Books Don't Work

books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it. [1]

A critique of re-reading textbooks is that it gives the illusion of mastering the subject, when in reality you’ve only mastered the text. Being overly familiar with a text is different than being overly familiar with a subject. It’s possible to have a feeling of mastery without going to deep into the topic simply via repetition.

Perhaps there’s a similar phenomena for people reading a book for the first time. Understanding the language that’s being read is confused with understanding the actual meaning that language is trying to convey.

to understand something, you must actively engage with it. [1:1]

Engaging with a text could be

  • Asking questions and trying to answer them
  • Writing an essay or monologue
  • Making connections
  • Drawing diagrams
  • Etc.

Throughout the reading process, engagement needs to be constantly happening, and that’s a skill that has to be developed.

All this effortful “thinking about thinking” competes with actually thinking about the book’s ideas. [1:2]

This is true, but I wonder if there is really a solution to this issue. Expecting books to be written better is a non-solution. I can strive to make my own writing simpler, more clear, and conform to mental models, but at the same time I have to develop strategies for parsing text that doesn’t conform to best writing practices.

I believe the best writing is easy to understand, but there definitely exists a huge number of difficult-to-understand books that contain valuable information. For this reason, it’s necessary to develop a reading-system that accomplishes the following criteria:

  • Identifies and extracts meaning from difficult text
  • Minimize time spent in the text itself (multiple readings bad)

Minimizing time spent reading allows for more time to explore the ideas that were extracted from the text, and from there to produce new ideas and connections.

textbook exercises are often designed to yield both a solution to that specific problem and also broader insights about the subject. Will readers notice if they solved a problem but missed the insights it was supposed to reveal? [1:3]

This is a difficult aspect of autodidactism. With self study, it’s easy to judge progress of “learning” by how many chapters/pages you read. It’s much more difficult to judge how much understanding you’ve gained. I think it’s critical for the independent learner to show exceptional discipline and judgement when considering whether they’ve understood a topic enough to move on to the next one.

if you’ve just been introduced to a zoo of new terms, you probably won’t absorb much from a sentence which uses many of those terms at once. So maybe part of “what’s necessary to understand” something is that most of its prerequisites must be not just familiar but fluent, encoded in long-term memory. [1:4]

I’ve noticed throughout my pursuit of learning new vocabulary that there are times when I encounter a vocab word “in the wild” and think to myself “oh I know that one.” It’s likely that the fact that I stop reading in order to acknowledge the word means that the word isn’t encoded into my long-term memory yet.

At the same time, it’s likely that those pauses help to consolidate the vocabulary further, and after enough times the word will seem completely natural.


  1. A. Matuschak, “Why books don’t work.” https://andymatuschak.org/books/ (accessed Jun. 11, 2020). ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎