If there is one thing I really like, it's the wisdom from those older than me, and one piece of that wisdom I'm starting to understand is the recommendation from a pastor to find a read good books as often as possible, as these shape your thinking. In the same vein I've known numerous successful men who have also suggested swearing off TV and video games, but what's great about "you are what you read" is that it's the positive "this is what you can do" recommendation that pairs with the "this is what you shouldn't do" recommendation of avoiding TV. Once you start reading on a regular basis, it's hard to put books down, and the benefits of reading start rolling in fast. You learn the author's language, and you gain some of his understanding and awareness. Just as importantly, you will often find yourself debating with the author and trying to understand what he has written. By putting in the time to read (since reading forces you to put aside everything else you are doing), the process of reading also changes you, so that you begin to talk about and use what you read in your daily life.
It's this change that's behind the adage "You are what you read." If you read nothing and learn nothing, you are nothing. If you put time into reading about health, your chances of being healthy will probably improve, and the same could be said for a number of other topics. I've found that to get the most out of a book, one needs to do four things:
Debate and dialog with the author -I think the reason many people don't find reading enjoyable is because of the way it was taught in school: Books are collections of dry facts to be memorized for a test. This isn't the case; books are a place for you to dialog and debate the author, and unlike a face-to-face conversation, you will not look weird revisiting the same place in the author-reader conversation, or visiting different parts at will. Write in the margins! Prove the author wrong if you disagree with him! Ask questions you hope the author will answer the next chapter! Doing these kinds of things make reading a lot more engaging, and more fun.
Understand where the author is coming from - This is a useful comprehension skill, because often times I find myself debating an author not because of a fundamental difference, but because of our different backgrounds. One example of this happened when I read Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover. At first I disagreed with him on a few areas, particularly on owning gold, and on what looked like a brain-dead approach to finance. By the time I finished the book, however, I understood who the intended audience was, and the real message of the book: Without a plan and a change of attitude about managing money, one would always be in debt. With a solid plan, dedication, and relatively conservative investments strategies, building wealth is a real possibility for everyone, including average-income people. After finishing the book I found that I could immediately put 98% of what was written to work, because I took the time to understand the author.
Understand what the author is trying to say - Hand in hand with understanding where the author is coming from, understanding the actual message is also important. Each chapter of a book is usually trying to communicate just one idea, or at most just a few, and the chapter or entire book is a very long explanation of those key ideas. In some cases, if you have a lot to read, you can skim ideas from books quickly if you are looking for the key ideas. If you miss them, then the whole book will seem a bit pointless, or especially in areas like finance, religion, and politics, a bad author can write a great deal of emotional fluff but not actually say anything.
And finally, Compare one author with others in his community - Comparing several authors in a given field or community helps you get a better understanding of how that community works, who the true authorities are, and it lets you sit in on great conversations between great minds. One example are the books 1984 and Brave New World, which were actually the result of a conversation between George Orwell and Aldous Huxley on their (rather dark) visions of the future. more recently, in the Paleo community, several authors have been inspired by the work of Dr. Loren Cordain, and have published their own takes and explanations of the Paleo Diet. You will find examples of this in every possible field. In addition to listening in by reading, comparing authors is also good for busting scams.
Scams, or the selling of goods and services at prices far above their real value (which is often zero), tend to begin with the truth, which is then used to emotionally prepare the victim to accept the lie. When you start reading up on a topic, you find the "truth" part of the scam repeated so many times that it becomes obvious, and you learn a lot of legitimate solutions. This is how I finally came to understand the scam from the Rich Dad, Poor Dad book series. I read Kiyosaki's books first because they were recommended to me, and when I first read the books I felt so enlightened because for the first time I learned about buying appreciating assets, and that "your home is an asset" is a popular myth. However, the rest of the recommendations of that book were garbage, which I later discovered by reading works by John T. Reed, Peter Schiff, and Dave Ramsey (While these three men obviously do not comprise the whole world of investing, they are the ones I've had a chance to read so far). It turns out that buying appreciating assets and not seeing your house as an asset is brain-dead obvious. It also turns out that successful investors do not borrow large amounts of money like Kiyosaki recommends, because those who do, as folks like Schiff and Ramsey painstakingly document, tend to go broke as they assume far more risk than they can handle. Once I read these different authors and their different views, the "debate with the authors" began and I was able to see through the Kiyosaki scams and several like it in the world of investing. Actually, your scam detection radar improves a lot once you gain basic literacy. If you learn finance, you will be much better at detecting get-rich-quick and other investment scams. If you read up on health, and especially from different perspectives, weight-loss scams and poor medicine is much easier to spot.
How to pick good books
To get started with finding good books, I'd suggest going to a site like Amazon and reading the reviews, both the good and bad ones. What you really want to look for, if the book gives advice, are reviews by people who actually gave the advice. If it is a learning book (i.e. history), read the reviews to see if people found it enjoyable or not. If you still can't come to a conclusion, get a book from both sides if there is a "debate," or check the book out from the library if you don't want to risk your hard-earned money. If the books are on a concept, you can put that concept/book title into Google and attach "review" or "criticism" to it.
Something to ignore are reviews that are obviously hit pieces. These come up a lot in areas like health, finance, politics, and religion. A hit piece is dead obvious if words like "dumb" or "ignorant" come up. It's also a hit piece if the reviewer is speaking in abstract terms to argue against people who actually read the book. For example, any prominent political writer has people who hate him; it comes with the territory. So, in the review section of his most recent book, you find a lot of negative reviews from people who mention no details from the book at all, just that the author is a bad person. Skip these, and read only the critical reviews that do the four things I mentioned earlier, as these are evidence that a reviewer read the book enough to understand what he is reviewing.
Finally, remember that you are what you read. Who do you want to become? Find authors who are already there.
Other alternatives to books
Aside from books, there are other ways to find good information. If you're not a big fan of reading, Youtube has a number of authors posting what they have to say on video, and the conversations can sometimes be real-time. Some authors may also publish regularly through an online source, maybe via a podcast or blog. These are great free means of getting good information, but I still wouldn't call them complete alternatives to books. The difference between books and online publishing is that most online formats are written or recorded to be short, and this makes it more difficult to tie ideas together the way a book can. That said, splitting your reading time between a good book and a few high-quality websites can get you the best of both worlds. The practice of taking time to learn from others is the real key, because this is what helps you become what you read.