Why Books Work And Could Work Better

Thu, 06 Aug 2020 23:29:53 GMT

Andy Matuschak has a wonderful Essay, "Why Books Don't Work", which may be read at https://andymatuschak.org/books (CC BY-NC 3.0).

The headline alone is enough to stir debate even before the essay is opened, though I implore against falling into this trap. The title offers either an opportunity to miss the point and forgo valuable learning, or to those willing to suspend disbelief, a chance to receive wisdom about how books are limited in their ability to facilitate learning. I find the latter interpretation to be more fruitful, and I think the one deserved by Andy, whom I will endorse without hesitation (conceding his own track record speaks be more loudly), who has substantial expertise and informed opinions not limited to the topics of education, meta-learning & epistemology, experience design, and research methodology. You can learn more at http://andymatuschak.orgAnd on this topic of books and in his essay, I've found Andy's perspective to be informed, insightful, and worth reading (multiple times).

It's good enough that I feel it deserves response, critique, and perhaps additional chapters of complimentary perspectives.


The subtle "disagreements" I choose to highlight within my response to his essay do not necessarily constitute disagreements with Andy. Based on previous conversations with him and re-reads of his essay, I'm convinced I agree on the majority of the points he presents. More likely is the reality that a five-page essay is unlikely to effectively reflect all perspectives on the topic and attempting to cover every alternative is more likely to dilute his main message than to elucidate.

In contrast, being a lengthy and bad writer myself with less sensitivity to discretion, I have yet to internalize this lesson and will so venture to continue until exhaustion. Needless to say, I hope my approach, instead of being perceived as disagreement, presents itself as an offer of alternative lens. That we may take books for granted, perhaps too there may be perspectives which seem obvious to Andy and perhaps worthy of omission but (I at least I feel) may be useful or appreciated by others whose learning goals/values, styles, or preferences may differ. The spirit of my disclaimer comes from https://twitter.com/mekarpeles/status/1291512991100203008In summary, Andy is great -- Thanks Andy for writing this essay.  

Checking for Understanding

I think before offering my perspectives, it's a respectful, responsible, and moreover useful exercise to demonstrate some level of understanding of the original work (i.e. to present one's understanding and assumptions openly so there is shared context and grant others the opportunity to challenge and discuss on common ground / equal footing). I will attempt to do so here and will happily update this section as I inevitably learn where and how my assumptions are wrong.

Below I list some takeaway assumptions and cite sections (hopefully faithfully presented) which led me to these conclusions:

1. The [static] form of a book is easy to take for granted (both for its good and its limitations)
>  Books are easy to take for granted. Not any specific book, I mean: the form of a book.
> which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken.

2. That perhaps a primary value of a reading a books is to load one's memory and repeatably augment one's understanding:
> 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?

3. That many people are embarrassed by forgetting things they've read
> The situation only feels embarrassing because it’s hard to see how common it is.

4. That books perhaps are meant to be read fully, beginning-to-end
>  Each takes around 6–9 hours to read

5. That reading takes a long time 
> Each takes around 6–9 hours to read. Adult American college graduates read 24 minutes a day on average, so a typical reader might spend much of a month with one of these books

6. That [3, 5] may imply that books (or how we read them, and this is part of the point) are not effective at [2]
> books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.

7. The scope of Andy's essay is ~limited to non-fiction / textbooks / research, etc.
> This essay is [...] about explanatory non-fiction like the books [...] which aim to convey detailed knowledge.

8. That books contain useful knowledge
> books are shockingly powerful knowledge-carrying artifacts 
> some readers really do absorb deep knowledge from books, at least some of the time.

9. That books & lectures don't have an explicit teaching strategy
> Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things

Which is perhaps good given people learn differently; every book or lecture is organized by a person which is using their own techniques to give direction and convey knowledge.  

10. That lectures, and perhaps books, lack reliability in "teaching" where successful teaching results in [2] of [7]. 
> you probably don’t believe that lectures are a reliable way to convey knowledge.

11. Many students and lecturers (and readers and writers) are unaware of (or misjudge) the limitations of their mediums.
> If pressed, many lecturers would offer a more plausible cognitive model: understanding actually comes after the lecture, when attendees solve problem sets, write essays, etc. The lecture provides the raw information for those later activities.
(which I strongly agree).

12. Acquired knowledge is actualized by successfully applying it
> to understand something, [one] must actively engage [... in] activities like interactive discussions and projects;
(agree, in books, this can mean examples, dialogues between other authors, citations, etc)

13. lectures lack a functioning cognitive model.
> lectures don’t work because the medium lacks a functioning cognitive model
Disagree. Many lectures leverage cause/effect, demonstration, and other powerful mechanisms (e.g. Professor Walter Lewin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaALPa7Dwdw). Sometimes the point of a lecture is to give 1 data point where there was previously 0. And these inaugural data points can be incredibly influential, informative, and transformative. I don't see why a lecture as a mediums needs to lack a functioning cognitive model while I can agree many (MIT lecturers scratching at a chalkboard) do. 

14. Books & Lectures work by transmitting packaged content for consideration
> [...] that model is transmissionism

15. Books and lectures transmit but don't ensure thought and consideration.
[those who think about what they’re reading] do absorb knowledge from books. [...] they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing [which are] learn[ed] specific reflective strategies [i.e. metacognition].


I think [9] lectures are a reliable way, and [6] books are effective mediums for encoding and conveying knowledge. I don't think they're sufficient (in a single linear pass) to enable memorization or understanding. And books are seldom "context free", i.e. sufficient absent of processes for using books.

> Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?

It's in a different book:

* Much application occurs on people's own time and not in real time. Whether someone can recall a memorized fact is not always a critical as one's ability to recall an important detail as it becomes relevant. Many cases for memorization have been partially deprecated into obsolescence (e.g. memorizing statistical tables, manual calculations v. programming, calculus chain rules). They're still conceptually very useful to know of, to intuitively and contextually understand, and to be able to apply. But that doesn't necessarily mean one must be practiced in such things.

In Defense of Books

Here are a few ways books (or the circumstances which create them) may actually be getting worse over time, not given full credit, or where we may be misattributing blame (when really it's the author, reader, or society's fault).

1. Signal-to-noise: The barrier to entry has been lessened for who can write a book. This has both positive and negative effects. On one hand, more great works exist. On the other, the noise ratio is exacerbated.

2. Lack of collaboration: Very few books are written by many authors and many competing books are written on the same topic. 

3. Misaligned incentives: there are monetary incentives to compete rather than collaborate

4. Bad Teachers: People who know things are not necessarily the best teachers or writers. e.g. the story of Charles Hutton's, "Theory of the Earth" described on page 94 of Bill Bryson's, "A Short History of Nearly Everything":


Coincidentally, I had forgotten the name Hutton, however I was able to recall the relevant material through the associative trail of, "least read important book".

5. Good teachers: Euclids Elements
(https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6196489M/The_thirteen_books_of_Euclid's_Elements) survived as a definitive textbook on mathematics and geometry for 2,000 years, specifically because *how* it was written (axiomatically as a collection of compounding proofs) and because Euclid was an exemplary teacher. He was so sought after that he was employed to teach King Ptolemy

During one such lesson with Ptolemy, when asked for a shorter way to learn Geometry than studying, Euclid famously answered, "There is no royal road to Geometry.

The idea of propositions as proofs was itself very new [a,b] and that Euclid had the intuition and genius to formalize the unite and findings of scores of Geometers of the time by incrementally composing all of geometry from a set of simple axioms is a testament to the power latent in a good book. The right book matters as much as the reader.

a. http://www.msme.us/2013-2-3.pdf
b. https://www.math.tamu.edu/~don.allen/history/thales2/thales2.html#:~:text=Thales%20is%20believed

Of the books of this era which survive today, it's no surprise that many were written by great teachers. For instance, Rhetoric, Physics, Nicomachean Ethics, Metaphysics, Logic (Organon), and treatises on optics, animals, and the soul, among other things, were all revolutionized by Aristotle, who also happened to be the tutor of a young Alexander the Great. It's similarly no surprised that many of Aristotle's works have survived, filled with examples and explanations.

6. Book Tech Evolves: I feel we may be unfairly discounting how much technological advancement occurs within books. Test questions, annotations and citations, conversations, syntopticons, tables of contents, problem-sets, worked examples, illustrations...

Quintus Valerius Soranus (d. 82 B.C.) as the first author to provide a table of contents to help readers navigate a lengthy work. Leveraged by Pliny the Elder in Historia naturalis.

Tags: Books, "Why Books Don't Work", Essay, Andy Matuschak