About two years ago, when I first started trying to get back into regularly reading for fun, I often struggled with finding the “right” book to read. I felt shackled by my limited time and wanted to select books that would “maximise my utility.” I overthought the process of selection and often ended up with books that seemed to have a lot of teaching potential, but were ultimately boring in the moment and didn’t hold my interest, especially after long days of schoolwork. Needless to say, this prevented me from picking up momentum with reading, as Netflix or YouTube always seemed more tantalising than another book that might disappoint.
My stasis was disrupted by a shift in my outlook — I stopped trying to find books that I thought would definitely change my life and teach me a lot, and instead just started picking up books that seemed mildly interesting or entertaining. It was Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy that really pulled me out of my reading rut. While I can’t say that I “learnt” a lot from those books, they were thoroughly entertaining and paved the way for several subsequent weeks of intellectually stimulating reading.
I also shook off the sunk cost fallacy and became exceedingly comfortable with abandoning books the moment I felt they weren’t worth it or that I may not be able to finish them with ease. Earlier, I used to feel bad about leaving a book midway, both because I felt I had already spent time on it and so “needed to finish” and because books I abandoned were often ones I found difficult to read and I wasn’t “persevering enough”. This outlook change removed my dread and helped me gain momentum with reading. (I have also found that I often go back to these “abandoned” books later and sometimes finish them. Having a tough time finishing a book may just indicate that now is not the right time for it!)
I have no single way to find these ‘mildly interesting’ books. I am always on the look out for interesting books in stores, on websites, and in conversations, some of which are described below.
I love second-hand bookstores because I end up picking up books I would not buy new — the titles that I have heard of a few times but don’t find immediately compelling enough. Some of the best books I have read over the last few years have emerged out of these encounters.
Speaking of second-hand books, this website is a great alternative to Amazon and has a fantastic collection + free delivery in USA.
NPR’s Book Concierge
This is the best end-of-the-year reading compilation out there. The creators note that they wanted to look at collections books that considered them more as overlapping “Venn diagrams” than linear “lists”. The lovely UX achieves precisely that — the site is filled with a plethora of books and categories without ever being too overwhelming. The only shortcoming is that the collections only go back to 2013, but if you are someone like me who particularly enjoys reading recent work, this is perfect for you.
What Should I Read Next
Self-explanatory — the virtual equivalent of looking at books that occupy the same shelf in a store. I like this kind of “recommendation algorithm” because it is much more transparent than Goodreads and leaves me with a lot of agency in picking what kind of books I want to look into. (I don’t have an account on this site and just use the barebones recommendation feature).
Recommendations from peers
I have this slightly creepy habit of screenshotting Instagram stories whenever my friends share the books they’re reading. In real life, I like to keep reading lists and ask friends for recommendations for introductory books, especially if their interests are very different from my own.
While selecting classes to take during college, I was always overwhelmed by the sheer number of interesting things I could potentially learn about. Of course, I graduated having indulged only a fraction of those interests but I do have the syllabi from a lot of the courses I couldn’t take, which include lists of assigned books. Syllabi are useful because they are likely to have slightly denser or niche books that would not make it to bestsellers list, but are nonetheless written by incredibly qualified people.
I got most of my syllabi off my college portal but have been looking for some open source database that compiles syllabi across universities (which *surely* exists…right?). Let me know if you have any leads.
This is Bill Gates book club! The books he selects definitely tend to be of the ‘intellectual but not too academic’ genre but I have found it helpful for pointers to explore new fields that I am less familiar with. The list of books is also relatively small and contained which makes for easy perusal.
I use this subreddit like I use r/podcasts — to find books in genres I am just discovering. Not all posts are high quality but the people on here are very thoughtful and well-informed.
I added this here only to note that I do NOT use Goodreads to find books. Maybe I don’t update it enough with books I actually like, but my feed is never interesting and mostly populated with mass-market business and popular psychology books of a fairly shallow variety. It is also frustrating to not be able to tell what the algorithm is optimising for. I like to have more agency in deciding what to read next and prefer old-school reading lists or NPR’s Book Concierge over Goodreads.
I love reading lists that are not put together by publishing or media outlets (which often end up regurgitating bestsellers lists grouped by theme). I often come across these on Twitter and will try to update this section regularly! (These are obviously biased by my own interests, I am sure there fantastic lists out there on topics that fall out of my range!)
South Asia Reading Group: For the last two summers, SARG has compiled lists of academic-but-accessible writing on South Asia. I am slowly making my way through the list but it is a valuable pointer to not-so-mainstream writing on politics in India by academics who actually know what they are talking about
Ultimate NUMTOTs Reading List: best list for reads about transit, urbanism, and infrastructure
#coronavirussyllabus: crowdsourced on Twitter and covers issues in public health over the last century or so. Also includes documentaries, movies, syllabi, and music. I haven’t nearly made a dent in this yet but seems super interesting and relevant.
Caste Abolitionist Reads: compiled by Equality Labs
Anti-racist Reading List: compiled by Victoria Alexander on Twitter
Don’t be a Karen List: scroll to the author’s note (the article itself is great too)
Effective Altruism Reading List: compiled by the Yale chapter and another by CEA
It is possible that this post may have added to your problem of choice. I only have one piece of advice — just pick up a book, any book, and see what happens.