I’m reading a book right now which I’ll name in a later post which contains, roughly according to my estimate, about 80% wisdom to 20% bullshit and it strikes me that this is the absolutely worst ratio possible. In fact, making a mental list of wisdom:bullshit ratios made me think how highly non-linear my personal scale is. So here it is from best to worst:

  • 90:10 – These are the books I most enjoy reading as the amount of bullshit is just enough for you to calibrate your filter and be able to extract out the deep wisdom hidden within. I would say Freakanomics would fit squarely into this category.
  • 100:0 – Although, intuitively, you would think a book with no bullshit is better than a book with some bullshit, it’s actually not because you now no longer have a scale of comparison. Did you not detect bullshit because it wasn’t there or because it was too advanced for you to understand? I don’t think I’ve read any books that fall squarely in this category, at least not for a long time.
  • 0:100 – Simple, skim a couple of pages and throw it away, your life remains unaffected. The Secret would be a good book of this category.
  • 50:50 – These books are challenging and require you to have your bullshit filter on full force. You’re forced to comb through every sentence and carefully consider each statement. Such books can often cause you to radically shift your thinking or at least inject doubt into your process. The 48 laws of power was a book like that for me.
  • 30:70 / 40:60 / 60:40 /70:30 – For the most part, this will be largely everything you read. Most mass media falls into this comfortable middle range and, although it’s challenging to parse properly, you become so used to doing it that it’s routine.
  • 10:90 / 20:80 – These books are frustrating because there’s a hidden core of wisdom surrounded by so much utter crap that they’re emotionally draining to read and yet the small insights urge you to keep going. Atlas Shrugged was definitely in that category for me. I hated it so much, I inexplicably read it again a few years later, gritting my way through the entire book.
  • 80:20 – The 80:20 book is the book that derails people’s lives. Mixed in among all that wisdom is just a few key mistakes that can lead you far, far astray. This is how cults recruit their members and smart financial wizards managed to argue their way into this financial crisis. The wisdom is compelling enough that you let down your guard and don’t realize how much bullshit you let in until it’s too late. I’ll be providing a review of the current book I’m reading in a few days with the case of why I believe it to be an 80:20 book.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear your examples of books you think fit into any of the above categories…

Responses

  1. Bill R says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 3:22 pm (#)

    The only 100:0 book I’ve ever read in my life is The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose.

    “Did you not detect bullshit because it wasn’t there or because it was too advanced for you to understand?” is a rather apt description.

  2. Bill R says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 7:22 am (#)

    The only 100:0 book I’ve ever read in my life is The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose.

    “Did you not detect bullshit because it wasn’t there or because it was too advanced for you to understand?” is a rather apt description.

  3. Mike Walsh says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 4:56 pm (#)

    I’m feeling this book is going to be Outliers…. just a feeling.

  4. Mike Walsh says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 8:56 am (#)

    I’m feeling this book is going to be Outliers…. just a feeling.

  5. Matt Grimm says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 5:39 pm (#)

    Depends on what you define bullshit as, I suppose. I would consider the Celestine Prophecy to be in the 20:80 realm by your scaling, but really that book didn’t have so much bullshit as it did just regular ‘ol shit. Bad writing anchored on a few interesting concepts.

    I think this is a good scaling for political / self-help books, but it kind of falls flat on fiction or storytelling. Which is the larger percentage of the book world, unless I’m mistaken.

    Cheers,

    m

  6. Matt Grimm says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 9:39 am (#)

    Depends on what you define bullshit as, I suppose. I would consider the Celestine Prophecy to be in the 20:80 realm by your scaling, but really that book didn’t have so much bullshit as it did just regular ‘ol shit. Bad writing anchored on a few interesting concepts.

    I think this is a good scaling for political / self-help books, but it kind of falls flat on fiction or storytelling. Which is the larger percentage of the book world, unless I’m mistaken.

    Cheers,

    m

  7. Christian Stiehl says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 6:20 pm (#)

    For me, I’d be putting Atlas Shrugged more in the 90:10 category, or perhaps 85:15, if we’re splitting hairs. I think there’s a lot of good, clear, logical thinking there — as well as some extra junk that’s just the personal affectations of an author with strong opinions. I feel about Rand a lot like Michael Shermer does: able to recognize the cult-like aspects of Objectivism, and catch the psychological mistakes she makes, yet still very much influenced by her thinking and convinced that she had a number of things rightly figured out. Or was at least on the right track.

    I’d put many of Richard Dawkins’ books in the 90:10 category, especially those like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Enormously compelling, they finally get you to the point where you start to believe that you really might understand evolution on a fundamental level, and understand it well enough to be able to explain it to novices and defend it from attackers.

  8. Christian Stiehl says:

    March 4th, 2009 at 10:20 am (#)

    For me, I’d be putting Atlas Shrugged more in the 90:10 category, or perhaps 85:15, if we’re splitting hairs. I think there’s a lot of good, clear, logical thinking there — as well as some extra junk that’s just the personal affectations of an author with strong opinions. I feel about Rand a lot like Michael Shermer does: able to recognize the cult-like aspects of Objectivism, and catch the psychological mistakes she makes, yet still very much influenced by her thinking and convinced that she had a number of things rightly figured out. Or was at least on the right track.

    I’d put many of Richard Dawkins’ books in the 90:10 category, especially those like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. Enormously compelling, they finally get you to the point where you start to believe that you really might understand evolution on a fundamental level, and understand it well enough to be able to explain it to novices and defend it from attackers.

  9. Jesa McGinty-Green says:

    March 10th, 2009 at 4:40 pm (#)

    Now I heart you- and yet you do not know me.
    Try:
    100 Years of solitude
    Lamb:the gospel according to jesus’s best friend
    Good omens
    comics (sandman and preacher are fun)
    A Prayer for Owen Meany
    ummm… I have to get back to work, or else I’d bother you more.

  10. Jesa McGinty-Green says:

    March 10th, 2009 at 8:40 am (#)

    Now I heart you- and yet you do not know me.
    Try:
    100 Years of solitude
    Lamb:the gospel according to jesus’s best friend
    Good omens
    comics (sandman and preacher are fun)
    A Prayer for Owen Meany
    ummm… I have to get back to work, or else I’d bother you more.

  11. Jesa McGinty-Green says:

    March 10th, 2009 at 4:42 pm (#)

    PS- you categorize them. I’d like to see where you place what.

  12. Jesa McGinty-Green says:

    March 10th, 2009 at 8:42 am (#)

    PS- you categorize them. I’d like to see where you place what.

  13. Hang says:

    March 10th, 2009 at 10:21 pm (#)

    Hi Jesa,

    I don’t think it works for fiction books in the same way that it works for non-fiction but I’d like to know what you think.

  14. Hang says:

    March 10th, 2009 at 2:21 pm (#)

    Hi Jesa,

    I don’t think it works for fiction books in the same way that it works for non-fiction but I’d like to know what you think.

  15. zixmail says:

    June 18th, 2010 at 4:43 am (#)

    hello, there's just so much bullshit piling up on this subject that you practically … its truths are very old!

  16. Toolwise says:

    November 25th, 2010 at 4:09 am (#)

    this article would fall into the 0:100 catagory… What bullshit

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