Freddie deBoer has a great post up about what he calls “project books.” A project book, according to deBoer, is a book that stretches you beyond your current intellectual capabilities. It’s that book you’ve always wanted to read, one that you know you’ll benefit from having read, but have been too intimidated to start. (DeBoer’s examples: Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter for nonfiction, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco for fiction.)
deBoer’s post covers a lot of ground and is well worth the read so I won’t rehash what he already said (better than I ever could), but I want to point out something about project books that he didn’t quite hammer home enough:
The most important part of a project book, to me, is the sense of humility it instills in the reader. It’s not something you can breeze through and feel like you’re smarter than everyone else for a little while. (See: most pop-science/pop-psych) It stops you dead in your tracks and forces you to feel your intellectual inadequacies at full intensity.
The best project books, after humiliating you, will let you in. You piece the puzzle together yourself, do the ancillary research as needed, and slowly come to terms with it. The best project books should do more than teach you about a subject. They should show you that you’re smarter than you thought you were at the start.
The “read at whim” advice is fine for a lot of books. A lot of what we read is fairly easy to get our heads around. It’s generally a good idea to read what you like and what interests you. It’s a good idea to put a book down if it’s not appealing to you.
But don’t use the “read at whim” excuse as a cop out when the going gets tough. It’s almost too easy to confuse what you’re interested in with what’s readily understandable, so don’t lie to yourself, saying “I’m just not that interested in this,” just because you’re stuck and getting frustrated. Stay with it and you’ll be rewarded twice: first with a deep understanding of a subject and second with a knowledge that you’re capable of more than you knew.