Are best-sellers bad for you?

best-sellerFrom Indie Reader came the link to this story from Shane Parrish, who decides to make reading a priority, so that he can acquire knowledge. 161 books later, he concludes that if you want to get smarter, you should avoid best-sellers. From the article:

“If you read the best-sellers, by definition, you’re reading what everyone else reads. And if you read what everyone else reads, odds are you’re going to start to think like everyone else. If you think like everyone else, you’re not going to think differently and creatively, stifling your ability to stand out and excel.”

I get that argument, and I think Parrish makes a good point that people will learn more if they read widely in a certain subject area, and pick books which have stood the test of time. But what Parrish does not tell you is how to find such books. He points out, correctly, that people gravitate toward best-seller lists because they aren’t sure what else they should be reading. But he gives no suggestions for how to solve that problem. If you want to read better stuff, but you don’t know where to start—well, where SHOULD you start? Where, if not the best-seller lists?

I suppose this is a function that real, live librarians used to fulfill. I remember once doing a research project for a course I was taking, where a certain study was referenced repeatedly in the literature I found as being pioneering in the area. It was published in 1972 and so was not available through any of the online databases I could access. I went to the local reference library to try and track it down, and I think the helpful librarian who came to my aid enjoyed himself immensely. I wasn’t inconveniencing him, as I had feared. I was giving him a meaty problem to solve. He did track down the original study for me, and it really was a great read.

So, where do we go for that now, with the shuttering of bookstores and the closure of libraries and information centres? Crowd-sourcing it all to the internet is imperfect because Amazon or Goodreads lists are too easily manipulated. And any review site or best-of listing will of course have its biases.

So, if you want to read smarter, if you want to read beyond the best-seller lists, where can you go in search of your next read?

5 Comments on Are best-sellers bad for you?

  1. I think you have to do your research. Libraries can be helpful and there are some online that will have lists and the “if you like” series that I gravitate to all the time. I was interested in reading more mysteries so I started looking online and ran across a Wikipedia entry that has one UK list and an American list of the top 100 crimes novels and went from there. Blogs are ok but mostly for me it’s just taking a risk and trying it for myself. The classics like Himes and Hammett have obviously stood the test of time well. So has Jim Thompson (not all of his stuff but a few) and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce was excellent.

  2. Book clubs can get you out of your comfort zone.

    I read reviews in a wide variety of genres. Some of my sources include “RTBookclub” and “BookPage” which the library offers for free.

    I talk to friends about books and authors, I belong to online reading groups, I read a number of sites which include reviews, I prowl the new book section at the library and their ebook site. I try books that look interesting.

    If you want to read something other than bestsellers, it’s not hard to find good books. All you have to do is look around and talk to people about books.

  3. It’s hard for me to believe this is even a serious discussion. If someone isn’t smart enough to find books on their own, then they might just as well read best sellers and nothing else. If they don’t *want* to read anything else, then whether or not it’s good for them isn’t exactly an issue. Why does anyone even get caught up in this nonsense?

  4. Here’s a tip: read books that were best-sellers sixty or seventy years ago or more. You know they must be good, because they sold a lot of copies (assuming that’s the kind of metric you think is valid), but they talk about a very different kind of world and often use a very different way of thinking. And many of them are available for free.

  5. My library helps people find great books to read every day — we do it informally at the checkout desk, through book groups, through programs like literary speed dating, and by facilitating ways that our community members can share their recommendations with each other (check out the awesome box project!). We also offer free access to resources like NoveList that aren’t “easily manipulated”. The reports of the death of libraries are greatly exaggerated.

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