Smart People Should Read Fewer Books

One of my favorite interview questions ever is: What’s something you believe that almost no one else does?

My answer: Smart people read too many books.

I know that sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out…

Most books are 90% fluff and not worth your time.

Reading is one of the most important and beneficial things anyone, at any age or in any context, can do. But like any decision in life, you can’t determine the true benefit without considering the downsides, especially opportunity cost.

The opportunity cost of reading a given book is all the other things you could be doing with your time and energy besides reading that book, including… reading a better book.

A lot of smart people fall into the trap of indiscriminately reading lots of books and assuming that their time and energy is well-spent simply because they’re reading.

Because they’re smart and have always read a lot, reading is simply a habit. But as with all habits, this can create mindlessness:

There’s a lot of crap out there disguised in book form. And it’s surprisingly easy to waste precious time and energy wading through that crap.

Many books these days—especially self-improvement and business-style books—are stuffed with stories and anecdotes that don’t really add much value. And so we end up with 300-page books whose core ideas could have been perfectly well articulated in 30 pages. Or even 3.

But even if you’re a good skimmer, it can still take 2-3 hours to get through a 200-300 page book.

And what do you typically end up with? Maybe one or two interesting or useful ideas.

This is horribly inefficient at best. Tragically so, when you consider the accumulated opportunity cost over time.

While there are many ways to become a more efficient reader, one of the most overlooked is to use podcast interviews to filter out mediocre books and find the ones that are really worth your time.

Why podcast interviews are the ultimate quality filter for your reading.

There are three kinds of books:

  1. Bad books. This is at least 90% of all books out there. Fortunately, these are pretty easy to spot and avoid. It’s the next category that gets us into trouble…
  2. Pretty good books. This is at least 90% of the remaining 10% of books out there. They’ve got some good ideas and interesting points, but those few morsels aren’t really worth the 2-5 hours of time and energy it takes most of us to read the entire book.
  3. Great books. This is the 1%, maybe even the 0.1%. This is the precious few books that are not only filled to the brim with genuine wisdom and insight, but the books for whom reading them is itself a beneficial act and always time well-spent.

You shouldn’t waste your time reading anything from the first two categories.

The trouble is, most of us still want access to the few interesting ideas from the pretty good books without the time and energy investment required to read the books…

Enter podcast interviews.

The average interview podcast is somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes long.

If you’re listening to a good podcast—which, among other things, means the host is smart and has done their research on the person and read their book—only the most important and/or interesting parts of the book are going to be asked about.

And especially if you’re listening on 1.5x speed, you can often extract the one, two, or three interesting ideas from a pretty good book in a fraction of the time it would have taken you to actually read the book itself. Which means more time available to read great books.

So, find yourself a few good interview podcasts and stop wasting time reading good books.

Be ruthless in your commitment to only reading great books.

Too many smart people waste thousands of hours of precious time and energy reading pretty good books, which are no more than over-priced and inefficient vehicles for communicating ideas.

You can get these ideas much more efficiently (and cheaply) by listening to good podcast interviews with the author, thus freeing you up to read truly great books, the ones worthy of your time and energy.

After all…

Do you really have time to read anything but great books?


Add Yours

Generally I like your content, but I gotta say this is just bad advice. What’s to say all podcasts are “great content” Why does a book have to be the top 1% of content, but podcasts are all of value?

Reading fiction, non-fiction or whatever all has some level of value. Slowing down, learning, gaining empathy or just shutting out the world is valuable and more so than a podcast. Now I do enjoy a podcast now and then but replacing reading with another form of technology is not the message I expected form you and find it’s evidence lacking for sure.

Hey Troy,

So, I definitely don’t think all podcasts are great content. But good podcast interviews with authors can help you weed-out pretty-good books from potentially great ones, so you can spend more time reading the great ones.

Good author interview podcasts are simply an under-appreciated tool for maximizing the quality of your reading time.

Why spend 3 hours only to realize a book was mediocre when I could have ruled it out in 30 minutes hearing the author talk about it and then spend the extra 2.5 hours reading something I know is great?

I like all of your content and completely understand what you are saying here. Sometimes the compulsion to find a “great” book through, really worth my time, creates a different waste of time, searching and reading reviews, etc.

So listening to some quick podcasts sounds like a great solution, but just the thought of figuring out which podcasts would be most useful is daunting to me! Could you name a few?


Good point, Cindy. It’s hard to make specific recommendations since “great” is a but subjective.

That being said, a few of my favorite podcasts that often (but not always) talk about books are The Ezra Klein Show, Conversations with Tyler, The Art of Manliness, and The Knowledge Project.

Thank you for your insights really want to go in this direction.
However, I wonder if the cognitive benefits of reading are superior to podcasts listing.

Super subjective, but here are a few off the top of my head in the self-improvement/psychology genre:
– Deep Work
– How to Read a Book
– Atomic Habits
– The Gardener and the Carpenter
– The Uses of Enchantment

You seem to forget that most books written are fiction, “90% of books are a waste of time”? Get out of here you quack. Sounds like someone just thinks their use of time is better most others because you’ve never truly understood the richness of a well told story. There are people to look up to and lessons to be learned. Frankly, you sound like someone who is just trying to do too much with their life 1.5x podcast speed, isn’t enjoyable. Slow down my dude enjoy life a little bit.

I agree that most books, blogs and podcasts right now are fluff ie crap.
I homeschool my kids and am always looking for The Great Books lists for all the grade levels, do you have any resources to share?

Hey Bree,

Honestly, I think the best investment in this case is to find some people you admire who can serve as good sources of book recommendations. For example, I follow the economist Tyler Cowen online and he frequently recommends books which I always find interesting and of high-quality.

Personally, I think many of the “classics” are classics for a reason 🙂

Books, blogs, and podcasts are all on the mix for me. I don’t discriminate, and don’t need to because I can get an unlimited number of interlibrary loan books fast and free, but the truth most books aren’t worth a full non-skim read. The whole point is knowing how to find them.

One of my favorite professors advises to read book reviews before reading books. I’ve found this to be excellent advice. However, it’s also highly controversial. It all depends on why you read, and what you think you’re doing in reading. Nick, romantic and literary types will object the most strenuously to such advice. There are plenty of books that will tell you why this is, but you’d have to know something about Romantic philosophy to understand why, and why they’re wrong.

Nick this is horrible advice and you are clearly only semi-literate at best. There are 4 types of reading superficial, elementary, analytical and syntopical. Superficial reading is where you give the book quick look over to see if it is worth an analytical read or even a syntopical read as part of a larger collection. You clearly are an anti-intellectual who has no idea what he is talking about.

P.S. superficial reading takes 5-10 minutes. Read the quotes on the cover, the preface, quick glance at the table of contents. Then ascertain from that what chapters seem crucial to the book then dive in a few paragraphs here and there but never more than a few. Hardly 30 minutes that you are blubbering about

Hi Nick, thank you for the article. I love books and I start developing a taste for podcasts. I very much appreciate your opinion (enough to come here from Medium and leave my two cents) I agree with you about the books but for a slightly different reason. I believe that the ratio of consumption to production on any medium should change over time. The more you know the more dots you can connect. And the way you connect the dots is unique and in many cases is worth sharing. Smart people should write enough to offset the volume of their reading.
As for podcasts I think the most valuable aspect of them is the conversational nature of presenting the information. If smart people don’t write enough or don’t talk enough their monologues tend to get super long like this comment ?

I agree with what you said. For me, most of my non-fiction reading is in my field or related to my specific interests for wider knowledge.I usually read scholarly journals and books. I know the good authors from the bad. As for fiction, I choose writers I know and read all of their books and writers members of my family suggest. I had bought a Kindle for traveling and bought one month of Kindle unlimited. I saw all the junk that was included, and I unsubscribed immediately. Any book I was interested in reading, I had to buy.

I agree with you dude, sometimes we waste our time to read books ? but those books arent good enough for us.

To make it simple we dont have to waste our time reading all the content of a books, just listen to a podcast it will decrease a lot of our time.

But would you please to share some books podcast to us? thx

Just like the old saying “Don’t believe everything you read” , I add “Don’t believe every podcast you hear”. Some people love reading junk. Ones junk is another mans treasure. I prefer reading light junk when I’m too stressed and can’t concentrate on a good book. It’s really our responsibility to find a fitting book,and I will say there’s nothing like falling asleep on a rainy afternoon with your book lying across your chest, after reading several chapters. There are no e-books or podcasts to ever take the place of a real book, in my opinion. However I did find your piece light and entertaining and I thank you for it. .

I gotta admit, it is the greatest idea I have heard. But why podcasts? Searching websites is a great source of information. Also asking your friends is a greater option for finding out which books to read.
Also, the most essential part of reading a book is listening directly from the author himself/herself. Why gotta limit your understanding of the book to only an individual who claims to understand its essential meaning. Are you claiming that the individual who has done his research can convey the author’s ideas the same as the author? Or is it just about the efficiency? I don’t read self-improvement and business-style books, so I can’t say anything about any of them. But, what gives you the right to judge 90% of the books from the limited amount of books you have read through?
Also here is my recommendation:
Apology(Apologia) by Plato
It might change your view on both yourself and books.

Nick, thank you for confirming something I’ve talked about forever and that is that if you could take the essence of any book it would be about 10 pages if that.
Thank you for the podcast recommendation. I haven’t really done them sticking to books but trying to read better books.
Thank you, as it is always wonderful to have your inner voice validated.

Boy. Your an idiot Podcasts express the opinion of people having them. Reading opens the world to people with unlimited options.

So, listen to good podcast interviewers, which is, as defined, someone who has done the research and read the authors books, so that we can come away with the ideas they found stood out the most?

Meaning let others do the reading, thinking, analysis, synthesis and have the conversations for you. The same things they do to become good Podcaster is what you’re saying is a waste of time for anyone else who is not a podcaster…
Not to mention, podcasts are filled with much fluff as well, and you have to sift through the banter and the jargon, the wisecracking and the rants before you can unearth the few gems hidden in the podcast.
I’ll stick to wasting my time reading.

How do we find out if a book is good or great if we don’t read it? Everyone has a different perspective on what’s great based on where they are in life.

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