Every great writer is an avid reader. It's just part of the formula. And although there are now more exceptional blogs, newsletters, and media than ever before — books remain in a league of their own.
The effort and time that goes into a well-written book create a depth that's impossible to find elsewhere. As an author, I'm obviously biased. But even with how much our world has changed over the last several thousand years, books have remained a core part of how we learn, grow, and lead — and that's no accident.
The challenge, then, is to learn how to find and read the right books. With nearly 2,000,000 new titles published each year, it can feel overwhelming trying to sort out what to read next.
Thankfully, some of us are obsessed with this space and have spent A LOT of hours figuring out precisely how to do just that. In this article, you'll learn my techniques for identifying only the most worthwhile books, why most influencer recommendations are wrong, and whether you should focus on old or newly published works.
The right way to use online reviews
Now, the elephant in the room is online review scores. Shouldn't these be the end-all-be-all of choosing which books are best? In theory, these are like crowdsourced answers — with only the cream of the crop garnering the highest rating and largest audience.
But as someone who has published 20+ books across dozens of platforms (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.), I know how aggressively this game is played. Yes, every company bans paid reviews in some way, but that doesn't stop large publishers and deep-pocketed authors from finding loopholes.
So, what should you do?
- First, just be aware that reviews are subjective, incomplete, and often purchased.
- Second, reviews are a popularity score, not a quality score.
- Third, only visit reviews when you're looking for a specific answer to something. For instance, check them to see if a certain topic is covered, if the examples are relevant, or if the title is simply reusing previously published sources.
Harsh? Maybe, but reading a book is a significant time commitment, and I aim to ensure every title you choose is worth it.
5 strategies to spot a good book
#1 Get in-person recommendations from people you trust
The internet is good for many things, but sometimes the wisdom of crowds is less helpful than the expertise of one. When I need a new book on a subject I'm unfamiliar with, here are the first few places (people!) I go to.
- I ask my personal network. In my close circle of friends, I have access to doctors, lawyers, business owners, chefs, carpenters, and so much more (I have a habit of striking up random conversations very often, to my wife's dismay haha). The chances are you have a pretty good network, too if you ask around. A friend of a friend may be in the career field you want to explore and will know exactly which materials are best. Don't be afraid to ask!
- Go to your local library because librarians are awesome. Much to people's surprise, Google is not the only search solution. In fact, people spend years training on how to properly find, categorize and deliver information — usually within a very specific field of study. Those are librarians, and there's likely one very close to you right now: at colleges, city libraries, and even in large organizations.
- Finally, email your favorite author. I've written books on religion, self-help, and digital publishing. Over the past decade, I've easily answered 2,000+ emails on various questions related to my books and their subjects. Most authors love books (i.e., why they write them!) so they'll be happy to recommend which ones they deem trustworthy.
#2 Use the books you have to find your next read
What I'm talking about here are bibliographies.
Bibliographies are usually found in the back of nonfiction books (both popular and academic) that list out all of the books the author used to construct theirs. These are an absolute goldmine of information and will likely lead to some of the best books you'll ever read.
These can also take the form of appendices, footnotes, endnotes, and additional resources sections.
This is a great strategy for diving into an area you know very little about. All you need to do is find a single book on the subject, flip to the back, and peruse the long list of follow-up reads.
#3 Browse local bookstores in your area
Bookselling is a difficult business to succeed in, so when you see a locally-owned bookstore, the chances are very good that the owner loves what they do.
And with that love likely comes a wealth of knowledge about which books are best. You'll notice that many local shops organize their shelves differently than the "big box" national chains. This is because shelf space is advertising space, and large corporations pay a premium to sit at a certain height (eye-level), area (the ends rather than the middle), and in a set quantity (more copies = more likely to get noticed).
Local shops rarely offer this service, so they organize books to serve their customers. Because a happy reader will become a life-long customer.
#4 Pick up titles that have stood the test of time
Nicknamed perennial sellers, some books are consistently recommended, decade after decade, because of their quality and timelessness.
Only a rare few of these exist in each category, such as Bird by Bird for writing, Rich Dad Poor Dad for personal finance, and American Cookery for food.
This is one of those rare occasions where I'll advise people to go with the wisdom of the crowd and pick up the titles you see appearing on every online article, Amazon result, and best of list.
#5 See a book's value ahead of time with summaries
My last bit of advice involves a bit of work, but a few extra minutes could save you hours spent on a bad book. The solution: book summaries.
People usually use a synopsis as a replacement for reading an entire book. Instead, they should be used as a supplement to help you:
- See if the book is really what you think is.
- Discover the main points ahead of time so that you can focus on them.
- Narrow down which chapters are most important and skip over the rest.
You can check out a few of the summaries I've written by searching my archive or using a tool like Blinkist. YouTube is another excellent resource to visit as many of the video summaries provide an immensely thorough review of the material.
Bonus tip: Define what "good" means to you
Before I leave you with the Recommendation Library mentioned above, I wanted to encourage you to clarify what books will help you most towards your goals. As an example, here's what I tend to look for:
- Author credibility: Do they have an advanced degree in the field their writing about or have a big success that proves their theories?
- Concise writing: I hate books that are just fluffed up articles. Don't spend 200 pages telling me something that could have been said in 20. For this reason, I usually gravitate towards shorter books.
- Cited sources: I love books that point me to how they got to where they are. Show me what books, experiences, and experts you relied on and I will trust your work.
- Action-focused: At this stage in my life, I want books that drive me towards actionable takeaways. Theory is good, but if I can't use what you're writing to improve my life, business, marriage, etc. — then what's the point.
Now, take a minute and write out 3-5 things that'll make a book good to you!
My recommendation library
I hope you found the above thoughts useful!
Now, to give you a concrete way forward, I spent a few months curating great books and organizing them in into the following lists. Just click on any of the topics below to find the best books worth reading. Also, go ahead and bookmark this resource for future reference!