Why people don't read books.

and the white lies we tell to look smart.

Larry has not read the book “Debt: The First 5000 Years”. The book looks like this:

It is a 544-page dense read.

The truth is, Larry doesn’t read that much at all. But he does spend a lot of time recommending books to others.

Larry has heard of many nonfiction books. He knows the general topic of the book. And when someone mentions that topic, he is sure to recommend a book.

The problem is… he hasn’t actually read it.

Maybe he’s listened to the author on a podcast or simply heard others recommending it. So he passes on the “favor”.

Larry is not alone, a LOT of people do this.

Books primary spread by word-of-mouth, like this:

Those three people, mention it to three more people.

We end up with a lot of people knowing about a book, but very few having actually read it.

This is unsurprising. Reading a book is hard. It is time-consuming. It’s difficult to fit it in around the busyness of daily life.

Like meditation—there are far more people who say they do it, than actually do it.

If you were to ask Larry why he recommends a book that he hasn’t read, he’d say he’s just being “helpful”. And he is being helpful… sort of.

What Larry is really doing, is engaging in a status game. But he probably doesn’t know it.

This is not a slight against Larry. It is not bad or wrong, and certainly not unique to him either. We all play status games all the time, often unknowingly. It’s a game we can’t escape. Within a group of people, we all want to be loved and respected. We humans have the desire to climb the social ladder in a never-ending status game.

The reason Larry recommends books he hasn’t read, is because doing so makes him look intelligent to others.

The Status Game, a book by Will Stor (with a witty book cover) expands on this concept, detailing the three games we play:

1. Dominance: This is the "I'm the boss, and you're gonna do what I say" approach to the status game.

It's all about flexing your muscles (literally or metaphorically) and showing everyone who's in charge. In this mode, you're the top dog, and you get status points by making sure everyone else knows it.

2. Prestige: The "I'm so good at this thing, people can't help but admire me" approach.

Prestige is all about being super talented, knowledgeable, or just plain awesome in some way, and letting your skills speak for themselves. In this mode, you're the cool kid who everyone wants to hang out with, and you gain status points by earning the respect of your peers.

3. Virtue: Finally, there's the "I'm such a good person, people look up to me" approach.

Virtue is being kind, generous, and morally upstanding. It's about doing the right thing, even when no one's looking.

Books fall into the “prestige” category. If you read books, you must be intelligent. The social circle gives you status because books still hold a special place in our society.

Back in the 15th century, having access to books was an absolute privilege. Only the most wealthy and noble people were able to afford such luxuries. Books gave you knowledge about how the world works, a massive advantage in life. And that gave you status.

Mass communication and knowledge transfer mediums evolved over time: books, radio, tv. 

The Internet birthed: email, blogging, podcasts, youtube, and social media.

Despite such accessibility to these mediums, books have remained at the top of the knowledge transfer hierarchy:

When building my prior company, NonFiction (a book publishing house), we relied on the fact that books had status. Our clients wanted to become authors and be known as experts in their fields (and make more money).

Our brains chunk information and use shorthand to navigate the world, so people see it like this:

  • Author of a book = expert

  • Reader of a book = intelligent person

That’s why becoming an author works.

Either way, being associated with books gives you status. Some of the status human society has placed on books, for thousands of years, rubs off on you.

What Larry figured out, is that you don’t actually have to read the book—you just have to know of its existence. Others will assume you’ve read it.

A shortcut! Larry has hacked the system. He gains prestige and social status by recommending books he’s never read.

Larry is feeling good. But really… Larry is only cheating himself.

He’s missing out on the best part: engaging in thoughtful dialogue and wonderful discussion with the person he recommended it to after they read it.

Now let me clarify—I'm not saying read the entirety of every book. Many books lack the substance to justify their existence and they'd be better off as blog posts. You can often get the nugget of insight within the first few chapters of a book.

I view books as flexible references for dipping in and out as needed. If a book is crap, don’t read it. I stop reading books all the time and am a big advocate for book-quitting. If you’re finishing every book you start, you’re probably not being stringent enough (or you’re outstanding at book selection).

Here’s what I do instead: Recommend chapters.

  • Anyone can read one chapter. If someone actually cares about the topic and wants to learn, they’ll be willing to put in the effort to get the book, and dedicate some time to reading a single chapter.

  • It won’t take 6-20 hours. Probably only 20-45 minutes, very doable.

  • Then, maybe they’ll read the rest of the book (or not!)

This is what separates the talkers from the doers.

If you’ve simply heard of a book, but haven’t read it, of course you can mention it. Just do one thing… disclose that you haven’t read it!

The book might be helpful, or, it might totally suck — you don’t know cause you haven’t actually read it. Endorsing it blindly comes back to bite you in the bum when you do read it and realize you don’t find it interesting at all.

I try not to be intellectually lazy. When giving someone a book, explain your takeaway or how it changed your thinking.

“Have you read Atomic Habits by James Clear? It’s a really great book about habits,” is too vague.

“My biggest takeaways were in chapter 6, ‘Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More’. It got me to optimize my physical cues in my house...” This sort of thing adds so much more color to your interaction and recommendation.

So, to be true to my word, here are a couple of chapter recommendations to start you off:

Let me know what chapters you recommend!

P.S. This whole thing was about nonfiction books, obviously this won’t work with fiction.