“To solve any problem, here are three questions to ask yourself: First, what could I do? Second, what could I read? And third, who could I ask?” - Jim Rohn
Humans have used books to pass information for centuries, and it’s often how we choose to find and share solutions to life’s many problems. But sometimes, it is a real challenge to find that book – that book that has the answer you are looking for.
No matter what problem you have - regardless of how personal it is, and how unique it feels – there is almost certainly someone else who had the same problem, figured out a solution, and wrote a book about it. Sometimes, there are multiple books devoted to ways of solving that problem. You just need to find one book that works for you.
Whenever I run into a problem that I don’t know how to solve, I often turn to books. Many times I find the answer I need. But, it does take some effort and dedication to find that book among the many books written on the subject. Both unfortunately and fortunately, this problem of having too many books to choose from is found on just about every subject.
So I have developed some general guidelines to speed up the search for useful books. Here is what I do when I want to find a book that has a solution to a problem. I hope that these guidelines will be of use to you as well.
Is a book is based on science, and how can I tell?
Books based on science are not necessarily difficult to read. In fact, some of them are highly readable and many are entertaining. The details are often left in the citations, for those of us who are curious enough.
With every book I consider getting, I first determine whether it is based on science. This is not to say that books that are not based on science are not useful. There are some highly valuable books out there that have no scientific support. Nevertheless, it’s good to know what you’re dealing with. It’s also worth noting that some books claim to be scientific, but are not. For a detailed discussion of the different, I would recommend reading “What is Pseudoscience?”
You don’t need to buy a book to be able to tell if it’s based on science. A quick shuffle through the book or a short excerpt, often available online, will often do the trick. Here are some signs that a book is based on scientific research.
Simple signs that a book is based on science
Explicit Reference to Scientific Studies
Some books explicitly and frequently discuss scientific studies (eg. “In 2004, a Harvard professor conducted a study…”) But some books based on scientific studies do not refer to them explicitly.
An Extensive Bibliography of Scientific Articles
Regardless of whether scientific research is discussed directly, books based on science almost always have an extensive bibliography with citations to journal articles.
These bibliographies can come at the end of the book, or at the end of every chapter. You can tell whether the citations are articles or books by searching for them online. Most articles can be found on Google Scholar, and most books can be found on Google Books or Amazon. Also, citations to academic papers typically include an author list, a conference/journal name, the year published, and page numbers.
Items in the bibliography are commonly referenced using endnotes (Wikipedia articles use this form of citations as well). This is simply little numbers at the end of sentences in superscript. While not all books that have endnotes rely on scientific material, it is a pretty good and very simple indication.
Not All Science-Based Books Are Created Equal
In fact, some can be highly misleading. The presence of scientific references does not guarantee scientific accuracy. Sometimes citations are used in a misleading way. I read a best-selling book loaded with scientific citations several years ago, and was astonished at the claim it was making. So, I decided to check the citations. It turned out that the citations were done very poorly. For example, they were supporting claims about humans with scientific studies done on rats. Moreover, studies aren’t always conclusive. Often there are different opinions within a scientific community. When selecting among science-based book, we need to be careful. Which is why it is also important to consider other factors, such as the author and if the books were published recently, which we’ll get to in a minute.
If there is no scientific support, what kind of support is there?
Sometimes it is necessarily to look at books that have no scientific basis. This happens, for example, when you are unsatisfied with the best solution that science has to offer. An example would be if the problem is typically solved via pharmaceutical drugs, but you are hoping to find an alternative solution.
Sometimes, a book proposes an idea that the research community simply hasn’t tested yet. There is no research showing neither that it works nor that it fails to work. In such cases, the author will often explicitly state that what they propose has yet to be scientifically verified. Instead, the author may provide some limited empirical evidence. Perhaps, what they proposed has worked for the author and others that they know. For some books, there are entire followings (forum, websites, etc) that can attest to the effectiveness of what is proposed. But in short, the more people for which a solution works, the more likely it is to work for you.
There may be no scientific evidence, but does the author make any attempt to explain why their ideas should work? Sometimes a very compelling case can be made without resorting to science.
At other times there is no scientific support and no mention of such a possibility. This is ok, as long as the work is presented as an opinion or personal account. But, if the book is written in a style that suggests that what it proposes is the absolute truth, it is up to the reader to remind themselves that it is merely an opinion. A lot can be gained through someone’s opinion, but we also have to be careful what we believe.
WHO IS THE AUTHOR?
Now matter how popular or impressive the book appears, it is important to investigate who wrote it. Aim to find a book written by one of the top experts in the field. Just about every field has an several prominent experts. Regardless of what other books you read, it will be helpful to hear what the experts have to say.
So, for example, if you are having marital problems, it is a good idea to look for books written by leading marriage experts and counselors. If you are interested in Buddhism and meditation, it’s worth reading a book by the Dalai Lama himself. It can still be useful to look at other material as well, but books written by top experts are usually of very high quality.
WHEN WAS IT PUBLISHED?
When given the choice, I find that it is best to go for books written recently. Many fields evolve quickly, and if you are reading a book written 10 years ago, you are missing out on more than 10 years of research and development. For example, research in psychology evolves so quickly that many counselor’s who got their degrees 20 to 30 year ago are giving out badly out-dated advice, which contradicts modern research. If you read quality recent material, you may have an edge of professionals!
Don’t get me wrong, some books are timeless. But it is always worth supplementing your knowledge base with something recent – especially when it comes to scientifically supported work.
What are competing views?
It is always a good idea to explore competing views, but especially important when you are dealing with opinions that have not been scientifically tested. Even though the author may have provided a compelling argument, the argument made by the other side may be at least as compelling. Also, some important piece of the puzzle may be missing. That is, the argument may be incomplete, and you could find the missing piece by searching for the views of those in the opposing camp.
For example, let’s say you are considering a radical change to your diet. Say you want to eliminate something. You read a book which gave a compelling argument for why you should never eat X,Y, and Z. Before you go ahead and take the advice, explore what are good reasons to eat X,Y, and Z. Once you thoroughly investigate both points of you, you can make a much more informed decision.
A word of caution. We all have a tendency to favour information that conforms to our current world-view. There are many biases that can prevent us from being able to see and understand the full picture. It is useful to be aware of these, so that you can try to overcome them.
What is your gut telling you?
It’s ok if the book’s solution doesn’t feel right. You simply differ in opinion with the author, or your specific set of circumstances don’t line up well. Even if the work is based in science, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right for you (for some of the reasons discussed above). Even if your mother or best friend swears by the book, it may not be right for you. This is why it is often essential to go on your own quest to find a solution that works for you, and finding the right book is often a part of the process.
Some books simply make us feel good or bad, for no particularly good reason. For example, some of us are inspired to read about spiritual people who need nothing but the air to be happy. Others feel discouraged and hopeless. Some of us benefit from reading books that make us dig into the darkest parts of our past, while others feel that it causes them more harm than good. So pay attention to how you feel about what you read, and remember, no matter how great of an argument the book is making, you can always put it down and keep searching somewhere else.
Decide if it is helpful before paying for it
Read An Excerpt
If you are buying a book from a bookstore or borrowing it from the library, take the time to read a few pages: something from early in the book and another page from anywhere in the middle, and anything in the conclusions portion (if there is one). If you are buying in a book store or online, there is often an option of reading an excerpt. See if you enjoy reading it. This can also be used to see if you like the author’s writing style. It will also typically reveal whether the book is based on scientific research (see above).
If you have a Kindle, get the Kindle sample. It’s free!
Look At The Table-Of-Contents
I only got into the habit of reading the table of contents relatively recently, and I find it to be very helpful. Sometimes you can get the book’s entire message by reading the table of contents. If there isn’t a single chapter that really pops at you, there is probably no point in buying the book. Authors spend a lot of time on the table-of-contents. It is there for us, so let’s use it! Also, it is usually included on Amazon when an excerpt is provided.
How To Use Reviews
Finally, reviews! Who doesn’t read at reviews nowadays? The trick is how to use them. Whenever I fall into the trap of buying a book purely based on enthusiastic reviews, I am almost always disappointed. Read the reviews for content, not for how others feel about it. Of course, if everyone hates it, it is less like that you will love it. But usually there is some variety in opinions, and a 5 star rating does not guarantee that the book is high quality.
Look at reviews that tell you something meaningful about the book, the author, or related literature. Some reviews clearly and succinctly summarize the main message of the book. This is where you may realize that the book has nothing new to offer you. Sometimes a review can reveal something very important about the author, such as them being a leader in their field (you can then do another search to check whether it is true). I once learned from a review that the book I was considering buying is a layman version of a standard academic text! This is credibility!
Some reviews compare the book with others in the same field. This can be very valuable. When my husband and I were looking for a diet for Crohn’s, I read in a review the following short line: “This book is ok. But if you want real healing, you should read…” and he named a different book. And it worked! The review directed us to a diet that has kept my husband in remission for years with no medication!
Of course, you need to be at least as skeptical with reviews as you are with the material you gain from books, but it can be a valuable source of information, and it’s free! Finally, make sure to check out several positive and several negative reviews, and several in the mid range.
That’s it! I hope that you will find this information helpful for identifying the one, or few books, that will make a real difference. Remember , the answer is out there! Keep looking, and you are bound to find it.
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” - Charles William Eliot