I love learning new things, potentially more than knowing things. I’m talking about big, meaningful things: concepts, systems, algorithms. I’m interested in understanding how the universe and its pieces work, but not necessarily what you had for dinner yesterday.
Much of that precious knowledge I seek, I get from reading. Nowadays, reading comes in many different flavors; books of course, but also journals, magazines, comics, websites, pages, blogs, forums… While some of these differ in purpose, it’s still pretty much text. For this particular discussion, it doesn’t matter if the rays of light that carry the words to your retina come from a computer monitor, a phone, or a candle. So, for this post, I will use the word book to refer to any word source, because it rings better than “text”. Book. Boo-ook. BOOK!
This post is about reading books.
A naive start
When I was growing up, I did not have many friends (well I still don’t, but that may be a topic for another day). Part of the reason was a shyness bordering on the pathological, but maybe another cause was that I did (and still do) enjoy a quiet solitude. While other children gleefully sportsballed outside, I favored playing in my mind rather than in the physical world. And until I found a computer keyboard in my hands, reading was certainly my favorite activity.
For the longest time, I believed that the sole act of reading books would make me smarter. The reasoning might have went a bit like this:
- books are written by smart folks;
- their writing distills smart-stuff into words;
- reading their prose is like drinking smart-full nutrients;
- like absorbed nutrients fuel my body, absorbing words with my eyes fuels my brain;
- thus, reading their words makes me smarter. QED.
But, mainly, it might just have been the social stigma that being a book worm is a prerequisite for a career path into knowledge-oriented jobs. Being paid to play in my mind all day seemed like a good value proposition, and so I read.
Now, while I have mostly outgrown this belief, it has impacted many of my past reading behavior. I want to reminisce on some of its most embarrassing consequences later, but first I want to discuss its hypotheses.
Finding the good books
You might object to assumptions #1 and #2, and, in an all my naïveté, I was aware that these did not hold for all literature known to mankind; i.e., not all books may be worth reading. Or rather, I suspected that books came in varying levels of quality, which in turn meant various amounts of knowledge to absorb. To keep the culinary analogy going, some books are like fast-food: cheap and full of saturated fat and sugars to give you a short but potent high, while others are more like légumes: less thrilling, but more nutritious. In a healthy diet, you want less of the former and more of the latter. Mens sana in corpore sano calls for a healthy reading diet.
A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the number of books one can reasonably manage to read in a lifetime has been eclipsed by the number of books in circulation since around … five centuries ago. Clearly, in my eternal quest of wisdom, I would need to devise a system to part the wheat from the chaff.
From an early age, I caught on that recommendations were an effective solution. I have a simple formula: the likelihood of me reading a book is proportional to the number of times that book was recommended to me (directly by a friend, or indirectly through word of mouth), weighted by the area of overlap between the recommender’s interests and mine. In other words, if we both are passionate about waffles, and you tell me about this book on Belgian wafflology after the first World War, then the likelihood of me reading it is very high. On the other hand, if we have diverging interests, then chances are low that I will get out of my way to find a copy of that Shoelace Makers of the Renaissance you keep raving about (even though it does sound a little intriguing!). But if I keep hearing about it, I just might get one. Of course, other factors come into play, and I do not actually carry out calculations to rank books that were recommended to me in order to pick my next bedside companion. But even loosely applied, I do get good mileage out of this formula; and it can be extended to other media like films, video games and music.
Also of importance is the nature of the book. Some books have explicit pedagogical value: textbooks, scientific articles, historical treaties, encyclopedias, user manuals and the like. It is easy to see how one could want to download all their factual contents directly into one’s brain. Other kinds of books, like fiction, have a different value proposition: they primarily entertain you with a gripping story. One may then question the utility of cramming one’s head with the intricacies of Bridget Jones’ failings at finding love. Aside from the trivial observation that, yes, sometimes, it is good to be entertained, even by clichés, I would argue that even fictional writings may hold valuable insights. Stories have a way of making a mark in our collective imagery, and their characters can often be used in daily conversations to draw one’s point home more vividly. Greek mythology is rife with figures whose actions gave us useful analogies and even common words: Odysseus’ sirens, Icarus’ flight, Tantalus’ punishment, Narcissus’ fatal narcissism, Sisyphus’ Sisyphean plight, etc.
All of that to say that while I favor reading technical books because they will more often hold actionable knowledge, other literary pursuits may still be worthwhile for expanding my horizons, or even just for fun.
Now, having no shortage of wonderful books to discover, I want to reflect on behaviors that may have been brought about by that forementioned belief.
I used to read books from front to back, without missing a letter. Footnotes and back-cover blurb included. Carefully sieving each page, in search of nuggets of wisdom. I was once appalled at a fellow student who revealed to me that her so-called speed-reading technique involved skipping whole paragraphs. I couldn’t bear the thought of glancing over a sentence in fear of missing out some important tidbit; skipping paragraphs was heresy.
Nowadays, I skip by leaps and bounds when the text does not seem to be relevant to what I’m after. Though I tend to read fiction at a more leisurely pace, perhaps because there, half of the delight is in the composition of the words. Textbooks may be engaging, but their prose is too often stifled.
I had an unhealthy fixation on quotes. Assuredly, quotes contained the words that were the most potent, the most meaningful of the book they came from, otherwise they wouldn’t be worth quoting! I was fascinated by the mysterious force of some quotes that are part of the vernacular, passed down generation after generation to be used as thought-terminating clichés around Christmas dinner.
I got a quote dictionary: that’s a book with quotes for every word. Two quotes for “berry”, three quotes for “lion”. One quote for every occasion. Each quote was seemingly very profound, solemn in its brevity—the shorter the quote, the stronger its impact. My agenda even had quotes for each day; one was simply:
— Homer Simpson
Over time, I realized that quotes drew most of their power from two sources: their author, and their generality. Quoting famous figures is an effective way to argue from authority. And, like horoscopes, quotes thrive not because of what they actually say, but because of what we read into them.
Their effects started to wane when I tried to match quotes to their context. Quotes lose their luster when you realize that their point is made better by the surrounding paragraphs of the text that harbor them. You come to appreciate the intricacies and nuances of the author’s argument; quoting then too often feels like cargo-culting one cherry-picked part.
I still like a good quote, especially of the whimsical variety.
Quixotic quests for knowledge
Once upon a time, I imagined that I could expand my vocabulary tremendously by reading the dictionary cover to cover. Mind you, I must have been around ten. Having somewhat more ambition than diligence, that attempt ended before reaching the word ‘abacus’.
Still, I clinged to the prospect of absorbing knowledge from such ponderous volumes.
I ardently coveted the Junior Woodchucks’ Guidebook. This encyclopedic little tome seemingly contained all the answers to all the questions one could ever ask. Alas, it was fictional. Remember that there was no Wikipedia; and I had no Internet access. But we did have encyclopedias.
The one we had was a sort of insidious scam. Initially, you would just buy a magazine containing a few interesting articles. These were nicely written articles, quite didactical, and well illustrated. They even came with punched holes so you could reorganize them in a binder. But still, the magazine only came with a dozen of them, and thus you had a large binder with just a handful of articles, and a child with a consuming curiosity, so what did you do? You bought a subscription to receive more articles every week in the mail. Each Tuesday, I would get a new batch of fresh knowledge; I fondly remember reading about a wide range of topics, from medieval conflicts to relativity, from sound waves to giraffes. After reading, I would dutifully transfer the articles to the binder, putting each one in its proper category. As months went by, the articles piled up, and the binder became too small to hold them all. Of course, the publishing house also sold official binders for a pretty penny. That was all part of the scam: they got you with initial low costs and a promise to “pay as you go”, but as the costs slowly accrued over time, the total cost may have rivaled the price of a twenty-volume encyclopedia. We ended the subscription after I had filled my fifth binder.
Even though it occupied a whole shelf, and thus was roughly ten times larger than the Woodchucks’ Guidebook, it was obvious that it did not, in fact, contain the sum knowledge of all humanity. Reality crushed the magic of the Guidebook, but the idea of a tome containing all the answers never really left me.
At University I was fascinated with data structures. They have the elegance of simplicity on the outside, and the beauty of intricacies on the inside. It seemed they were crucial to solving many fundamental problems in computer science, and as I wanted to become the very best, I had to catch them all.
I started compiling all the information I could find on each structure in a personal encyclopedia. I documented their applications, their big-oh complexity, trade-offs of implementation… My goal was for it to be the one place of reference I would ever need for all my curriculum.
Its sole article was, and still is, the Linked List.
After that, I realized that exhaustivity of information was not only unachievable, but often undesirable. For informative books to be useful, they need to maintain a high signal-to-noise ratio; they must focus on the essential and forget trivia.
While these events did alter my perception of knowledge and its acquisition, they did not altogether dispel my belief that reading alone would grant me its author’s wisdom. Other observations, however, came to clash with this theory.
First, since reading a book should have conferred me its powers, I should have been able to write the exact same book after having finished reading it. Yet, it never was the case. Au contraire: some books I would have difficulties to explain or describe when asked. As if reading the words was not enough to really comprehend what they said.
This was the most evident when reading books whose contents were well out of reach. I tried to push forward, reading each word but not getting them. It felt as if I was reading a text in an unknown language, even though it was all written in my mother’s tongue. Maybe I was hoping that, when I finally got to that last page, after clutching my way through the tortuous sentences and unfamiliar jargon, I would be rewarded? Hoping that, after having been seeded by these fuzzy morphemes, some part of my brain would just click? It is difficult to know beforehand if some text is badly written, is intentional gibberish, or if you are in fact not smart enough to make sense of it.
In time, I have learned that reading requiring some effort on my part is a good sign: it is a signal that my brain is learning. If I’m cruising, then the material is certainly nothing new; if on the other hand I struggle with each sentence, then the contents are probably out of my league (for now). There is a fine line, and I have to surf it.
But the final counterexample to that quaint theory was reading the same book for the second time. Surely, if one is supposedly “gets” all the book by merely reading it once, then reading it twice would be a clear waste of time. Yet it wasn’t. Even worse, when re-reading books I would find some new insights—not just some leftover knowledge bits that I had previously missed, but insights that replaced the ones I had gotten from previous readings. As if I had previously misinterpreted the book, and it was only in this second reading that I had attained its true meaning.
But it wasn’t misinterpretation. It didn’t feel like misinterpretation.
Helpful little lies
Books can only teach you what you read into them. That sounds vacuous, but it emphasizes one key point: the reader’s own knowledge determines the outcome as much as the sequence of words in the book. There’s an interplay between the two. My experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, and what I retained from it, may be vastly different from yours.
After reading some words off the page, the process of digesting them mostly feels like a reorganization of thought. The words need to be integrated with my existing mental organization. It feels like introducing a stranger into some long-standing fellowship. In any group of people, there is an established dynamic at work, and any stranger will have to learn that dynamic in order to fit in. The same applies to foreign-knowledge-bearing words trying to get into my brain. Their concepts must be adapted to the way my mental models are already set up. And in this adaptation, which is dictated by my past experiences, my reading of the words is irremediably different than yours.
So there was the explanation. When years had passed between my two readings of the same book, the contents of the book had been the same, but I had changed. These intervening years are what altered my perception of the same words. Much like source code isn’t complete without an interpreter, the reader is what gives meaning to the book. What good is a book if there is no one to read it?
Thinking that the words alone bore all the knowledge was naive, even foolish. It was a simple explanation—too simple, but one has to start somewhere. We use theories in order to make sense of the world, in order to survive. Our theories are like spiders’ shells: they protect us as we troddle around the world. Eventually we outgrow these shells; we shed them and develop other, more sophisticated and more nuanced theories which improve on the previous one’s shortfalls. Shed after shed, our grasp on the world grows, ever-changing. And yet, we are only ever catching glimpses of the full picture.