I based this article on a slide from my 2017 presentation, ‘Learning to be a better coder’. It doesn’t only apply to programming.
If you want to learn how to become better at your craft, never reading books means doing it the hard way. Technical books have pros and cons, but although you might discover better ways to learn something, books probably help.
Obviously you learn programming from doing programming, and the idea of learning programming from books is ridiculous (except for all of these books that are not about programming that you should read to become a better programmer, because apparently it’s perfectly possible to learn about programming by reading as long as you pretend you’re not doing that).
A Book is a Tool for Thinking With - David R. MacIver
Note: technical doesn’t mean technology. Every specialism has technical skills - the concepts, techniques and practices its practitioners use.
Read the classics
Classic books still offer valuable lessons decades after their first publication, because every field has important lessons that don’t change. Even if you consider old books obsolete, you’ll get enrich your understanding of a specialist field by reading its most important book from each decade.
Note that you can’t find the classics for a new field that emerged from related fields. Classic product management books, for example, might cover product design, marketing or some other kind of management. The classics you should read might not use the same language as new books.
Read new books
If you read more than one book a decade, you can read last year’s most important new book every year, to stay up-to-date. If you can read enough, gamble on quality, or abandon a bad book halfway through, you can read new releases too.
As well as staying up-to-date, a new book gives you an in-depth head start on new ideas. New books pose a problem, though, because you can’t read them all. This presents a worthwhile side quest.
Talk to people about good books
Discussing books helps you figure out what to read. Everyone has a different top three books on a topic, and you can learn about a field from figuring out your own.
Searching for the best books forces you to narrow the field. When you zoom in, you discover a fractal geometry of topics: you’ll always find a smaller niche. Understanding these topic hierarchies lets you navigate the library.
Read blog posts for the long tail
Reading a blog post every day will allow you to figure out which new book everyone’s quoting or about to write. And if nothing else, you can procrastinate by reading blog posts about reading books (in addition to this one). Start with David R. MacIver’s:
- How to read a book
- Books should be taken seriously but not literally]
- Books are never finished, only abandoned
Don’t try to replace books with blog posts, though, however convenient. Books tend to feature better editing, focus and depth. And while some ideas have too niche an audience or lack the complexity to justify a book, I personally find satisfaction in a new book by a writer whose blog posts I like. I even read some of them.