The one thing that nearly all my clients seem to remember about my coaching is that I’m book nuts. Just last week, I checked in with a former client and after updating each other on what was going on, his next question was “so what are you reading and recommending now?” I suggested just one book that I thought might pique his interest. The subtext of his question was about its main idea, whether it has some “good stuff” or “new stuff” and relevant to him. I evidently picked the right book for him: he ordered it while we were talking!
I recommended Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking. I told him that Ellenberg takes the dull math we learned in school—or in my case, didn’t learn--and shows how it ties to everything in life. He finds real-life situations that are reflective of math, asks hilarious questions and is a masterful comedian through it all. He completely reworks my understanding of math. I wished I’d had a math teacher like Ellenberg.
Early in my career, I had one bright engineer who used to hand me a book he was certain I would like, tell me to keep it, but let him read it after me. Why? Because he wanted to ...
Since this is summer, and since summer vacation begs for books, I’d like to share my way of choosing non-fiction books, hoping that it will be of value to my readers. My tastes are catholic: business, politics, history, culture, human behavior, psych and ed psych, biblical studies, current affairs—and like Ellenberg’s, from science and math.
I became technologically savvy with the first IBM PC in 1983, so I’m no Luddite. But, I much prefer to thumb the pages of a book—if possible—before I buy it. The thought of reading my books on an IPad or Kindle turns my stomach. So with book in hand, I check out the endorsements on the back page. Of course, I have a long reading history so it’s a rare book that doesn’t have at least one endorser that I recognize. In this case it was Steven Pinker. His third sentence nailed Ellenberg: But he (Ellenberg) also shows that mathematical thinking should be in the tool kit of every thoughtful person—of everyone who wants to avoid fallacies, superstitions, and other ways of being wrong.”
But a Cornell University endorser also had a great line: With math as with anything else, there’s smart and there’s street smart. This book will help you be both.I've always been a sucker for rhetorical smarts. It also shows the power of great endorsers.
Then I take a few seconds to read the table of contents to see what that can tell me. I started laughing with the preface title: When am I going to use this? Or take another chapter title: How much is that in dead Americans? Or a third: Does lung cancer make you smoke cigarettes? The cool chapter titles flow throughout the book. I stood at the book shelves and had to read quite a few pages before I headed to the cashier.
If there are acknowledgements, I want to find out what resources were used and whether I recognize any of them. Sometimes that’s helpful, sometimes not. Nothing special in this book aside from the fact that he thanked the local coffee shop where he wrote much of the book.
After that, I usually go to the preface. When none is available, I take a quick look at the first chapter. Usually by the time I’ve read the first three or four sentences, I’m making my final decision because the best authors will set up the major ideas in the initial paragraph—if it’s not a long narrative. If it’s a long narrative, I skip to the end of the story to see where it’s going.
As an example, I’ve distilled the book hook from the first page of the preface.
Right now, in a classroom somewhere in the world, a student is mouthing off to her math teacher. The teacher has just asked her to spend a substantial portion of her weekend computing a list of thirty definite integrals.
There are other things the student would rather do. . . . She doesn’t see the point, and she tells her teacher so. And at some point in this conversation, the student is going to ask the question the teacher fears most: “When am I going to use this?” Now the math teacher is probably going to say something like: I know this seems dull to you. . . .This answer is seldom satisfying to the student. That’s because it’s a lie.
I was hooked.
Still, I usually want to check the book’s conclusion especially if I’m not certain about the book. I was cracking up with laughter by the time I finished the first page.
Ellenberg starts off telling about his summer math job after his first year of college working for a researcher in public health. The researcher—it will be clear in a minute why I don’t use his name—wanted to hire a math major because he wanted to know how many people were going to have tuberculosis in the year 2050. The rest of that long paragraph lays out his math process.
Then the first sentence of the next paragraph: And what I learned was this: I did not have a clue how many people were going to have tuberculosis in the year 2050.
That's how I've selected books for 35 years or more and my method hasn't failed me yet. Additionally, with non-fiction, I'm interested in the bibliography for future reference or reading suggestions. Ellenberg has a great bibliography and extensive enlightening notes.
Since I'm pretty skeptical about most people's opinions--including my own--I want to know what critical tools were used and whether or not there's related empirical research. Ellenberg’s bibliography answered all my questions. Clients know that when they ask me an important question, I'm liable to respond with something like this: "This is what I think. . . “ or, “this is my guess, but I don't have any research supporting this notion." On other occasions, when I'm aware of related research, I will respond with: "There's plenty of research indicating that. . . ." Sometimes it may be that “though there’s research, it’s not especially trustworthy.” And then I may even lay out my rationale for the comment.
Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. I rarely take Amazon book reviews seriously. Most Amazon reviewers can’t write—and most can’t even read. So that gets you nowhere.