Mental Pivot #78: Active Reading, Brevity, Stupidity
The conversation we have with books, Winston Churchill’s wartime memo on brevity, and Ian Leslie’s taxonomy of stupidity.
The newsletter will be taking an extended break following today’s edition. I plan to resume in late July or early August. See you all later this summer!
I recently revisited my book notes post about Mortimer J. Adler’s classic “How to a Read a Book.” I was struck by one of the best lessons it proffers when reading for understanding. To read a book effectively, Adler opines, there must be an ongoing “conversation” between the reader and the author.
Note: reading for entertainment is also valid and important, but that’s not the kind of reading Adler is talking about.
According to Adler, “Reading a book is a kind of conversation. You may think it is not conversation at all because the author does all the talking, and you have nothing to say. If you think that, you do not realize your full obligation as a reader—and you are not grasping your opportunities.”
The conversation Adler refers to is not the literal, in-the-flesh, person-to-person variety. It is an asynchronous, asymmetric, and metaphorical one. The author commits their ideas to paper. The reader can then peruse, contemplate, and grapple with those ideas on their own terms. While this interaction might stretch conventional definitions of the term “conversation,” the idea is important: the reader must actively engage with the material to truly benefit from the text. This admonition might appear obvious, but in practice we are inclined to read passively and avoid deep engagement.
One of the reasons I take notes when I read is that it is one way to engage with a book. Notes help me record, organize and revise my thoughts about the book. They help me identify the important ideas and arguments worth remembering. It’s a gift to my future self, a reference that I can return to revisit and continue the “conversation” with an author and her ideas vis a vis my evolving ideas.
Naturally, there are other ways to engage with a book. Rereading a book is a rewarding and underrated habit. I don’t do this for every book I read, but there is a shortlist of titles that I revisit every few years. Diving more deeply into a subject by exploring material from other authors is another way to continue engaging with a book. In effect, the reader is adding more voices into the conversation. So too is weaving a book and its ideas into conversations with others. Lastly, writing about a book via a short review or article is another great way to organize your thoughts and solidify your understanding.
In my experience, the default is to not have a conversation with a book. This is detrimental to the reading experience. I often read books in the most perfunctory fashion possible and then expect them to imbue me with new wisdom or knowledge. It’s no wonder I’m disappointed when I quickly forget the salient points about something I spent so much time reading. Books don’t work effectively via “transmissionism” (passively receiving the wisdom transmitted to us by an expert). Books work in proportion to the work and effort we put back into understanding them. This effort need not be limited to a single day, week, or month’s time. The best books with the best ideas warrant consistent engagement over long periods of time—months, years, even a lifetime.
It’s something I’m reminding myself as I’m putting together my summer reading list. I’ve got a host of new titles on that list, but I’ve also jotted down a couple of my favorites to revisit this summer as well.
Note: This week’s intro post is an abridged version of a piece I wrote on my blog a couple of years back. Here’s the lengthier original titled, The Conversation We Have with Books.
Now onto this week's recommendations…
Churchill’s Brevity Memo: Blogger Mike Crittenden shares a 1940 memo authored by British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In it, Churchill implores his colleagues to compose short reports, highlight the main points, use concise paragraphs, and eschew filler words (e.g., “It is also of importance to bear in mind…”).
Decomposition and Problem Solving: Eric Grunewald explains the logic and limitations of breaking complex problems into simpler subproblems using concrete examples. I particularly enjoyed his illustrations about the concept of a “search space” (i.e., the complete set of possible solutions) and how proper decomposition results in a non-linear reduction in the size of the search space. It’s a way to generate leverage in your decision-making.
Do You Learn More by Struggling on Hard Problems?: Scott Young compares two different strategies for learning: “examples-first” and “problems-first.” In examples-first learning, you study examples of how other people solve similar problems and then you practice solving them. In problems-first learning, you solve the problem independently and then study how others solve it. Which approach is best? As usual, it depends. The key is to have all three “learning ingredients”: instruction, practice, and feedback.
Seven Varieties of Stupidity: Ian Leslie (Curious) reminds readers that there’s more to stupidity than a lack of intelligence. More importantly, we all fall prey the various phenomena he outlines. For instance, “overthinking stupidity”: “Clever people have a tendency to add features to a product or movie or argument rather than subtract them, which can produce stupid outcomes.”
When Advice Collides with the Truth: “Truth is revealed by disproving prior versions of it. The process has less to do with discovering new facts of the world, and more to do with discarding the old ones that are found to be false…the goal is not to be more correct, but to be less wrong.”
Can Growth Continue?: Video and transcript of a Jason Crawford (Roots of Progress) presentation about growth and innovation. It’s a short primer on a big topic, but the gist of it is that economic growth will continue so long as we have technological progress. Natural resources are not the bottleneck, innovative ideas are.
What Is the Point of Crypto?: Emily Stewart interviews crypto proponents to better understand the technology and movement. Like many things, crypto means wildly different things to different people. In the end, “the strongest case for crypto is that it’s money outside the hands of banks and government”, but the mainstream future and broad adoption of the technology remains unclear.
Why We Can’t Stop Quantifying Our Lives: Metrology is the scientific study of measurement. Some observers believe modern society suffers from metric fixation. “When thinking about measurement in today’s world, the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa suggests it is characteristic of a particular 21st-century desire: to structure our lives through empirical observation, rendering our interests and ambitions as a series of challenges to overcome.”
Would the World Be Better Off Without Philanthropy?: A sobering look at the incentives, agendas, and power-dynamics that drive philanthropy. “In real life, the interaction between big money philanthropy and philanthropy-reliant institutions like universities, charities, and museums is more of a business negotiation than a morality play.”
Odds & Ends:
Digital spirograph is Nathan Friend’s browser-based version of the classic children’s toy (you can also download mobile app versions for Android and iOS). Pick your gears and a color and start creating mesmerizing spiral art.
Dollar Street gives visitors a glimpse into everyday life for hundreds of households from a wide range of income levels across the globe. The site documents each family with an identical set of videos depicting their living arrangements, dietary habits, material possessions, and more. It’s a part of the late Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, a project seeking to fix global misconceptions.
The History of the Web Timeline lets digital antiquarians comb through important milestones in the creation of the World Wide Web. Entries include the introduction of notable specifications like HTML, websites like Tripod and GeoCities, the first banner ad, and key browser technologies.
Refind is a content discovery tool that sends curated articles to your email inbox or via mobile app (iOS and Android). Focus your attention on what’s really relevant to you.
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