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A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books …, Hacker News

A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books …, Hacker News



Knowledge system and cognitive science guru Andy Matuschak writes a rant calledWhy Books Don’t Work, about big, difficult books that take him six to nine hours each to read:


Have you ever had a book … come up … [and] discover [ed] that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences?… It happens to me regularly…. Someone asks a basic probing question… [and] I simply can’t recall the relevant details… [or] I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea… though I’d ​​certainly thought I understood…. I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment…

However, he goes on to say:


Some people do absorb knowledge from books… the people who really do think about what they’re reading.… These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…, ““ This point conflicts with …, ”“ I don’t really understand how …, ”etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing…


Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies … run their own feedback loops … understand their own cognition … [what] learning science calls “metacognition”…. It’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them …

These points had strong relevance for students in U.C. Berkeley’sEcon****************************: History of Economic Thought: Do we live in a Smithian, Marxian or Keynesian World?

The core of the course is an assisted reading of three big books that are d —- ably difficult: Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

, Karl Marx’s) Capital, and John Maynard Keynes’sMoney.

These are all big, difficult, flawed, incredibly insightful, genius books. And it is a principal task of a successful modern university to teach people how to read such things. Indeed, it might be said that one of the few key competencies we here at the university have to teach — our counterpart or the medieval triad of rhetoric, logic, grammar and then quadriad of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology — is how to read and absorb a theoretical argument made by a hard, worthwhile, flawed book. People need to understand what an argument is, and the only way to do that is actually go through an argument — to read the argument and try to make sense of it. People need to be able to tell the difference between an argument and an assertion. People need to be able to do more than just say whether they liked the conclusion or not: they need to be able to specify whether the argument hangs together given the properties, and where it is the premises, and where it is the premises themselves that need to be challenged. People need to learn that while you can disagree, you need to be able to specify why and how you disagree.

The first order task is to teach people how to read difficult books. Teaching people five facts about some thinker’s theoretical perspective is subordinate: those five facts will not stick with them over the years. Teaching them how to read difficult books will stick with them over the years. Knowing what to do with a book that makes an important, an interesting, but also a flawed argument — that is a key skill.

Therefore, at the start, people need to read the

Wealth of Nations. They need to read Books III, IV, and V, to see how Smith uses and qualifies the theoretical system he has built. But most of all people need to read Books I and II, both as an example of a powerful analytical argument, and because unless you understand Books I and ii you do not understand the most powerful ideology in the world today — the argument, it’s dazzling . With Adam Smith, you can see how he starts from some locations and then builds it up to his conclusions. Starting with his premises about human nature, he derives his theory of the market as a system that has its own logic: it makes people do things they would not otherwise do, and so makes them act, collectively, to achieve results that nobody intended. Since almost all other major positions in social theory have either drawn us or been trying to undermine Smith.

And then, after Smith, we go on to Marx, and Keynes. And we urge you to focus on the “meta” to the extent that you can: it is not so much the ability to answer the question “what does Marx think about X?” that we want you to grasp, but rather “how do I figure out what Marx thinks about X?” that is the big goal here.

We have our recommended ten-stage process for reading such big books:

**********************) Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.

  • Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at — the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate .
  • Read through the book actively, taking notes.
  • “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
  • Find someone else — usually a roommate — and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned ”Version of the argument.
  • Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading
  • Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be .
  • Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?
  • Decide what you think of the whole.
  • Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.
  • Follow this process, and your reading becomes active. Then you have the greatest possible chance of learning the books — of thereafter being able to summon up sub-Turing instantiations of the thinkers Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes and then running them on your wetware. If you can do that, you can be closer to being as smart as they were. And at the same time you will be aware enough of their weak points and blindnesses that you can be wiser than they were.

    To assist you in this process, we compiled questions-and-answers – 150 About Smith, (about Marx, and about Keynes — that we think you should review and learn as part of your active-learning incorporation of the thought of these three authors into your own minds.

    “But”, you may well say, “simply learning these questions-and-answers merely gets me the ability to parrot verbal formulas. We want more: we want a least knowledge of facts, terms, and concepts; and we ideally want deep understanding ”.

    It is certainly true that there are many who can parrot verbal formulas yet lack knowledge of facts, terms, and concepts. It is certainly true that there are many who have knowledge of facts, terms, and concepts and yet lack deep understanding. But I am not aware of anyone who has deep understanding of a discipline and yet lacks knowledge of facts, terms, and concepts. And those who know the facts, terms, and concepts cold are the absolute best at parroting verbal formulas.

    As our Economics Department Vice Chair Jon Steinnson says: “You sit there listening and it makes no sense” —you are at best parroting verbal formulas— “until one day you find that it does ”: That the network of interlocking verbal formulas has become at least the beginning of knowledge, and hopefully some day deep understanding. These questions-and-answers are a way of getting you to ask your own questions of the text, and to hear it answer — to do your own active reading. If you do it well, than big, difficult books will come to be to you what they came to be to Renaissance diplomat and political scientist Machiavelli, who wrote his books were:


    ancient men… [who] receive … [me] with affection…. I … speak with them and … ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death…

    And so before he began reading them in the evening, he dressed up: “[took] off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly … ”(The“ not frightened by death ”part? When Machiavelli wrote this letter the Republic of Florence he had been worked for had been overthrown by the Medici dynasty, and he was righty fearful that they might decide to arrest, torture, and execute him.)

    From Smith, Marx, Keynes: Cement Your Knowledge (****************: (OEohMkflwYE1u5w) ************)


    ************************************** # berkeley #books #cognition #highlighted # – – (********************************

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