A Simple Method for Analyzing Books

A recent Pew Research Center study found the following:

  • Americans 18 and older read on average 17 books each year. 19% say they don’t read any books at all. Only 5% say they read more than 50.
  • Fewer Americans are reading books now than in 1978.
  • 64% of respondents said they find the books they read from recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers.
  • The average reader of e-books read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months; the average non-e-book consumer read an average of 15.

The first bullet above is pretty remarkable. Using 17 books/year with, let’s say, 40 years of reading (above the age of 18), that’s 680 books read in adulthood. That’s a lot.

This got me thinking about how we decide which books to buy and how our decisions on which books to buy adapt with each book that we read. Are we in tune with our changing desires and interests and is our feedback loop from both positive and negative reading experiences, well, accurate and efficient?

Some time ago, I began collecting data on my book reading experiences to allow me to analyze exactly that. Given the Pew study, I figure I’ll share my methodology in hopes it makes sense to someone else. Star ratings such as that on Amazon are certainly helpful, but my hope is to perfectly understand what works for me as to make my decisions on reading material accurate, efficient, and part of a lifelong journey for knowledge and inspiration.

Known Data Elements (Both Categorical and Quantitative)

  • Author
  • Type (Non-Fiction vs Fiction)
  • Genre (Thrillers/Suspense, Science/Technology, Current Affairs & Politics, etc.)
  • Number of Pages (using hardcover as a standard)
  • Date Published

Personal Data Inputs (upon book completion)

  • Date Completed
  • Tags/Notes
  • Readability, Flow, & Structure (RFS) – A score ranging from [0.0, 5.0] subjectively assigned to a book based on ease-of-read and the overall structure of the book.
  • Thought-Provoking, Engagement, & Educational Value (TEV) – A score ranging from [0.0, 5.0] subjectively assigned to a book based on how mentally stimulating it was in terms of knowledge and thought.
  • Entertainment, Suspense, & Likeability (ESL) – A score ranging from [0.0, 5.0] subjectively assigned to a book based on the entertainment value and overall likeability of the story, characters, and/or information presented.

Those three metrics (RFS, TEV, ESL) allow one to create a overall score for the book. My overall score is a simple sum of the three metrics, divided by the maximum possible score (15.0), and expressed as a percentage (ranging from 0% to 100%). Although I have not yet conducted any correlation studies or categorical analyses using my data (which I have for 42 books starting in Aug 2004), below is a snapshot. As for my next book, it’ll probably be a self-help guide to drop the data obsession. 🙂

Title Author Pages RFS [0,5] TEV [0,5] ESL [0,5] SCORE [0,100%]
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson 560 4.5 5.0 4.5 93%
The Alchemist Paulo Coelho 208 4.5 4.5 4.5 90%
Life of Pi Yann Martel 336 4.5 4.0 4.5 87%
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game Michael Lewis 288 4.0 4.5 4.0 83%
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life Dacher Keltner 352 4.0 4.5 3.5 80%
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Malcolm Gladwell 288 4.0 4.0 4.0 80%
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century George Friedman 272 4.0 4.5 3.5 80%
Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance Steven Levitt; Stephen Dubner 288 4.0 4.0 4.0 80%
Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way To Be Smart Ian Ayres 272 4.0 4.0 4.0 80%
The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business & Life Avinash Dixit; Barry Nalebuff 512 4.0 4.5 3.5 80%
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More Chris Anderson 256 4.0 4.0 3.5 77%
Outliers: The Story of Success Malcolm Gladwell 309 4.0 4.0 3.5 77%
Body of Lies David Ignatius 352 4.5 3.0 4.0 77%
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail Bill Bryson 284 3.5 4.0 3.5 73%
Kill Alex Cross James Patterson 464 4.5 2.5 4.0 73%
The Increment David Ignatius 400 4.0 2.5 4.5 73%
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future Daniel Pink 272 4.0 4.0 3.0 73%
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Malcolm Gladwell 288 3.5 4.0 3.0 70%
Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel Michio Kaku 352 3.5 4.0 3.0 70%
The Bourne Dominion Eric van Lustbader 432 3.5 2.5 4.5 70%
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street William Poundstone 400 3.0 4.0 3.5 70%
The Godfather Mario Puzo 448 3.5 2.5 4.5 70%
The Sicilian Mario Puzo 410 3.5 2.5 4.5 70%
The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America Steven Johnson 272 3.0 4.0 3.0 67%
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives Leonard Mlodinow 272 3.0 3.5 3.5 67%
Cross Fire James Patterson 432 4.0 1.5 4.5 67%
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement David Brooks 448 3.5 4.5 2.0 67%
The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number Mario Livio 294 3.0 4.0 2.5 63%
Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines Richard Muller 354 3.0 3.5 3.0 63%
The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction David Orrell 464 3.0 3.5 3.0 63%
The Department of Mad Scientists Michael Belfiore 320 3.0 3.0 3.5 63%
For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush Christopher Andrew 672 3.0 3.5 3.0 63%
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life Steve Martin 209 4.0 2.0 3.0 60%
Science is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society Adam Bly (Seed Magazine) 368 2.5 3.5 3.0 60%
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Charles Mann 480 2.5 3.5 2.5 57%
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon 226 3.0 3.0 2.0 53%
Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions Brian Hayes 288 2.0 3.5 2.0 50%
Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Math Joseph Mazur 352 2.0 3.0 2.5 50%
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession Daniel Levitin 320 2.5 3.0 1.5 47%

A World Of Readers, Thinkers, And Sleuths

“Let your mind wander through time and space, and follow its trail with curious grace.”

With regards to reading books, I’ve gone through several phases in my life. I enjoyed them as a young kid, then hated them in middle school, and was swamped by them in high school. I read mostly magazines and equations in college. But in grad school, I learned to find time for books outside of class and homework, and began understanding them more clearly. And now, well, I don’t really have a definition for it… but I’ll try.

I love books. I absolutely love books and I think they love me. Old books, new books, bright books, dusty books, hardcovers, paperbacks, biographies, picture books, ones with funky-looking text, ones with big characters, cookbooks, humorous musings, philosophical contemplations, new takes on old theories, old takes on novel wonders, manuscripts, adventures, essays, creative ramblings, confessions, ones with good names, and especially the nameless ones. There are so many books to love, and I love them all. I love that I can love them all. They are there for me when I want them and there for me when I don’t want them. I can read when I’m happy, read when I’m sad, read when I’m puzzled, or read when I’m mad. I don’t have a deadline for a book and I’m not tested when I’m done with it. I can pick it up when I want, and can forget about it if I want to do that too.

The book store is one of my favorite places. I really can’t believe how many books have been written. These are the words and thoughts of people from all over the world, on all types of topics, in a sometimes-organized-often-disorganized effort to better understand our world. These are the words of the millions of deceased – those that saw what I could not see – and willingly tried to explain it to a world of readers with whom they have no acquaintance.

It’s also funny that book stores are categorized, because the case can be made to fit any book under a thousand headings. That being said, I’m always surprised at how well most authors can maintain the scope and focus of a single book. I find my mind wandering constantly and, as a result, feel that this is the natural way for me to write and express my thoughts and feelings. Scope and focus are nice if and only if scope and focus are how you feel you can best express your thoughts and feelings to the world.

With that in mind, let me express a small array of thoughts:

1. Books, and literacy in general, provide a channel through which we all can better understand the world in which we live.

2. Reading and embracing books at a young age (including picture books) fosters creativity, analytical thinking, and a drive for discovery and understanding.

3. No book is a bad book, and everyone is an author. We all have something to say, and everything said is worth a read.

4. Writing and reading enables self-realization coupled with the ability to wear other people’s shoes. Books connect and network our planet – the living, the dead, and the unborn.

Lastly, I want to quickly describe a couple web resources that help organize that which we read while making it a most economical endeavor. Aside from all the free content I can get from the web, these are a few of the mechanisms I use to discover, monitor, research, and purchase books:

  • Amazon – I use the built-in “Wish List” feature to maintain a collection of every book in which I’ve had some interest in purchasing or researching more. The Amazon iPhone app is also great – for adding books to the wish list and even purchasing books within a few clicks. I’ll usually walk around the book store, find a title I like, read the front/back covers, flip through a few pages, then look it up right away on the Amazon iPhone app, read some reviews, and either add it to my wish list or immediately purchase a used copy (for around 1-50% of the in-store/new price). Amazon itself is also a fantastic place to find similar books, related but higher-rated books, or books on any other random topic in which you might have a short- or long-term interest.
  • Google Books – I use a lot of Google products because I like having many dimensions of my life synced in the cloud under my one Google profile. Google Books is another one of these and is where I keep track of what I’ve read, what I’m reading, and what I want to read. I can read reviews (including those from Amazon), write reviews, add personal notes, and even read excerpts (if not all) of the book online. A very nice online, personal library.

That’s about it for now. Love books. Read books. Write in your books. Share them with others. Talk about your books. Recommend your favorites. Have fun with them!

Negative Space Is A Positive Thing

“It weighs, therefore it is.” – on the study of carbon dioxide by Joseph Black (c. 1756)

I’m currently reading The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. It’s about the life, work, beliefs, time, and impact of Joseph Priestley – an 18th century scientist and theologian. With his life’s work, Priestley can be credited with enabling what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He did this through transparency of his experiments, thoughts, and findings, and the creation of information networks similar to the coffee shops and online forums we see today.

What I find very interesting about Priestley’s work was that he was interested in negative space – the ether surrounding the things we see and touch and feel. Although physically clear, air’s purpose and nature were not. It was not until Priestley questioned the negative space of Earth that the human race began to fully grasp the purposes of plant life, respiration, and chemistry.

Aside from with air, negative space can be found in every subject in all throughout history. In art it’s a resting place for the eye in a painting or photo. In music, it’s a purposeful section of silence. In science, it was the hypothetical medium through which electromagnetic waves travel. In Taoism is was the inaction that served more purpose than action.

Negative space is more representative than anything. It’s the unclear existences, the non-obvious relationships – that which eludes the immediate naked eye. But when sought after, the negative space provides power and energy. It shifts science into new paradigms, pushes art into new dimensions, and builds new meaning from otherwise empty space.

We should continuously embrace the negative space and utilize it for the power and meaning it can hold. Whether in a logo, painting, thought, vision, scene, or air we breathe, it’s often the negative space that brings us life.


on cooking

If I haven’t expressed it yet, I love to cook. I really love cooking. It’s a hobby, a need, a getaway, and a creative expression. I like the science behind it as much as the process, flavors, origins, and beauty of food and cooking. Vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses, spices, sauces, pastas, rices, seafoods, herbs, and much more are all variables in a world of infinite combinations. Because something doesn’t show up in a recipe book or google search doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just means it may not have been done yet and you are the lucky one that gets to put it together!

As with a few other random things (flying, reading, creative writing, building, etc), I find it hard to believe some people don’t like cooking. I think it is more intimidation and laziness than a lack of know-how or anything else. There are so many simple yet delicious dishes one can make that the “I just don’t know how” excuse doesn’t work for me. Hit the store, talk to the butcher, ask a neighbor, jot ideas down, look at pictures, buy a book, and just go at it. If you mess up, you learn for next time.

You have to make cooking a lifelong learning process. Learn to enjoy sharing what you cook. Honest feedback from multiple palates is most valuable in adjusting for your next dish. The ongoing learning process can then move you to experiment more and trust your instincts and senses more than to just use your ability to read and follow directions. That doesn’t mean books won’t always help you.

As my mom says, everyone should have the ultimate reference book in their kitchen – The Joy of Cooking. For other old, traditional references, book sales, tag sales, and local festivals are great places for these. On the other hand, you can always find new, innovative approaches to cooking at the local book store. I just grabbed a good one the other day: Ratio – The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (by Michael Ruhlman). If something inspires thoughts for your next cooking experience, it’s worth it.

Finally, I want to note that these days, easy access to food can almost be considered a privilege. For that reason, it’s certainly a privilege to have easy access to a wide variety of foods. So if you have a nearby grocery store, go look around. There are A LOT of foods out there that someone else might not have the chance to eat. If you get flustered, go grab some juicy California oranges and soft McIntosh apples and come back another time.

Here are links to two great food blogs to which I was referred by my friends Colleen (happy birthday!) and Heather (woop woop!). Colleen says she’ll have one of her own up soon…
Gluttony Is A Bliss
Smitten Kitchen

Note: Picture above is a homemade chicken parm and shells with homemade tomato sauce and fresh parmesan cheese. 

the visual toolbox

I thoroughly enjoyed Jock Mackinlay’s recent paper on “Designing Great Visualizations”. He contextualizes his insights with a good historical background of the true pioneers such as William Playfair, Dr. John Snow, Charles Minard, and Jacques Bertin as well as more recent theoretical and technological drivers such as Edward Tufte, Ben Schneiderman, Chris Stolte, and Mackinlay himself.

I’m in total agreement that the visual toolbox grows with a better understanding of data fundamentals and software extensibility. His explanations of data types (nominal, ordinal, and quantitative) and possible representations of data (position, length, area, angle, time, space, shape, color) help explore the complexities of human perception and data analysis. To take it further, I included an image describing a good 4-step personal framework for applying my own visual toolbox.

For me, this read is good timing too. As I’m currently reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind there is an interesting connection between those intricacies of perception, visualization, analysis, and the study of your brain’s hemispherical alignment (here’s one test to see what you might be). How do left brainers interpret an image, as opposed to a right brainer? Based on Pink’s book, the delivery, interpretation, and outcome might all be different. Good stuff.

the power of context

Well I’m truly working on reading for pleasure more often. I’m generally seasonal in my reading: I’ll go through weeks of consistent, nightly reading, followed by periods of addictions to Good Eats and Unwrapped (11pm and 11:30pm on Food Network) without reading. Oh well, both are fun, quality decompressors before hittin’ the hay…

That being said, I’ll hopefully post some excerpts from books I’m reading and try to provide some of my original insight if it’s not too weird.

Right now I’m trying to finish up Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which talks about the social epidemics that surround us in our lives (e.g. Blue Clue’s and NYC crime in 1980’s and 1990’s). The book digests the onset of such epidemics into three rules: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. You can read into these more on Gladwell’s own site and/or on Wikipedia which does a decent job of explaining the book.

With respect to The Power of Context, Gladwell says that human behavior is strongly influenced by the situational environment. For the NYC example, crime dropped when graffiti was cleaned off subway cars and fare-cheaters were booked. As the environment was cleaned, so were the behaviors of potential criminals.

In particular, I enjoy Gladwell’s relation of The Power of Context to Walter Mischel’s (Dept of Psych, Columbia / Wikipedia) research on personality psychology. Mischel’s research speaks to how people tend to perceive and define other people in simplified ways, such as aggressive, kind, honest, or patient. However, in reality we are all complex, multifaceted individuals who respond in different ways at different times depending on the dynamic elements of our environment (who we are with, what we are doing, where we are, when we are doing it).

To put this simpler, a person is not independent and mischievous on one day, and warm, honest, and dependent on the next day, but rather he/she is independent, mischievous, warm, honest, and dependent all together – and the impression given, of any of these traits and at any singular moment, is highly dependent upon the situation and the environment, or the context.

Pretty neat stuff – I guess it’s nice to see correlating theories and practical examples rolled up together.

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”
– Joe Ancis