Patri Friendman is one smart dude. He writes a lot of good stuff, he's got a ton of good insights, and he does prolific amounts of real-world work that changes that's got a strong chance of dramatically changing the course of history. There's not too many people I'd be excited to work for in a vizier-type role for empirebuilding, but he's one of them.
Some choice excerpts -
A large element of instrumental rationality consists of filtering, prioritizing, and focusing. It's true for tasks, for emails, for blogs, and for the multitude of other inputs that many of us are drowning in these days. Doing everything, reading everything, commenting on everything is simply not an option - it would take infinite time
[To maximize] the results we get from our finite time requires, for a variety of domains:
1. Filtering: a quick first-pass to get input down to a manageable size for the higher-cost effort of prioritizing.
2. Prioritizing: briefly evaluating the impact each item will have towards your goals.
3. Focusing: on the highest-priority items.
One obvious question to ask when optimizing is: what is the goal of reading? Let me suggest a few possibilities:
Improve performance at a current job/role. ... Relatedly, work towards a current goal. ... Improve core skills or attributes relevant to many areas of life ... Expand your worldview (improve your map). ... Be able to converse intelligently on currently popular books.
So it seems like the basic process should be to determine the goals for your non-fiction reading, then determine what books will best advance those goals, using sources like friends, Amazon reviews, apparent relevance of the book to the goal, etc.
I read a lot, and correspond with a number of people about books and learnings from books and such. I think this post by Patri is quite good and I like his general approach. I recommend the whole post.
For me, I've got first and foremost one goal with reading - my current reading list needs to appeal to me more than things that are across-the-board worse than reading.
I think it doesn't make sense to prioritize an excellent list of books, choose them highly well, but then the challenge/stimulation/"work" mix of reading those books is too heavy and so you surf the net instead.
Even halfway decent reading offers incredibly more value than unfocused distraction.
I get asked about that last one sometimes. A person asks me, "Why is that? If you only read high value websites, then wouldn't you get as much from those as you would from a book?"
Answer: Not usually, no.
Because our memory/retention rates are rather quite bad. A lot of surfing the net gives us some insights for a very short time period, pleases us, but then we forget the points and they add no enduring value to our lives.
On the other hand, a book - a good book, at least - covers similar ground multiple times, usually with multiple examples or reinforcing itself, and you're much more likely to wind up with a cohesive, memorable understanding of a topic.
This can be achieved with websites too, if you really focus. If you're saying, "I'll study headlines, and I'll evaluate X, Y, and Z sites for their headlines, and I won't get sucked in and I'll stay focused" - that can produce a lot of value. So if you were to study Copyblogger, Tim Ferriss's blog, and James Altucher's blog and just focus on the headlines without getting sucked in, then you could probably get something close to what you'd get from reading books.
But that's hard to do. It's much easier to pick up a book on marketing or copywriting, which (if it's good) will focus on the core ideas without too much external distraction.
Thus, before any other considerations about my reading, I want it to be more appealing than aimless distraction. I want to make the barrier to reading as low as possible, in order to promote reading books.
The Kindle has totally changed the way I read - whenever I'd settle down and have an apartment, I'd usually have a huge stack of books. This meant that I could be in the middle of books on 3-5 different topics at a time, which meant it was more likely that something would appeal to me to read at any given time.
But when I'm living on the road, books are heavy and take up space. And weight and space are the enemy of the long-term traveler. This was kind of a bummer and I didn't have any way around it until I got a Kindle - now I've got around 170 books on there, and access to however many more are in Amazon's catalog or available for downright out of copyright on something like gutenberg.org
Thus, prioritizing my reading list is first and foremost about having a mix of books that appeals to me in various moods. I usually have a couple serious nonfiction books, a couple light nonfiction books, and one or two fiction or historical fiction at any given time, plus some audio books. I want reading to be as easy as possible to do.
Currently, I'm reading a biographical book about the origins of House Rothschild, reading the excellent finance book The Intelligent Investor, started a copy of Accelerando which is fiction that was gifted to me, and I've got some more nonfiction books on Japanese history, Confucianism, and World War II.
I try not to force myself to read anything, unless it's got immense amounts of value. For instance, I read Max Weber's essay "Politics as a Vocation" which was recommended by a reader here, even though it's long and dense and not necessarily fun - just because it was so damn important for my training and had so many valuable insights. But I try not to force myself to read like that too often - if at all possible, I don't want reading to become "work" and thus get procrastinated. If a book's difficulty/pleasantness/enjoyability/insight rates aren't exceptionally appealing, I'll look for a similar book on the topic or move on.
Beyond that, I'm with the general gist of Patri's post - "Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books" - it's short and worth a read.
Actual, one minor point - Patri says he doesn't really believe in reading books to become conversational/hip to popular culture so you can discuss them. I agree with that in terms of whatever's "hot" right now (like "The Secret" a few years ago), but I think brushing up on books about other cultures/art/places you're going to meet people from can have a lot of value. I like being able to talk about the history of a country with someone from there, and it always blows people's minds when you know about the great generals and tacticians and statesmen from a region that's outside the standard Western canon of study.
The other considerations of what to read - short-term goals, long-term goals, discovery reading, worldview expansion, etc... I think these all have value, but I make all these considerations secondary to just making my mix of current reading list as appealing as possible, so as to maximize the chance I'll choose to read and the volume I'll read.
Two last considerations - I try to read things that I can practically apply some insight from immediately, because that helps retention rate a lot. So I went through a number of books on finance as I was going to re-balance the stocks in my IRA, so I actually did a lot of digging through financial statements to read hands-on. Likewise, reading a book on marketing when you can actually test and apply the ideas, or reading Getting Things Done and simultaneously implementing it.
Final thought - I actually prioritize obscure books over common books. I haven't read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, but because so many other people did and talk about it, I reckon I got the gist of it. Whereas when you read obscure books about important-but-forgotten figures in the Industrial Revolution or Renaissance or Sengoku, then you wind up with a mix of knowledge that literally no one else on the planet has - which is incredibly value. Don't get me wrong, I love my Gladwell and Godin and all those guys, but plenty of people can give you the Gladwell or Godin line of thought. Not too many people can generalize what they learned from Takeda Shingen and Baldissare Castiglione into something useful for the modern day.
So - first priority, make the reading as appealing as possible. Second, ideally make it when you can apply some of the ideas immediately. Third, prioritize obscure (good) books over commonly read books in order to gain a unique depth of perspective.