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Recommended Readings Lists – (When) Do they make sense??

What should I read?

With the millions of books out there, seekers of knowledge (and wisdom) will – expectedly – ask the question.. Where should I start?

The answers are usually disappointing. Why should you care about someone’s recommended readings list, after all?

Here’s an attempt to tackle this.

The problem with recommended readings lists

As I was preparing for “The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom” I searched (a lot) for recommended reading lists.. I was looking for the advice of experts and sages on what they consider to be an ‘essential reading list’ of sorts: A recommendation on great books that seekers need to read.

I was surprised how unsatisfactory the results of the quest turned out to be.

It is very easy to get lost in all the noise, personal preferences (obviously), and the sheer scope of the mission… and this is a starting point in trying to find a solution to the problem.

Samples of Recommended Readings Lists

Here are some famous / popular sources of recommended readings lists:

Bill Gates (and many other business leaders) publishes lists of recommended periodically. These books span different areas.

I also came across this delightful list from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose work beautifully spans across disciplines, and his list of recommendations reflects this, along with his super ideas.

Many famous literary, political, and economic figures share their reading preferences. Mark Twain, Nabokov, and many others have shared lists of books they personally prefer.

Five Books has many reading lists, many extremely idiosyncratic.

Will Durant has done something similar, and in many of his works you can see recommendations for great books. I’ve written about some of his work here.

Many authors seem to assume that good recommended readings lists are reading lists ‘from the classics’. This is because the wisdom in these classics books have survived the test of time. Why are classics so important? That, however, is a discussion for another time.

The DNA of a good Recommended Reading List

Sometimes I am positively surprised by how good a book recommendation from someone is, and frequently, I get disappointed. This happened even when I sometimes tried getting readings recommendations from writers I admired, and so – supposedly – there was a significant common area.

The reason is clear and related to the essence of the reading activity: when reading, people bring their own preferences and interpretations to the table. The reading experience is a sharing of sorts. Also, people want different things when they hold a new book.

I tried to simplify the problem to solve it.. and I think that a good list of recommended readings will be clear about these:

  • The aim / purpose of the reading list: What does it do?
    • Things like ‘inform’ and ‘educate’ are not enough. We all want to ‘know more’ (I hope), but what does that mean exactly? We must consider not only the topic, but also the personal objectives.
  • The level of the reader, and their background: the books they’ve read previously on the topic.
    • How much value you get from a book depends on your ability to compare it to previous experiences.
  • The reader’s work and personal preferences, and their similarity with those of the person creating the recommendations.

This is why a good set of readings recommendations will be clear about its goal (Why is this being recommended), and will contain some description of the different books and why they have been included there, so that the reader can incorporate their own judgement. Additionally, the list will contain books that work together: keeping the big picture in mind is very important. Other than that, it becomes a complete waste of time and effort. This is why I think many ‘Best Books of …’ and ‘Books recommended by…’ (and many of the lists on ‘Five Books’ mentioned above) are quite wasteful.

The recommended readings list from The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom

I first tried to solve this problem when I started working on the Think-Grow Knowledge Modules. The Modules presented a pre-selected list of books summaries in particular fields. The modules give an introduction, good-enough as a starting point, for a journey of discovery and learning within – and around – fields of interest.

The concern always was: Will this empower the reader to make their own choices? Will it give them enough understandable and well-positioned knowledge to function as a starting point?

Later, I tried to assimilate all this further, aiming for more generalization, so that the list can help a bigger audience. This is where ‘The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom‘ fit, because essentially it is a creative integration of many books and great ideas.

The Atlas comes with a recommendations list of a special kind. The recommended readings list of the Atlas has different levels, arranged into a two-year (or so) plan, covering the essential areas of knowledge, plans, and actions. These should be a great starting point for anyone interested in creating meaningful and valuable great work.

The recommended readings list of the Atlas includes not only popular or convenient readings, but ones that complement each other and serve to introduce a wide array of topics to pave the path towards understanding how the plurality, complexity, and uncertainty in the world can be harnessed by seekers on the path to peak performance.

It does have an element of subjectivity, but I’ve tried to clearly identify and qualify this subjectivity and how it works within the course. It also allows for a degree of flexibility, so that the reader can have more control on their learning destiny.

Recommended Readings List from The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom
Recommended Readings List from The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom

Here is the Link to Download it.

Finally : Forget about generic book lists… build your purposeful knowledge map over the long term. Get the help of someone ‘wise’ for field-specific and progress-dependent recommendations. Consider going over a set of summaries before digging deeper into a field.

More Resources

The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom

The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom is an online course about the bigger picture. It is about compiling hundreds of super ideas into a map for excellence and peak performance, and the creation of meaningful work. Check it out if you’re interested in the practical and managerial applications of wisdom.

The Think-Grow Knowledge Modules

The Think-Grow Knowledge Modules are mini-libraries of book summaries, each giving a wide (wise) enough view of a specific field. TAWW’s reading list integrates some of them.

They offer a simpler, wiser, and more convenient approach to reading about different fields. The Better Brain Library in particular has summaries of books on intelligence, thinking, and mental training.

Fuzzy on the Dark Side
Approximate Thinking, and How the mists of creativity and progress can become a prison of illusion

Check out the page describing “Fuzzy on the Dark Side”, where I explore approximate thinking and the problems that reside in the inadequate treatment of incompleteness and uncertainty.

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