Written by Dale Stephens
Educational content is easier to access than ever before. Free online courses are offered by Coursera and Udemy. Online listings for offline courses can be found on Skillshare and General Assembly. But even with so many competing formats of educational content, books should still be at the top of your list of self-directed learning resources.
In fact, some of the world's most brilliant thinkers and doers relied on books for their knowledge. Elon Musk -- the co-founder of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX -- attributed much of his technical prowess to reading many difficult engineering books. Reid Hoffman -- the co-founder of Paypal and Linkedin -- had his father read Lord of the Rings books to him when he was just 5 years old.
Since the number of book choices out there is vast (129.9 million uniquebooks according to Google Books) and our free time is so limited, it can be intimidating to pick one or a few books over others.
That’s why in this post I want to help you solve two fundamental problems: 1) the difficulty of sourcing great books and 2) screening books and picking the best ones to read.
Discovering Great Books
Fortunately, numerous online resources exist to help you source great books such as Goodreads, Amazon, and more. I profile some of these resources below.
Goodreads is the "largest site for readers and book recommendations in the world." The web application is a useful resource for discovering great books based upon what you and your friends have read previously.
By rating books you have read and selecting your favorite genres, you can receive high-quality book recommendations from Goodreads through a Netflix-inspired discovery engine. Aside from your personal recommendations, your friends' reading lists are another valuable resource for finding books you will likely enjoy reading.
As you probably know, Amazon is a major global e-commerce company that moves massive inventories of books. Commonly recognized as a good place to buy books online, it also has several tools you must take advantage of to discover great books.
First, Amazon has a superb suggestion system based upon your browsing history, which you can access from the home screen or the books category.
Amazon has a Goodreads-like service as well called Shelfari, “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers”, which provides you with a virtual bookstore as opposed to a department store user experience.
What Should I Read Next?
This super-simple application enables you to type in a book you love and receive a list of suggestions for similar books. It’s a great alternative to Goodreads or Amazon if you’re looking for a one-off book recommendation.
The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists
While they might not be tailored to your personal tastes, these Bestseller Lists are an obvious resource for finding out the most popular titles of today.
Picking the Right Book
To find that next book that will keep you up late at night desperately trying to finish every page, I recommend picking your books based upon narrow criteria that reflect your values and priorities.
Here are some of the criteria that you might want to use to judge a book:
- Subject matter - It can be difficult to stay focused on one subject. For example, if you look for a programming book but buy a technology history book because it sounded interesting, you might want to ask yourself which subject is more important to you. Make sure you decide on a priority list of subjects before you start your book search and stick to it.
- Reviews/ratings - Both Goodreads and Amazon have reviews and ratings, which are easy tools to use to sort and filter through long lists of books.
- Table of contents - Most book sellers like Amazon enable you to take a look at the table of contents before you make a purchase. Check out the table contents and see if the material is actually the subject matter you care about.
- First page - Reading the first page (or couple) of a book can give you a more accurate insight of the author's style and tone.
Books are more often than not a great -- if not the best -- self-directed learning resource. In this day and age of online learning, don’t forget to still take advantage of books to further your own self-education.