The acquaintance with a single good book can change a life. – Marcel Prévos

To put it bluntly, as a child and as a teenager, I hated reading. For one thing, I was a miserable reader. When I had to read aloud in front of the class, it was a real ordeal. It felt like a trial. I stumbled over every third word or so and was lucky to finish a sentence without a mistake. So why would I put myself through this? Secondly, I only read books that other people told me to read. They were certainly not my books to begin with. I only read two and a half books until the age of 18 – the third one wasn’t even worth finishing. I certainly felt the sentiment encapsulated by the Italian proverb: “There is no worse thief than a bad book.”

Everything changed abruptly when I was faced with a crisis of meaning as a young adult. To cut a long story short: I was suddenly looking for answers to a certain situation in my life. A close relative gave me a little booklet that addressed exactly the questions that were challenging me at the time. All of a sudden, I found myself reading a book. And, for the first time, it made a whole lot of sense!

That was a primal experience, which would later repeat itself over and over and become a sort of golden principle in my life.

There are books, and then there are books

Books can entertain, educate, inform and, of course, bore us. Books can intimidate us, too. Dietrich Schwanitz writes in his book Bildung – Alles, was man wissen muß (Education – Everything You Need to Know) that the presence of books can be daunting to a novice. There are simply so many of them, “…the rare reader feels like a drunk in the middle of a galloping herd of zebras.”[1]  This may be an understandable feeling, but an unnecessary reaction towards books. His advice to the newbie: Just focus on the book at hand. This is also what Luther had in mind when he stated: “Many books do not make one knowledgeable, nor does reading a great deal, but good things and the frequent reading, however little, make us knowledgeable”.[2]

And exactly these good books can make the difference. They do not leave us the same. They cause a paradigm shift in our world views, provoke a change of heart or expand our way of approaching things.

Vehicles of change

When certain life questions hit us, the right books can become vehicles that take us to the right answers. German author Peter Schumacher put it this way: “Books are words parked on paper.“ To stay with the analogy, when we hop on the right taxi, these words can take us exactly were we need to go. Like ferries crossing the raging river of uncertainty, they can place our feet on uncharted territory. “There are books you can swim in and books you can drown in,” remarks Swiss intellectual Walter Fürst. The right books carry us. Before embarking on such a ferry, the mind is in a caterpillar-like state—subject to gravity, slow, and not very attractive. Reading makes the mind pupate, processing and reflecting on a certain topic, working through it, or literally studying it. And then…metamorphosis! The mind soars like a colourful butterfly to new heights over of the newly-discovered land.

The catch

How come we don’t all read more of these life-changing books? Well, they are rare and not always easy to find. And of course there is also the element of timing. An excellent read at the wrong time in life is like selling a bicycle to a fish. Bicycles are great—but why would a fish need one? Off he swims. No catch there!

So how do we find these books that help us personally evolve and grow?

Finding the right book is like running into the right person exactly when needed. Swiss poet Brigitte Fuchs muses: “Books are, in most cases, chance acquaintances.”

A very well-read friend of mine once told me that he started reading only those books that would address a current question. He decided that anything else would eventually be a waste of his precious time. So, the indicator then becomes a matter of knowing ourselves first. We need to get in touch with our true needs and life questions, which can be challenging at times. In other words, we need to get our priorities straight.

Priorities

One book that helped me to understand this principle early on was Steven Covey’s First Things First, with its famous maxim: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”[3]. Essentialist Greg McKeown introduces more helpful rules “in order to discern the essential few from the trivial many, mediocre or just good”[4]: “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”[5] This includes knowing what one does not need know—a skill that eventually can save us a lot time in life.

Finding the book that reads you

The 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Iwanowitsch Herzen was convinced that “books find their way by themselves.” I have found this to be true. Once I experienced receiving the right book at the right time, I wanted to repeat it. Since then, I have made it my mission to seek out the best books I can find on any given topic. It keeps me going.

In conclusion, let me share what I have learned over the years about finding the right book at the right time in life; the book that reads you, too.

Here are seven principles that might help you find those books that are food for the soul and that might change your attitude towards reading once and for all:

  1. Know thyself. Be attentive to your true needs and develop a sense for what is next.
  2. Keep learning. Don’t pretend you already have all the answers. Stay open-minded towards personal growth.
  3. Ask questions. The right questions must be asked at the right time, because, “if the question is wrong, the right answer to it will also lead you astray.” (Walter Ludin)
  4. Leaf through your books. Read the blurb and the table of contents first. Does the book have a clear structure and is it intriguing to you?
  5. Read free samples. Did what you read convince you or draw you in? If so, go ahead and buy it. If not, skip this one.
  6. Check readers’ opinions. Has the book already convinced other readers? Read some reviews—without following them blindly, of course.

And lastly…

  1. Read with a pen in hand. Mark what you are reading and map what speaks to your soul.

That last principle became especially dear to me. When I pick up one of my books years later, I receive a “message in a bottle” from my younger self. These thoughts mirror to me was important to me back then. At the same time, they gave me the chance to reflect upon where I stand on that topic today.

This is what motivated me in my personal growth. How about you? What’s your next book going to be about?

Footnotes
[1]„Dietrich Schwanitz, Bildung – Alles, was man wissen muss, (Munich: 2002) p. 555.”
[2]„Martin Luther, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nationen, Wittenberg 1520. translated by the author.”
[3]„See also Steven Covey, First Things First, (New York: 1994).”
[4]„Greg McKeown, Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, (London, UK: 2014), p. 102.”
[5]„McKeown, p. 108.”

„Dietrich Schwanitz, Bildung – Alles, was man wissen muss, (Munich: 2002) p. 555.”
„Martin Luther, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nationen, Wittenberg 1520. translated by the author.”
„See also Steven Covey, First Things First, (New York: 1994).”
„Greg McKeown, Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, (London, UK: 2014), p. 102.”
„McKeown, p. 108.”