Reading well

Bookmarked The myth of the myth of the well read person by Dwarkesh Patel (The Lunar Society)

But to understand something is not to know random minutiae about it – to understand is to know how the parts compose the whole, to notice patterns and discern their causes, and to be able to make predictions on the basis of these insights. In that sense, understanding is precisely what the weighty small print books fail to provide and what books advancing or attacking an explanatory theory are supplying.

A more non-fiction focused version of “read a lot“.

His suggestion for reading:

Instead of reading mid-wit pop-sci books which just offer vague metaphors or irrelevant anecdotes, read books that are either pure fun (fantasy, sci-fi, manga, etc), or actual hardcore science (textbooks and review papers.

And take steps to cement your learning:

Do things which force you to absorb the main ideas from books, like writing reviews or organizing discussions. And if that doesn’t work, it is still better to learn what little you can…

I like the approach of aiming for big picture understanding rather than trying to learn one new subject deeply. (Though I also like the idea of T-shaped knowledge: broad, with one deep specialization.

See also: Slava Akhmechet’s reading in clusters approach

I agree that we don’t always get as much out of books as we could, but don’t think blaming the reader’s intelligence is fair:

If intelligence is the ability to understand complex ideas, to notice patterns and make inferences, and to build connections between new information and existing knowledge, then it’s no surprise that dull people don’t get that much out of reading a lot.

Not learning much from reading seems more rooted in not being taught how to make connections, think big picture, and draw lessons from a text. Learning to do this is a skill, not an innate talent based on your intelligence. It also requires a starting base of knowledge because you need context to truly understand things and see connections at a grand scale, which many people are lacking.

(Though I will admit there are some things I read that I can tell are going completely over my head 😥 It’s like hitting a mental wall of understanding I know I need to climb 😂)

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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