Reading “smart” books—challenging books that actually teach you something—doesn’t make you feel smart. It makes you feel stupid.
Books that make you feel smart are not smart books. To take a popular example, Malcolm Gladwell is often criticized for writing books about elaborate theses and then essentially failing to support them. He offers dozens of anecdotes to support his ideas, but nothing that would pass for rigorous evidence. This definitely seemed to be the case when I read his book The Tipping Point, although I can’t speak for his other books.
Here’s a common experience when reading books that make you feel smart, such as The Tipping Point: “Wow, these ideas are so clever! I feel so smart for reading them!”
Now let’s take an example of a book that’s actually smart. I’m currently reading Henry Sidgwick‘s The Methods of Ethics. This is how I feel when I read it: “Wow, I’m so confused right now. I’d better read that paragraph for a third time. I must be an idiot.”
This is a common experience any time you read something that takes serious effort. And only rarely is a smart book—a book that teaches important, difficult concepts—easy to understand. Difficult concepts require you to work to comprehend them. As a rule of thumb, if it’s easy to understand, it’s not as valuable as it could be.