On marginal value of books

I see several reasons for wanting to read a book.

  1. To learn new material.
  2. To be inspired.
  3. To be entertained by the content.
  4. To enjoy fantastically written prose.

The more successful books surviving the test of time generally fulfill at least two of these categories. Some of my favorite literature meets three out of four.

I wish every book recommendation was specific to which categories the book aims to fulfill. This especially applies to personal recommendations. Now, categories 3 and 4, while subjective and varying from person to person, are not conditioned on their relation to other previously read books. I’ll enjoy beautiful prose irrespective of how much similar prose I had already experienced. Likewise, the type of plot I find entertaining does not saturate with time, provided some angle, some novelty.

Categories 1 and 2, on the other hand, are largely conditioned on my previous experiences. For books of these categories, I want to hear of marginal value, not absolute. Based on what I already read or know, what additional new material can the book offer? What additional inspiration? Unless the book also fulfills categories 3 and/or 4, these marginal returns are crucial in determining whether the book is worthy of my time.

Granted, I cannot expect the recommender to know the contents of my head. Hence, voice the recommendation conditionally.

Example: “I adored book X, and you probably will too, provided you haven’t read Y or Z, or you don’t mind some repetition on the subjects V or W.”

Or, “You’ll enjoy book X, provided you haven’t exhausted your curiosity for subject Y.”

For the recommender, the task of formulating such a conditional recommendation is a matter of seconds and slightly more effort in thought preparation. It also demonstrates respect for the reader’s time. For the reader, it can be a matter of hours or days spared of unfulfilling reading.

To all those recommending books: be mindful of marginal value.