Read More Older Books

Your phone alarm buzzes by the side of your bed. After silencing the alarm, you look through your push notifications, check your email, and scan news articles to see what’s happened in the world. On the way to work you listen to a podcast or audiobook. When your mental stamina starts to drain at work, you take a break, check social media, and maybe read a few more articles. Once work’s over, the headphones are back on for the commute home.

Any of this sound familiar?

It’s certainly true for me.

All of these bits and pieces of information we consume form our information diet.

Originally, I was going to write this article about all the different tech industry resources I gathered from my community that they use to be more informed (which I’ll still be posting soon). However, as I was thinking about my information diet, I realized that most of the information I consume is extremely recently created.

Around 80% of the information I consume is less than one month old.

And at maximum, I very rarely consume information that’s older than five years.

For most books, articles, news, and information to be useful to us, the author typically needs to take some underlying fact (e.g., numbers, events) and add meaning to it. Otherwise, we’d all just be given the raw data and have to come up with all our own theories from scratch. However, here in lies the problem. If we don’t know all the underlying facts of a situation and aren’t experts in that field, how do we know if the theories and opinions we are consuming are correct?

Fortunately, at a high-level I think there is a fairly straightforward framework — use the wisdom of the crowd and error on the side of consuming objective rather than subjective information.

Why read older books?

For general reference purposes, I’ll define older information as over ~10 years old.

By consuming older information, what we’re really trying to do is decrease the likelihood of getting a false positive (that is, an untrue theory or opinion) in the information we consume. We leverage all the people who have already consumed the information and decided both that it’s valuable and that it’s true. The longer a piece of information has been available, the more people are going to have read it and gone through that process. Therefore, the books, articles, and theories that are older but still very much popular today have a higher likelihood of not only being valuable but true. Plus you have the ability to further confirm these older theories and opinions with the events and facts that’s occurred after their publishing.

And yet, every week New York Times updates its’ list of bestselling books and every week people look for the newest books, the newest theories. I’ve always been one of these people. I thought older books and theories were stale, boring, and likely irrelevant for most of the challenges I’ll encounter. However, theories don’t change that quickly.

The older, yet still popular, books and theories are the cornerstones for most of the ideas that people are coming up with today.

If you’re still skeptical, check out the bookshelf of Patrick Collison (Co-Founder & CEO of Stripe). Patrick is widely regarded as a prolific reader and intellectual and most of the books he recommends are over 10 years old.

Also, as a small aside, the present has never been a great judge of whether a piece of work would be valued in future generations. Many great writers, artists, and scientists passed away before they were recognized for their work.

Why read opinions based on using the scientific method?

Theories and ideas should be based on facts and causal relationships. Facts are generally easy to come by, but finding a causal relationship is much more difficult. The best way to determine if there is a causal relationship is to use the scientific method and run a controlled experiment. Lucky for us, some of the brightest people in the world have devoted their lives to academia and experiments.

These experiments help move theories and ideas from the subjective to the objective realm.

Sadly most of this academic research is kept in academic journals and is not that accessible to the general public. However, a small number of these academics (typically the more successful ones) choose to publish their research findings in books that use more accessible language- such as limiting jargon and complex math — and are easier for people to access (i.e., on Amazon or your public library). Given the rigor that goes into much of this type of research, we should place significant weight on these types of theories and ideas. Certainly much more weight than is generally given in today’s society.

“That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

– Warren Buffet

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