I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately.
Sometimes, I’ll be reading an incredibly popular and well-rated book, but find myself bored by it. It just doesn’t click. Other times, I’ll stumble upon an obscure book and find its words smack me the face, like a splash of water.
I wondered: What makes a book resonate?
We often focus on the author, the genre, and the subject of a book to decide whether or not it’s right for us. But there’s another factor which plays a major role:
You need to be in a place in your life where you are ready to receive the message being presented by the author.
If you’re not, it doesn’t matter how good the book is or how many weeks it’s been on the best seller list. The book won’t connect.
“The right book for the right person is not enough. It needs to be the right book, for the right person at the right time.” —Johny Uzan
Another perspective I found on this question comes from Bret Victor’s Worrydream (truly one of the hidden gems of the internet). In a comment on his 2013 links page, he describes this resonance as a transaction of energy exchange, which is maximized when there is a “phase-match” between the reader and author:
Carver Mead describes a physical theory in which atoms exchange energy by resonating with each other. Before the energy transaction can happen, the two atoms must be phase-matched, oscillating in almost perfect synchrony with each other.
I sometimes think about resonant transactions as a metaphor for getting something out of a piece of writing. Before the material can resonate, before energy can be exchanged between the author and reader, the reader must already have available a mode of vibration at the author’s frequency.
The author and reader must share a close-enough worldview, viewpoint, vocabulary, set of mental models, sense of aesthetics, and set of goals. For any particular concept in the material, if not enough of these are sufficiently matched, no resonance will occur and no energy will be exchanged.
I’m in love with this analogy.
It perfectly describes the phenomenon you experience when something you read lights a spark within you. The last book that did this for me was The Courage to be Disliked — it came at exactly the right time in my life, and impacted me so strongly I wrote an essay about it.
Ideally, our range of inputs is as diverse as possible, to maximize the chance of experience this kind of resonance.
The next time you think of starting a new book, take a moment to consider if it’s the right time to read it. There may be another book you put aside long ago, whose time has finally come.