Books do work, but they take a lot of work

May 14, 2019

Interesting food for thought from Andy Matuschak:

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 that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly.

Matuschak goes on to argue that understanding1 somethings requires engaging with it in some substantial way. Indeed, I’ve read the three books mentioned, and the only one I can meaningfully talk about is Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m pretty sure that’s due some brief discussions I’ve had about the book’s ideas while reading it, many years ago.

While reading the post I was wondering what he thinks about Michael Nielsen’s ideas on using spaced repetition to explain concepts. Then at the end I found that they collaborated on a book that does exactly that.

I have to say, though, that I’m satisfied with the current situation. Maybe there is no way to significantly improve our learning from books without putting in the work, but if it’s worth it then I have no trouble putting in the work. A bigger issue to me is that there are so many sources of information today that putting in the work in any one of them doesn’t seem worth it (since I could spend my time superficially learning other things).

That touches on perhaps my main issue with popsci books: if the subject is interesting and the reading is said to be pleasing, then I’ll be tempted to read them, but I know that precisely because they’re easy to read, I never have to engage actively with them and so I largely forget them as soon as I’m done with them. Tougher books require you to put more work into them, but that’s what you need if you want to remember anyway. I find it hard to believe that spaced repetition can help here if it happens seamlessly as you read.


  1. I’d prefer to say “remembering”, if only because “understanding” has a nearly magical connotation to me. [return]