There are plenty of books out there whose value derives from the fact that they challenge previously unshakeable assumptions and thus raise profound new questions. A good example is Julian Jaynes’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it he draws on linguistic analysis, exegesis, art, and myriad other disciplines to argue that peoples such as the ancient Greeks simply weren’t conscious in the same way modern humans are. The result is difficult to dismiss, despite how crazy it might sound upfront.
There are also plenty of books out there whose value derives from the fact that they expand areas of knowledge which you hadn’t even realized you were glossing over. I didn’t realize how little I knew about Pre-Columbian American Indians before I read Charles C. Mann’s 1491. Though I had cursory knowledge of the Incas, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Iroquois, and so on, reading an extended treatment of their respective societies opened my eyes to a richness and diversity I hadn’t been aware of.
But there are many valuable books which don’t do anything more than tell you something you already mostly knew, but in a way that makes the knowledge more resonant and actionable. Two of my favorite books are Josh Waitzkin’s remarkable The Art of Learning and Cal Newport’s outstanding Deep Work. The thesis of the former is “you should spend a lot of time mastering the fundamentals of a field” and that of the latter is “you need to focus intensely with very few distractions to make progress on high-value problems”.
I doubt anyone reading this with find these two insights revelatory. And yet I have re-read The Art of Learning maybe a dozen times. It isn’t the message per se that I love, but the author’s pellucid and accessible style together with illustrations from his life as a star in competitive chess and martial arts. Seeing the astonishing results obtained by a person who so totally embodies his own simple philosophy inspires me to try to do the same. Similarly, when I read Cal Newport’s books and essays I don’t get the sense that I’m in the presence of a mind substantially better than my own. Instead, his success seems to come from the ruthless application of a handful of basic techniques, all of which I understand (but don’t practice) just as well as he does.
So if I were to write a book that boils down to “exercise is good and you should be doing it”, it might not seem like it would be worth reading. But if I were to couch this bromide in stories about how a grandmother used exercise to reclaim the ability to play with her grandchildren, or built a philosophical justification for exercise by relating it to various historical warrior traditions, many people who already endorse the basic message might be compelled to act on it more consistently.
This is worth bearing in mind from the perspective of both a potential writer of and reader of books. It’s not always about the message.