Conveying and containing knowledge are hard.
Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this — one you’d read — come up in conversation, only to discover you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences?
I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment. — Andy Matuschak, Why Books Don’t Work
I suspect this is the default experience for most of us.
It used to happen to me all the time too. I’d spent hours grappling with a complex book like Germs and Steel, but when interested friends asked me to explain it I often failed to transcend embarrassing mumbling. Or I’d wrestle with academic papers for my dissertation, only to discover I couldn’t recapitulate and evaluate anything beyond their basic claims two days later when meeting with my supervisor.
The feeling you’re becoming smarter is often deceptive.
This frustrated the hell out of me, so after years of testing I’ve finally optimized my learning strategy:The Complete Guide to Effective Reading
Learning how to learn: how to make your ROI on reading explodemedium.com
Indeed, when books do work, it’s only for those who deploy skillful meta-learning strategies to engage effectively with the book’s ideas.
This observation suggests a further question: we unquestionably assume devouring text is the way to get smarter, but is it?
The two phases of learning
Maybe it’s not.
Learning itself is a skill, and knowing how to do it well is an incredibly valuable advantage. We take this is for granted, but how to do this is far from obvious and doesn’t get taught in the curriculum. No one ever shows us how to learn.
As a consequence, many people have uninformed ideas about how learning works. Specifically: merely acquiring information is not (yet) learning. Learning has two phases, not one. The default mode, after you close your books for the day, is not retainment but forgetting.
Most people don’t realize learning requires you to transfer the newly acquired intelligence from your working memory to your long-term understanding. If you don’t facilitate this, your learning gains are only a fraction of what they could have been.
If you don’t spend time revisiting and grappling with the book, you might as well not have read it.
The jump from short-term memory to long-term understanding doesn’t happen automatically. By contrast, most readers assume it does, and information we consume gets transferred to our long-term understanding without much additional post-reading effort on our side. This is not true.
Why books are ineffective
To avoid this, actively process the material, which happens through engagement and repetition. You need to learn and implement specific reflective strategies and implement your own feedback loops.
If this is how learning actually works in the brain, we can ask the next-most-obvious question: do books, as a vehicle of information, facilitate it?
The abundance of anecdotal evidence of smart people unable to give you the main lines of a book they just read and claimed to like a lot, already hints at the answer.
In his article, Andy convincingly shows, don’t work for the same reason lectures don’t: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around ‘Transmissionism’:
Like lectures, books have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation, but the medium does have an implicit model. And like lectures, that model is transmissionism. Sequences of words in sequences of lines in sequences of pages, the form of a book suggests people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. In caricature: “The author describes an idea in words on the page; the reader reads the words; then the reader understands the idea. When the reader reaches the last page, they’ve finished the book.
As this model is plainly false, books contain a major design flaw as vehicles of learning.
This suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.
After they get their first job, many people go, “Finally, I can stop reading. I can stop learning.”
These days, if it’s on the test, we don’t study the chapter. If our job doesn’t require it, we don’t learn the skill.
However, if most vehicles used to learn actually suck at conveying knowledge, then this might not be due to laziness but follow from intuitively-felt-but-hard-to-articulate doubts about the utility of the enterprise.
If books are poorly designed to foster personal development and knowledge growth, then criticizing people because they don’t read is like condemning your car mechanic for never practicing the handstand. It would miss the mark.
And here’s another thing which doesn’t make any sense if you think about it.
We can’t expect the occasionally curious to stumble upon, and digest, a massive reading guide to defuse the inherent impotencies in transmissionism.
When apps have a counterintuitive design and require us to check out some instruction video — and who even reads device manuals anymore — it’s bye-bye to the app. In fact, books are exactly like that, but worse.
It’s not just that instruction is needed — it’s also not included.
Yet we read them anyway, and proceed to feel good about ourselves. And then, again and again, discover we’ve forgotten most of it.
We’re slightly puzzled and embarrassed by our failure to recollect most of the sentences we’ve absorbed with our eyes, but in a twisted way, this makes the effort more heroic. Isn’t this what cultural elites do?
This is stupid.
Why don’t we call out this pluralistic ignorance and consider rethinking the concept of ‘books’ instead?
Let this be the moment you realize the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
Books as status symbols
Still: there’s something saddening me about the popularity of how-to-read-200-books-per-year guides. I can’t help but feel that for too many folks reading books — 200 a year! — and listening to podcasts has become an annoying status symbol.
I suspect there’s something meaner going on here than just some mistaken developmental narrative about the intrinsic utility of spending time absorbing sentences.
More and more, we live in a time characterized by an increased emphasis on the intangible manifestations of status.
In an age where almost everyone in the western world has access to former luxury products such as smartphones, far-away sun vacations and sushi, the new way in which we exclusivity is now much more subtle. Unlike until, say, the end of the previous millennium, when material possessions (expensive porcelain) characterized the aristocracy, the new elite distinguishes itself withcultural capital. That you practice a certain sport, that you go to a local, organic market, that you drink coffee with oatmilk and listen to podcasts. That you have knowledge and erudition.
That you read 200 books a year.
Checked-off volumes and an ‘anti-library’ as golden watches to showcase. Trophies to show. “See how well-read I am.”
Contrary to popular opinion, reading books isn’t an end in itself.
The (supposed) benefits of reading
What are books for?
They are a means to convey knowledge, connect people and to stimulate personal development.
But what’s the point of devouring all these pages if they don’t change you or your map of reality?
Most of us, at least, want to get something from the ones we read and if you don’t, you can boast all you like, but it seems to me the time-investment involved here is just way too costly.
Speedreading is bullshit, and most non-fiction paperbacks should be 10% of whatever length they are anyway — but even if we pick the good ones and read them properly, so what? There seems to be a reasonable case for the counterintuitive thought that most books, most of the time, only offer the illusion of retention or personal growth.
After all, as we’ve seen, (i) the default ROI on reading is jaw-droppingly low and (ii) this because books are built upon a false model of learning and thus inadequately designed for conveying knowledge.
I can’t help but wonder whether books, wondrous artefacts as they are, are the greatest design flaw in human history.
The real ‘simple truth behind reading 200 books a year
Like to read?
Join my Thinking Together newsletter for a free weekly dose of similarly high-quality mind-expanding ideas.