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Books are subjectivity-merging devices, not efficient information transfer devices
It’s obvious that most books aren’t efficient information transfer devices. There are few people who have 300 pages of compelling information to share with you, and, even if they do, what are the odds that you, in particular, need to hear those 300 pages of information? And what are the odds that you will retain all of it?
This is not that important to me, however. I agree that most books aren’t worth reading. But not for this reason. Books aren’t information transfer devices, they are subjectivity-merging devices.
When you read a book, you aren’t just accessing a series of propositions. You are becoming immersed in a worldview, through the rhythms of a given prose style, the facts selected and omitted, and the author’s chosen self-disclosures. Reading is hypnosis. Just like hypnotists lead you into a trance in which a simple suggestion can become forceful, skillful writers, by absorbing you in their pages, give you a perspective, from which certain selected facts take on greater relevance.
A good book doesn’t usually give you a hundred pieces of valuable information. (Is there such a thing, unless you’re actively engaging in some focused research project?) Instead, a good book gives you, maybe, 2-12 impressions that you absorb deeply because they make sense within the book’s frame. It’s like a conversation with a close friend or mentor, in which, due to a progressively cocreated intimacy, a quickly-said platitude, or a couple of relatively banal words, can have a life-changing impact.
The book that made this clearest to me was Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. For many people, this book is more powerful than nicotine, arguably the most addictive drug on earth. It was instrumental for me in quitting smoking, and I was one of the most dedicated smokers I’ve ever met. There’s not much in it, however. The book really consists of only two core facts:
Smoking doesn’t make you feel better, it just brings you back up to baseline, and so, being addicted to smoking is like being addicted to tight shoes that feel good when you take them off.
Given that you sleep through nicotine cravings, they won’t kill you. When you feel nicotine cravings, imagine that they are the sounds that the nicotine monster is making as it dies, which will take a couple of weeks, maximum.
If books were merely about information transmission, then I would’ve just saved you a lot of time. However, absent the rest of the book’s contents, these two facts lack most of their power. It’s the manner of its narration—its sympathetic but mocking tone, the way it tells you to smoke while reading it, the confidence it gives you—that animate them and make you absorb them.
Often, people mourn that they are bad at retaining information. I think that it’s good that you’re bad at retaining information. Think of the information that’s out there! Professional propagandists, working through outlets official and unofficial, are constantly trying to pump you full of their memes. Many times per week, you run across advice that could totally ruin your life. Do you think “critical thinking” or a knowledge of cognitive biases could save you? Umbrellas in a hurricane. You only survive by being obtuse, by forgetting things, and by not believing what you hear. It’s only in the reading process that you slowly let down your guard, if the writer is a trained conversationalist who can make you believe that what they have to share is of value.
This is why Blinkist sucks ass, and why I don’t generally find that serious readers I know use book summaries. It’s true that many serious readers I know will skim, or read parts of books, but this isn’t the same thing. If you’re good at skimming, you can still get a sense of a book’s atmosphere and perspective as you’re picking up a sampling of its arguments.
Fiction is the same. Most of a novel that I love, I won’t retain. Right now I’m reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which mostly consists of dialogue, and most of the dialogue, I will forget. But what I’ll remember is something more powerful, something that is greater than the book’s contents, something that is impossible to precisely articulate—a sensibility, an understanding of the human condition, a weltanschauung. And the few scenes I do remember will serve as exemplars, like how the best of a civilization’s artwork encodes its values. At its best, fiction can train your deep pattern recognition for humanity, providing archetypal lenses through which you can more fully glimpse the behavior of those around you. This cannot be summed up.
Even if a book teaches you nothing, it can still provide talismanic value—reading a book about something can signify an intention to live differently. Maybe one particular book on marriage won’t make you a better partner, in and of itself. But the time spent reading it will be time spent engaging with one’s thoughts about the subject, and, ceremonially, proving your devotion to it.
Typically, efficiently absorbing a set of facts, if they lack a rich context or greater animating purpose, is not good for much. You mostly get the impression of knowing something, which is not the same as knowing something.
This is all partially a response this post (which, to be clear, I don’t entirely disagree with). In it, it’s revealed that Sam Bankman-Fried is not a fan of books. He says: “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that … If you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” This doesn’t surprise me at all. SBF’s life reveals a pathological inability to loosen his frame, which, in the short term, can be an asset for power-seeking sociopaths. This is not to say that his life would’ve been different if he read a book or something. It’s just to say that if you’re interested only in what can be efficiently slotted into your existing thoughts, you’re probably missing nearly everything.
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