any of his claims. He just used stories and references to various religious texts. But I was intrigued by the fact that he seemed to know so much about Hinduism and Christianity and world history. I was intrigued by his comparisons of the major world religions. The ideas he was presenting seemed stupid to me, but Guenon himself didn’t seem stupid at all.
And eventually I realized that the reason he wasn’t using “acceptable data” to prove his claims was because he didn’t believe in it. Guenon believed that “profane science” is distorted and unreliable. So he was operating under a different paradigm. He argued on a different kind of field.
When that finally clicked, I became obsessed with reading the works of the prominent thinkers from this “Perennialist school”. I was excited by the change in paradigm, the change in worldview. I still really like the works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and William Stoddart. But overall, I think the school itself and most of the ideas that come out of it are too pessimistic, too cynical, and full of half-truths. I think they’re wrong. But I’m so thankful that I got wrapped up in their ideas for the years that I was because of the doors that it opened for me. It caused me to question assumptions I had, it caused me to ask questions, it taught me to dig deeper and think harder. Reading that one book thrust me into a journey of Truth seeking. It was a truly awesome book. The most awesome book I’ve ever read.
My quest to read more awesome books
The best books are the ones that stretch us and inspire us and change us. We read to learn and grow. We read to expand our view of the world. And we can never really predict how important a book will be for us until after we’ve finished it.
I have a sort of funny way of assessing whether a book is good or bad, but I stand by it. Books that leave me with little or nothing new are bad. Books that give me something to mull over, books that stretch my mind and value and assumptions are good. The truly awesome books are what I seek when I’m filling my Goodreads lists with new things to check out. I can’t wait to see what life-changing book I’ll pick up next.