How to read hard books

A thoughtful framework for reading and understanding deeply from Brad DeLong.

First, get prepared:

  • Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.
  • Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.
  • During and after reading, try to rephrase and improve on the argument:

  • Read through the book actively, taking notes.
  • “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
  • Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.
  • Finally, try to disprove the arguments, and decide how you feel about them:

  • Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading
  • Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.
  • Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?
  • Decide what you think of the whole.
  • Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.
  • The limiting factor of our education is no longer access to information–it’s making the most of the information we access.

    Related: The purpose of reading is to write

    The “real” Buddha?

    Alexander Wynne writes about the (more likely) historical Buddha, and how he differed from the myths:

    Bringing the reliable historical fragments together, and discarding mythic elaborations, a humbler picture of the Buddha emerges. Gotama was born into a small tribe, in a remote and unimportant town on the periphery of pre-imperial India…

    Gotama doubted his own teaching ability, was not taken seriously by the first person to witness him (as the Buddha), and did not achieve notable success with his first audience. How, then, did he succeed?

    I find Wynne’s portrait of a silent, humble ascetic as more compelling than the myth of a prince confused by beggars, and more consistent with his teachings that the world is illusory. The mention of American mindfulness practice coming from 19th-century Burma was also interesting.

    Pretending to know

    I thought further and said: “Why do men lie over problems of such great importance, even to the point of destroying themselves?” And they seemed to do so because although they pretend to know all, they know nothing. Convinced they know all, they do not attempt to investigate the truth.

    Why I work on productivity software

    I made a shift in my career four years ago to work on productivity software. The motivating force was a desire to contribute to solving the climate crisis. I’m not a climate scientist, nor a physicist or even an engineer, who could contribute directly to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

    However I can design really good software, and it turns out that’s something everyone who is working on the problem needs.

    Nick Bostrom, in his article “Three Ways to Advance Science” does a good job summarizing the opportunity:

    Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.

    Bostrom is specifically interested in medical interventions…but I think in today’s world the more mundane problems of distraction, confusion, and noncooperation are the bigger opportunities to tackle.

    Evolving to eat air

    Israeli scientists have figured out how to convert a heterotroph (an organism that must consume other organisms to survive, like humans) into an autotroph (one that can live off inorganic substances like CO2, as plants do). They did it by gradually starving generations of E. coli bacteria of sugar, while keeping CO2 available. Some of the bacteria evolved mutations that enabled them to survive on the CO2 diet.

    In all, the evolved bacteria picked up 11 new genetic mutations that allowed them to survive without eating other organisms.

    E. coli are also the bacteria most commonly used to create ethanol and many medicines. So a version that eats CO2 and creates valuable products is an amazing development. Kinda like a tree =)

    A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. – Frederik Pohl

    Art knows better

    To experience the truth in art reminds us that there is such a thing as truth. Truth lives. It can be found…

    All the world’s power over us lies in its ability to persuade us that we are powerless to understand each other, to feel and see and love each other, and that therefore it is pointless for us to try. Art knows better, which is why the world tries so hard to make art impossible, to immiserate artists, to ban their work, silence their voices, and why it’s so important for all of us to, quite simply, make art possible.

    • Michael Chabon, in his last letter as chair of the MacDowell artists colony

    Happiness and satisfaction

    What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

    There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

    • Noticing good things around you
    • Being content without them

    Noticing good things

    Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

    Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

    If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

    Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

    Being content

    The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

    In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

    This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

    Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

    I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

    Danish Folk High Schools

    A Danish Folk High School is “a non-formal residential school offering learning opportunities in almost any subject.”

    More generally, it’s a place where post-high-school age students can go live for a while and learn about community practices together.

    The book The Nordic Secret argues that the invention of the folk high school in the 19th century is key to the rise of the once-poor Nordic societies since then. The “folk-bildung” it developed can be described as “character formation, cultural heritage and developing a moral backbone all in one.”

    A sense of belonging; a connection with nature; social responsiblity; conscience and morality–how many of these are lacking in our current education systems?

    Prosocial and cultural change

    Prosocial is “a change method based on evolutionary science to enhance cooperation and collaboration for groups of all types and sizes that’s effective at a global scale.”

    It combines Elinor Ostrom’s insights about the behaviors of effective groups with evolutionary science and theories of change–moving toward or away from goals, with visible and internal reactions–that can make existing groups more effective.

    Prosocial was used to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone, where the facilitators worked with local people to create a new way of honoring the dead that didn’t cause more infections; and to design a new community park in Detroit.