Jamie Lawrence’s principles for judging books

He writes me an email:

We somehow ended up talking about things we absolutely judge by first impression. We both read a lot and widely in general, and it was a fun topic.

An easy one for me to note was that I skip technical/professional/academic work that is far enough outside of my expertise that I know the baseline knowledge assumptions are beyond me.  Imperfect, but in general, a good filter.

I skip nearly all books by politicians, executives, and similar people. Even when people tell me that one is good, it usually isn't.

I really dislike reading music reviews. They almost never seem insightful, and rarely tell me anything I didn't realize I wanted to know.

Sort of the opposite of the above filters, I tend to really enjoy reading applied trade books for things far outside my expertise.  An example is that about six months ago, I read a treatise on elevator traffic management that was fascinating.

What other principles can you think of?  I go to Mary Riley Styles Falls Church Public Library and check the non-fiction Return carts, to see what other people have been reading.


I read things I've seen recommended by more than one source, provided the sources are different enough from each other. Say, one econbloger and one of my lab mates. I also listen to many podcast interviews with authors as a screening technique.

More importantly, elevator traffic management is fascinating. It also has a lot of analogs to resource allocation in computing. In fact the dominant algorithm for managing disk sector access on traditional hard disks is called "the elevator algorithm."

I usually just stumble upon great books, with no underlying logic connecting them

I read finance and economics books that are recommended from talks that I go to, bloggers that I respect (hat tip to you Dr. Cowen), books/articles that I have already read, and personal recommendations (viewed with the largest grain of salt). In many ways, my reading has spread out in a very interconnected web with a great deal of overlap. I also try to intersperse bits of fiction that vastly diverge from my regular nonfiction, for instance I just finished Christopher Buckley's "Boomsday" which was an awesomely hilarious satirical novel on fixing Social Security.

I'd like to see the elevator traffic paper too!

I've had a few gems recommended to me by Amazon's "you might also like" feature, along with an enormously large pile of dross.

I look at the cover, the title and sometimes read the blurb. Book covers have a definite look that depends on their target audience, so that works as a surprisingly good first filter.

Titles that are subtle jokes or references are a good sign - the title may or may not have been the author's choice, but having a title that is clearly aimed at an intelligent, well-read audience is a good sign that the book may be.

Then I'll flip it open somewhere in the middle and read a paragraph. If I don't want to close the book, I'll probably read it.

Any book where the primary color of the cover is red. I like red.

Also, never any books by celebrities, they are never worthwhile, even if they are red.

I'm a tough public to sway. Most movie/book/music reviews are a turn-off since they offer more ego than insight.

Discovery never fails me when I start in a bookstore/library at letter A and browse through letter Z. I don't judge on front covers (the joy of reading is the freedom to create your own visual landscape from words). Reading a few paragraphs midway (Sam's flip test) is the real jury. I repeat this once every 2-3 months and have found some real gems.

More on that book - check out the new/used spread on it. I've certainly seen that sort of inversion before, but I don't think I've seen that big of one.

For academic stuff, by press and then by series -- once you find an editor whose taste you like, check out what else is in the series.

Well that's good information and helpful too...!I love to read novels.Books are our true friends.They always be with you and support you in every situation.They have the solution of your every problems.Ne ways keep posting.

If I learn of a book which has been praised
by a wide spectrum of people who often disagree
on things and who are experts in different areas,
I feel I ought to read it. And I have read enough
books in this class to trust the principle.

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