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Read More Books but Pretend to Read Even More
How to eat your cake and have it too
A friend of mine tells me that whenever he walks by a bookstore he’s hit by a feeling of waste at the huge number of books that really nobody has any good reason ever to read. Call this the first of three important qualities that books have:
1. Most books are not worth reading.
In particular, whole categories of books merit suspicion:
Popular academic nonfiction often contains useless anecdotes and historical trivia from authors who got a book deal to expand a paper or a media piece. Indeed, I welcome any publishers reading this essay to pay me to expand it into a book. I could make each bullet point into a chapter and add background information about intellectual expectations in different historical social classes, random case studies about intellectuals who read a lot and others who read very little, lengthy comparisons to other media formats, and other digressions.
This is the main kind of book that Richard Hanania denounces in “The Case Against (Most) Books” and led Sam Bankman-Fried to tell a writer for Sequoia Capital that “I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” Summaries or reviews of these books get you the important information in much less time.
Great Books of the “classic” nonfiction variety only become more suspicious the further forward we advance in time. No one would learn mathematics from Euclid and as we get Darwin and Skinner and economics and industrialization, past thinkers look more out of place. Fiction seems fine. Its claim that it presents things that are hard to convey with straightforward description has held up.
2. Most people remember roughly nothing that they read.
Most people who read a book ultimately retain little and sometimes nothing more than someone who just read a review. Holden comments on this with a table of how he perceives the time/retention-percentage curve for different levels of investment. Plotted:
The blue line reflects an increased understanding from reading the title → skimming → reading the book quickly → reading the book slowly. Meanwhile Holden doesn’t even think it’s “really possible to understand more than 50% of a serious book without e.g. spending a lot of independent time in the field.” Not pictured on the chart is Holden’s estimate of the value of reading a book slowly, which he rates as strictly worse than reading reviews and discussion of the book before analyzing and evaluating the sections they reference. Reading a book by itself is like listening to university lectures without any flashcards or essays or problem sets.
3. Reading books is incredibly high-status.
Holden complains about the “raw deal” you get by either reading reviews and being outshone by people who read a book, or gaining little social benefit if you “digest the heck out of it.” In “Honesty About Reading” he makes a futile suggestion that people change their norms about this. In reality people get a lot of respect for being big readers specifically, in a way that they don’t for audio or video or even shortform content.
Reading longform content is incorrectly believed to be not only a source of information but a unique avenue for worldliness. To avoid it is “solipsistic”; a post in the Atlantic from January about anti-readers SBF, Kanye West, and Sean McElwee warns us that “Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character” and that SBF’s position is not just inefficient but “galling” and “ignorant” and “arrogant” and “worrisome.” We’re reminded that reading is a mark of strong character
Simply because it takes a long time (“the rare patience a book still demands of a reader—those precious slow hours of deep focus—is also a virtue”),
Because valuing your time is suspicious (“One might reasonably ask just where, after all, these men have been in such a rush to get to?”), and even
Merely because the books took a long time to write (“Writing a book is an extraordinarily disproportionate act: What can be consumed in a matter of hours takes years to bring to fruition”).
Molly Roberts in WashPo says that “Sam Bankman-Fried doesn’t read. That tells us everything” before expressing in more direct terms that reading books is just inherently profound:
But no matter the type of book he’s talking about, what SBF is missing is the experience. You’re supposed to read not in spite of the digressions and diversions that stand between you and the denouement, but because of them; the little things aren’t extraneous but essential. And what you come out of a book with isn’t always supposed to be instrumental at all, at least not in any practical sense. You read to read; you don’t read to have read.
The solution: Analyze some books in detail with a goal in mind and write about them. “Pretend to read” hundreds of books. No one can tell.
After some initial study, the best way to improve at chess is to play slow games and deeply analyze them afterward for mistakes. But I know few excellent players who never studied by “skimming”—the term I use for looking at hundreds of high-quality games very quickly, maybe one game per minute. Everyone seems to attribute it to International Master Jeremy Silman:
Q: What kind of study program did you use?
A: I mostly looked at endless master games (while simultaneously eating copious amounts of ice cream), sometimes going over several hundred in a single day (only stopping when I was slaphappy and drooling). Most young players I talk to don’t go over nearly enough master games, but now that databases are available there’s simply no excuse for this.
By going through the games so quickly, you’re able to absorb thousands of patterns despite the weaker depth of understanding. There’s a dead zone between skimming and scrutiny where you could play slow games without analyzing them and get neither the immediate benefits of cognitively-demanding analysis nor enough information to gain a passive understanding of the underlying patterns.
Apply this to reading by undertaking two sharply contrasted kinds of reading:
Scrutiny: Read with some goal in mind or a claim you want to prove or disprove. Take notes and revise your claim and form a useful opinion and so on. Maybe conduct a minimal-trust investigation or learn by writing.
Skimming: Gobble lots of content. For a given book, maybe read a summary and a few reviews and skim through the text so fast that it’s almost more like experiencing the book rather than reading it. Don’t stop and reread, don’t think too hard about what you’re reading, and accelerate or just quit the more boring a book gets. Claim you read the book. Profit.
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