Books Proteus Read in November 2019

Happy Thanksgiving! I read 3 books in November – a decent number. Now it’s time to give a short review for each book, and post them on my list of short reviews. Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Rating: 4.3/5

Finished: 05/Nov/2019

A book making the case for agnostic Buddhism. BWB treats the Buddha as a historical figure, and focuses on Buddhism as a “dharmic practice” for reducing suffering rather than a monastic, metaphysical, or mystical tradition. Good for secular explorers of Buddhism, avoid if you’re a more traditional or religious Buddhist.

[Read more about Buddhism Without Beliefs on Amazon] Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan

Rating: 3.9/5

Finished: 16/Nov/2019

An engaging geopolitics book about the coming century of global disorder, and how America’s geography, demography, financial system, and growing shale capacity will turn the 21st century into a true American century. He only dedicates two pages to climate change, but there’s much in Accidental Superpower worth thinking about.

[Read more about The Accidental Superpower on Amazon] Stranger by Albert Camus

Rating: 1.7/5

Finished: 25/Nov/2019

A book about an apathetic doormat, who uses nihilism to justify low standards and poor life choices. Existentialism is a powerful life-affirming philosophy; even though this is a core existentialist text, this is existentialism at it’s worst. Read if you like Camus – I’d suggest finding a better book on existentialism.

[Read more about The Stranger on Amazon]

A More Detailed Way of Rating Books

I’m updating my list of short book reviews – it’s slow going, but it’s coming along.

Normally when I finish reading a book, I’ve been rating it out of 10, and then turning that into a 5 star rating for Goodreads. After rating so many books with similar ratings, I’ve concluded that I need to make a more detailed rating system to be a little more objective about rating books. The rating system I’ve made has 5 categories I consider important in books, with 50 total points, and is easily converted to a 5 star rating.

Writing Quality: Is it written well? How often did you put it down, and was it for positive or negative reasons?

  • 0 – The editor had a heart attack
  • 3 – Difficult to get through
  • 5 – Could be better, could be worse
  • 7 – Pretty well written
  • 10 – I couldn’t put it down or didn’t want to stop

Good writing is subjective, but important. Some books have great reasons to read them despite being badly written, but bad writing gets in the way of enjoyment or learning.

Accuracy/Believability/Content: How accurate, usable, or revolutionary is the information? Or how accurate is the book’s setting? How believable is the information – is it too good to be true? Or how believable are the story and characters?

  • 0 – Complete bullshit/What story? What characters?
  • 3 – A lot of misinformation/stretching my suspension of disbelief
  • 5 – Some information could be better/the story could be worse
  • 7 – Learned a few new things/pretty good story
  • 10 – Revolutionary book that changed my life/one of the greatest stories in human literature

A good book isn’t just written well, the content is also amazing. It should teach you something useful, the information should be true, or the story should be brilliant.

Rereading: Do I want to reread this? If this is a reread, has it changed how I feel about the book?

  • 0 – Don’t mention this book to me ever again
  • 3 – I’d rather not reread this
  • 5 – I could reread this if I’m bored
  • 7 – There’s some value in rereading this
  • 10 – I’m going to reread this multiple times in my life

Good books aren’t just read once; the best books get read more than a dozen times. Each reading should teach something different or give a new perspective.

Gifting or Recommending: If an open-minded person with an interest in the genre/topic was looking for their next book, would you gift or recommend this? If the book is controversial or the author is disliked, is there a reason people should read it anyway?

  • 0 – I wouldn’t give this to my worst enemy
  • 3 – It would be better if they read something else
  • 5 – Maybe I’d recommend it, maybe not
  • 7 – I’d consider giving/recommending it
  • 10 – I would be proud to give it to them, and if they’ve already read it I want them to read it again

If a book is really good, I want to recommend it to people – and I want to give the best books to people I care about most, to enrich their lives. If I can’t do that, it’s a problem.

Longevity: Will this book be readable, useful, or interesting to readers in the future? Would it be better for them to read a different book in the same genre/topic?

  • 0 – Dead on arrival
  • 3 – Already has huge issues, and will only get worse in the coming years
  • 5 – A handful of issues, but future readers will still get something out of it
  • 7 – Maybe there’s an issue or two, but still good/useful for the foreseeable future
  • 10 – Timeless, a book people will read/have read for centuries without issue

Every book carries a risk of becoming outdated, or of showing off the ignorance of the times. The best books are timeless, and will be read long after the author has died.

There’s still plenty of room for personal opinion – the point is to make my ratings a little more objective, not spend hours judging punctuation or fact-checking the whole book.

Terrible books will still get a handful of points, and really good books will lose a few points unless they’re perfect – both are better than just saying “That was great/terrible!”

Has anyone done something like this before? Probably, but most people don’t. Then again, most people don’t read as much as I do, and don’t need to be be that detailed.

Changing My Writing Style

I went to college for six years.

The first two years were in high school, taking community college classes to complete a high school degree. The next two years were as a regular community college student, exploring my options for university. The last two years were as a university student.

During that time, I had to write a lot of essays. Some were very good – others not as good. What united most of them was that they were very long.

Academic writing usually prioritizes length, with page and word requirements. Sometimes this is reasonable or necessary, forcing the student to prove they fully understand the topic. Often this isn’t reasonable or necessary – the student is asked to write in 1000 words what could be said in 100, and in 20 pages what could be said in one or two. The length means that something was said, but not necessarily that anything important was said.

Academic writing also emphasizes technical vocabulary – jargon. This is also sometimes reasonable or necessary, since difficult subjects can be hard to talk about otherwise. Often this isn’t reasonable or necessary, creating confusion in the reader, and hiding a lack of understanding from the author.

As you can guess, I’m changing my writing style to avoid length and jargon from now on. Looking back on some of the things I’ve written on this blog in the past, some of them could be half as long and twice as clear. If something can be clearly said in fewer words, I’ll try to do so. If something can be said with simpler words, I’ll replace them.

What does this look like? As an example, it looks like something George Orwell wrote called Politics and the English Language. In the essay Orwell lays out his 6 rules for good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Basically: the opposite of academic writing.

There’s also a tweet thread by Naval Ravikant, about How to Get Rich (without getting lucky). Rather than write a long book, he tweets out about 40 simple principles for getting rich. Also: no jargon.

It’s not just about essays: I’m also going to go over my list of reviews – I call them “short reviews” but most of them are still too long. I’m going rewrite all of them to be less than 50 words – with writing that short, every word counts.

For most writing, being clear and understood is more important than length or jargon. Universities will tell you otherwise.

I’m sure this will take practice to get right.