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Why books don’t work | Andy Matuschak
"Books are easy to take for granted. Not any specific book, I mean: the form of a book. Paper or pixels—it hardly matters. Words in lines on pages in chapters. And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken.

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. 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? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.

I know I’m not alone here. When I share this observation with others—even others, like myself, who take learning seriously—it seems that everyone has had a similar experience. The conversation often feels confessional: there’s some bashfulness, almost as if these lapses reveal some unusual character flaw. I don’t think it’s a character flaw, but whatever it is, it’s certainly not unusual. In fact, I suspect this is the default experience for most readers. The situation only feels embarrassing because it’s hard to see how common it is.

Now, the books I named aren’t small investments. 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. Millions of people have read each of these books, so that’s tens of millions of hours spent. In exchange for all that time, how much knowledge was absorbed? How many people absorbed most of the knowledge the author intended to convey? Or even just what they intended to acquire? I suspect it’s a small minority Unfortunately, my literature reviews have turned up no formal studies of this question, so I can only appeal to your intuition..

I’m not suggesting that all those hours were wasted. Many readers enjoyed reading those books. That’s wonderful! Certainly most readers absorbed something, however ineffable: points of view, ways of thinking, norms, inspiration, and so on. Indeed, for many books (and in particular most fiction), these effects are the point.

This essay is not about that kind of book. It’s about explanatory non-fiction like the books I mentioned above, which aim to convey detailed knowledge. Some people may have read Thinking, Fast and Slow for entertainment value, but in exchange for their tens of millions of collective hours, I suspect many readers—or maybe even most readers—expected to walk away with more. Why else would we feel so startled when we notice how little we’ve absorbed from something we’ve read?

All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.

The conclusion is peculiar, in part, because books are shockingly powerful knowledge-carrying artifacts! In the Cosmos episode, “The Persistence of Memory,” Carl Sagan exalts:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Indeed: books are magical! Human progress in the era of mass communication makes clear that some readers really do absorb deep knowledge from books, at least some of the time. So why do books seem to work for some people sometimes? Why does the medium fail when it fails?

In these brief notes, we’ll explore why books so often don’t work, and why they succeed when they do.Let’s get it out of the way: I’m aware of the irony here, using the written medium to critique the written medium! But if the ideas I describe here prove successful, then future notes on this subject won’t have that problem. This note is mere kindling, and I’ll be very happy if it’s fully consumed by the blaze it ignites. Armed with that understanding, we’ll glimpse not only how we might improve books as a medium, but also how we might weave unfamiliar new forms—not from paper, and not from pixels, but from insights about human cognition."



"Why lectures don’t work"



"Why books don’t work"



"What about textbooks?"



"What to do about it

How might we make books actually work reliably? At this point, the slope before us might feel awfully steep. Some early footholds might be visible—a few possible improvements to books, or tools one might make to assist readers—but it’s not at all clear how to reach the summit. In the face of such a puzzle, it’s worth asking: are we climbing the right hill? Why are we climbing this particular hill at all?

I argued earlier that books, as a medium, weren’t built around any explicit model of how people learn. It’s possible that, in spite of this “original sin,” iterative improvements to the form, along with new tools to support readers, can make books much more reliable. But it’s also possible that we’ll never discover the insights we need while tethered to the patterns of thought implicit in this medium.

Instead, I propose: we don’t necessarily have to make books work. We can make new forms instead. This doesn’t have to mean abandoning narrative prose; it doesn’t even necessarily mean abandoning paper—rather, we can free our thinking by abandoning our preconceptions of what a book is. Maybe once we’ve done all this, we’ll have arrived at something which does indeed look much like a book. We’ll have found a gentle path around the back of that intimidating slope. Or maybe we’ll end up in different terrain altogether.

So let’s reframe the question. Rather than “how might we make books actually work reliably,” we can ask: How might we design mediums which do the job of a non-fiction book—but which actually work reliably?

I’m afraid that’s a research question—probably for several lifetimes of research—not something I can directly answer in these brief notes. But I believe it’s possible, and I’ll now try to share why.

To begin, it’s important to see that mediums can be designed, not just inherited. What’s more: it is possible to design new mediums which embody specific ideas. Inventors have long drawn on this unintuitive insightSee e.g. Douglas Engelbart’s 1962 “Augmenting Human Intellect” for a classic primary source or Michael Nielsen’s 2016 “Thought as a Technology” for a synthesis of much work in this space., but I’ll briefly review it in case it’s unfamiliar. Mathematical proofs are a medium; the step-by-step structure embodies powerful ideas about formal logic. Snapchat Stories are a medium; the ephemerality embodies powerful ideas about emotion and identity. The World Wide Web is a medium (or perhaps many mediums); the pervasive hyperlinks embody powerful ideas about the associative nature of knowledge.

Perhaps most remarkably, the powerful ideas are often invisible: it’s not like we generally think about cognition when we sprinkle a blog post with links. But the people who created the Web were thinking about cognition. They designed its building blocks so that the natural way of reading and writing in this medium would reflect the powerful ideas they had in mind. Shaped intentionally or not, each medium’s fundamental materials and constraints give it a “grain” which make it bend naturally in some directions and not in others.

This “grain” is what drives me when I gripe that books lack a functioning cognitive model. It’s not just that it’s possible to create a medium informed by certain ideas in cognitive science. Rather, it’s possible to weave a medium made out of those ideas, in which a reader’s thoughts and actions are inexorably—perhaps even invisibly—shaped by those ideas. Mathematical proofs, as a medium, don’t just consider ideas about logic; we don’t attach ideas about logic to proofs. The form is made out of ideas about logic.

How might we design a medium so that its “grain” bends in line with how people think and learn? So that by simply engaging with an author’s work in the medium—engaging in the obvious fashion; engaging in this medium’s equivalent of books’ “read all the words on the first page, then repeat with the next, and so on”—one would automatically do what’s necessary to understand? So that, in some deep way, the default actions and patterns of thought when engaging with this medium are the same thing as “what’s necessary to understand”?

That’s a tall order. Even on a theoretical level, it’s not clear what’s necessary for understanding. Indeed, that framing’s too narrow: there are many paths to understanding a topic. But cognitive scientists and educators have mapped some parts of this space, and they’ve distilled some powerful ideas we can use as a starting point.

For example, people struggle to absorb new material when their working memory is already overloaded. More concretely: if you’ve just been introduced to a zoo of new terms, you … [more]
books  learning  howwelearn  text  textbooks  andymatuschak  2019  canon  memory  understanding  lectures  cognition  cognitivescience  web  internet  howweread  howwewrite  reading  writing  comprehension  workingmemory  michaelnielsen  quantumcountry  education  unschooling  deschooling 
june 2019 by robertogreco

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