Beware Books with Subtitles

Awhile back I published a list of books I read; I wanted to be seen as someone that reads a lot of books.

And it works, friends would say “Michael, you read a lot of books.”

“I know”, I’d reply, nodding my head in smug agreement.

And then it got carried away…

The next month, instead of reading for pleasure or to learn stuff, I was just trying to finish more books so the count would go up. “Dozens! I read dozens of books!” I’d shout from atop my mountain of nonfiction.

With insecurities like that, it’s hard to believe they even let me out of high school.

The truth is, you can be awesome even if you read zero books. I believe most folks would benefit from learning more, and you can do so from any method that works for you: life experience, documentaries, cereal boxes or conversations with the lady that cuts your hair.

But OMG, if you do choose to read, beware of books with subtitles.

Here’s what’s up…

Within the last decade or so, major publishers realized they could engineer best sellers. Ingredient #1: A big, vague title paired with descriptive subtext. We’ve all seen it: INCHES – How the World’s Top Performers Measure Success.

The second ingredient? Chapter templates. In a study of every damn book like this, I found the following format held true in each chapter:

  1. Opens with a story or hook to introduce the concept.
  2. Cites one or more studies to build credibility.
  3. Draws conclusions, usually with supporting examples.

That first point is great, kudos to authors for making their work readable.

The problem is those same authors combine #2 and #3 in a way that you as a reader are likely to perceive as fact. “You can triple your focus by inducing a fear response 30 minutes in advance” sounds awesome; except it’s based on a study of 30 people, 20 years ago, in which only 3 people exhibited the change, and it was never repeated. Also, I made it up.

Fancy examples further frame these case studies as definitive conclusions, “Bill Gates turned fear to focus by confronting gang members before Microsoft’s IPO”, and this doesn’t make them any more universally applicable. Subtitle authors sprinkle Bill around liberally, along with Warren Buffett, Michael Jordan, Google, and Van Halen’s brown M&Ms. Yes, young Jordan likely took sixty missed shots for every basket because he was obsessed with getting better, or maybe he just didn’t want to embarrass his friends. Who knows? Name dropping makes for inspiring reading, but these folks are noteworthy precisely because they are exceptional; your mileage may vary.

So, why should you beware of books with subtitles? Because authors write with an agenda, supported by selective research and confirmation bias. You get all the facts that the author, their editor and publisher want you to have, backed by studies and examples with varying degrees of accuracy.

The problem compounds when subtitled books start citing other subtitled books, and bloggers start citing all of it; then it’s game on for the Repetition Principle and game over for critical thinking.

Here’s the good news: Subtitle-itis is curable, even after multiple exposures. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Mix up your reading! Try different authors, styles and formats. Contextual encyclopedias like Asimov’s Chronology of the World should be mandatory reading for humanity.
  2. “Don’t believe everything you see in print, even this.” – Fake Buddha Quote
  3. Consider omissions, you will find an author’s bias both in what they include and what they don’t.

And remember, no matter how many times you see the trope, maybe Van Halen just didn’t like brown M&Ms.

Credit: I wrote this, and it is inspired by Beware the Man of One Study; which basically says that people cite case studies as fact even though they are selective and scarce.

3 thoughts on “Beware Books with Subtitles”

  1. Don’t trust books with “Complete”, “Ultimate”, or “All You Need To Know About” in the title. They exaggerate and disappoint when you realize they don’t fulfill the promise of the title.


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