Who is your Authority?

I just got a lovely email offering me 40 percent of Joel Osteen’s new book, “Become a Better You”. Trouble is, Joel Osteen doesn’t fit my idea of an authority on the subject he’s writing about. I’ve never even read the guy’s stuff and I only saw him once on television for about 23 seconds. Now, before I get inundated with Osteen supporters telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain.

I read a lot. I mean a whole lot. Probably a lot more than you. Certainly way more than the average American. I’m not trying to turn this into a contest because I’m sure many people also read more than me. I just want to explain upfront that I’m no casual reader.

I also almost exclusively read non-fiction. Osteen’s books are the type of books I might read. I own over 1,000 books and I’m very close to being able to post the list of them here on the website (for reasons I’ll explain later).

If I read fiction, it is usually a classic. I’m no highbrow intellectual (puh-lease!), but I just have a hard time devouring some recent novel that everyone loves when I still haven’t finished reading, for example, Moby Dick. I’m on year two of it. It’s true what they say about Moby Dick. It will break you. And yet, I truly enjoy the book. I’m actually looking forward to reading more Melville if I ever finish Moby Dick.

I tend to read personal growth books, how-to books, an occasional biography (I’d like to read more of these however), and of course computer programming and web development books. I have discount cards from B&N and Books-A-Million. And most of the time, if possible, I’d rather buy a book than check it out from the library. That’s because I read about a dozen books at once, so I often don’t finish a single book in time to return it without getting fined. Sometimes, I’ll come back to a book six months after I stopped reading it and finish it in a day. Plus, with six children, it’s rarely a waste to own a book because I figure it will get read by a few others eventually and one of them will inherit it one day.

So, with that being said, here’s why I’m so picky about the books I read. And why you should be, too.

I have gotten to the point in life (are you here with me?) that I just won’t read books that are not written by true experts. Not only must they have authority by virtue of their expertise in a given field, but they must be personally doing what they are preaching.

In other words…

I don’t read too many marriage books by marriage counselors. They see everything wrong. I’d rather read a book by someone who has been married fifty years.

I don’t read wealth and finance books from authors who aren’t millionaires. And in particular, I look for authors who inherited nothing, who started from scratch, and who failed multiple times.

I don’t read “success” books by motivational speakers (with the possible exception of a bit of Tony Robbins) who go around giving success lectures at $400 a pop. John Maxwell is a perfect example of someone I do not read. He ran a church. Big deal. He hasn’t done one thing in his life I wish to emulate, nor has he done anything worth all the dozens of books he puts out. Quite frankly, he was a pastor who quit. Not my idea of success anyway. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, is another person I don’t get. Everyone thinks he is a guru of business genius. He’s a former CEO who blew apart his family for his job. And if you ever read any Welch, you’ll quickly see he is a blow hard. And again, he never started anything from scratch. If anything, he followed the same path millions of others follow: go to college, get degree, work your way up over 30 years. Boring. I’d rather read Jeff Bozos (Amazon.com) biography eight times straight than eight words from Welch.

Same goes for religious or theology books. I read the scholars whenever I can (as long as I can understand most of it). This craze that everyone seems to have latched onto about “The Purpose Driven Life”, or “Who Moved the Cheese?” is beyond my understanding. Read some sermons of Charles Spurgeon. Or John Calvin. Or somebody who devoted their life to exploring the word of God. It isn’t that difficult. I suspect Osteen puts out the same kind of quickie religious self-help. I don’t want to unfairly attack Osteen or Rick Warren and others like them. I just think our time is so valuable that we should only read the absolute best that we can understand. If you really get a lot out of Osteen and similar authors, that’s fine. I just think you should try and elevate your reading to a higher plateau once you finish his books. Try something a bit more meaty.

The main point is that I think we should always question the authority of the author of a book before spending hours reading their ideas. If you’ve ever read Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book” (which I recommend), you’ll recall he talks a lot about reading the cover, the inside sleeves, the introduction, preface, and forward, all before starting to read the book. I also look for an “About the Author” (in the back of the book a lot these days) or research him or her online. I do all this, no matter how interesting the book might look, to decide if this is the book I want to acquire on this subject. I’m not perfect at this, and I’ve made a few mistakes over the years. But its helped to not get swept up into the current rage or bestseller when a more worthy book, maybe one no longer in print or easily available, will do so much better.

Read the real experts if you want to become well-informed on a subject, not just someone who spouts out conventional wisdom from untested ideas.

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