Woman standing in a sea of books

Most of what I write here is pretty long and detailed, but I’m going to make an exception today.

This is a quick guide for a common problem that I’ve noticed people have, especially when learning a new skill: picking a book. Enjoy.

If you’re as big of a reader as I am, it can be hard to pick the books you want to read next. There’s so much information available in book form and it’s tempting to drift around.

The way you can get get around this sort of problem is to look at books from another angle.

Rather than look at books solely by the subject matter they explore, I like to split up my reading into two primary categories: thought-improvement and knowledge-improvement.

Thought-Improvement Books

These are books that are designed specifically to alter your overall thinking about the world. When you read one of these books, they change the way you see your environment and make decisions.

A chimpanzee deep in thought

When you finish reading a high-quality thought-improvement book, you feel like a different person. Your model of the world has been permanently altered.

The book that, in my opinion, most accurately fits this profile is one of my all-time favorites: The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin.

It’s about how your brain organizes information and what you can do to optimize your behavior and environment to pander to that functionaknowledge-improvementlity.

After I read that book, I picked up a bunch of new habits that have made my life much easier. I even wrote a blog post about how I’d used what was in that book to stop forgetting my keys all the time.

Any time a book is designed to change how you think about the world, you’re dealing with a thought-improvement book. Books that focus on the metaprocess of thought itself (subjects such as philosophy, cognitive biases and learning) fall into this category.

Knowledge-Improvement Books

Books that fall into the “knowledge-improvement” category are generally just repositories of information that aren’t explicitly designed to change your way of thinking.

An open book with glasses resting on top of it

While thought-improvement books focus on changing how you think about information, knowledge-improvement books provide what information to think about.

Your thinking can certainly be altered by the information contained within a knowledge-improvement book, but that’s not their explicit goal.

They’re designed to increase your knowledge, without any concern for how to alter your overall perspective about the problems you might face in the world.

Textbooks tend to fall into this category, as do history books and biographies. They are, as the name implies, simply descriptions of things that exist or have existed in the world.

A couple of cuy guinea pigs

For example, I just recently read The Guinea Pig Handbook by Sharon Lynn Vanderlip because I own several guinea pigs and wanted to know more about them.

I learned quite a bit about guinea pigs, but my I don’t see the world any differently or feel like my overall decision-making ability is improved. There were some real gems in that book (my favorite: “Guinea pigs are charming, but not intelligent”) and it served its purpose (information about guinea pigs) very well. That’s just the nature of knowledge-improvement books.

Balancing Both Types

It’s critical that you mix it up between these two. Here’s what happens if you don’t:

  1. If you only read thought-improvement books, you’ll only have instructions for how to do things, without the requisite knowledge to understand the context for doing them.

  2. If you ony read knowledge-improvement books, you’ll be the classic “book-smart, but not street-smart” personality that doesn’t know how to apply knowledge.

You need both to make the best decisions possible, and if you find yourself leaning too far towards one end of the spectrum you should consider going the other way for a while.

Applying This to My Books

Memory Mastery eBook Bundle covers

I do my best to provide this balance in my own books. For example, my Memory Mastery eBook Bundle contains all three of my books and they all blend these two types of books in their own way.

Frequently Asked Questions About Learning & Memory ebook cover

Frequently Asked Questions About Learning & Memory is a short introduction to learning and memory in a Q&A format.

Although it’s informational, it’s actually designed to be more of a thought-improvement book that gets readers thinking differently about learning and memory.

If you’re just getting into a subject, this is the type of book you should be picking up first - not the giant, complex textbook that will quickly overwhelm you.

Memory Fundamentals ebook cover

Memory Fundamentals is a deeper dive into the specific subject of memory, which makes it more of a knowledge-improvement book.

There are examples and tips for using that knowledge, but it’s mostly designed to turn you into a more-informed user of your memory.

This is the type of intermediate book you should read once you’ve gone through one or two quick, plain-English guides.

The Learning Factory ebook cover

The Learning Factory leans heavily towards thought-improvement, since it’s largely designed to change how you view the whole learning process and how it integrates with memory.

After reading this book and using the system within it, you will inevitably end up with a radically altered way of thinking about the information you take in every day.

While it isn’t a textbook (it’s much easier to read), this represents the other end of the spectrum that you should be progressing towards.

Conclusion

Here’s a quick heuristic you can use when you’re not sure which direction to go in terms of book selection: ask yourself how long it’s been since you’ve read a book that changed how you think.

If it’s been a while, go look for something that might rearrange your worldview. Read a book about philosophy, decision theory, game theory, cognitive biases or any other subject that concerns thinking itself.

If you’re only reading books that alter your perspective, then maybe go pick up a history book.

I’m personally a big fan of books about warfare, so whenever I feel like I’m spending too much time on thought-improvment, I’ll go read something like The Mongol Art of War by Timothy May.

Also: make sure you’re actually using the information you find in the books you read. Being a bookworm isn’t very useful, and the world needs more people taking action.

-Ace