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

    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?

    We should teach our kids sports, music, painting…Everything we teach should be different from machines…we have to teach something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us. – Jack Ma

    Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

    Great overview of the “forgetting curve“, the way that we immediately forget almost all the information we take in:

    For many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

    That describes many of my reading experiences quite well; sometimes I feel like the characters in this Portlandia skit. The key to avoiding this is recalling and re-encountering the information again:

    If you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out…Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

    The most well-known technique for recalling information systematically is spaced repetition:

    Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

    This website has always served as my outboard brain, but I don’t re-encounter my own thoughts on a regular basis. I’ve tried a few times to set up a system to send me random past posts; worth getting that going.

    Learning the basics

    I think learning should be about learning the basics in all the fields and learning them really well over and over. Life is mostly about applying the basics and only doing the advanced stuff in the things that you truly love and where you understand the basics inside out. – Naval Ravikant

    When I taught an introductory design class at Stanford, I finished by telling the students, “That’s it! That’s all you’ll ever need to know about doing design. Now, go out into the world and spend the rest of your lives trying to actually do it.”


    The perfect business model? Parents pay for their children to work and be advertised to. And it actually sounds pretty fun!

    Nice quotes from the Do Lectures

    Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one — Michael Forbes

    It’s better to fail with your own vision rather than following another man’s vision. — Johan Cruyff

    I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take a game winning shot….and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed — Michael Jordan

    Diversity and design

    “Creativity is just connecting things…[but] a lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” – Steve Jobs, 1996

    The orchid gene

    “Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care…The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.” – The Science of Success

    My New Year’s media diet

    I would like to be more intentional about how I consume media. Here are some thoughts on how I might do that in the coming year.

    Read the Eternities (via)

    Focus my reading on classical writing, not modern writing

    Books first

    Books are the complete thought meal (Tim Sanders). Films can be good as well, but leave less to the imagination. Video/tv is the least considered and most ephemeral.

    70/20/10 rule

    • Time: 70% pre-1900, 20% 1900s, 10% 2000s
    • Media: 70% written word, 20% films, 10% tv/video
    • Reading: 70% books, 20% magazines/journal articles, 10% news/opinion

    Balance media with life

    Media should be a relatively small part of life…80% life, 20% media (meta-life)?

    Balance consumption with production

    80% production, 20% consumption?

    Think in the morning, act in the noon, eat in the evening, and sleep at night. – William Blake

    (I read this originally as “read in the evening”, which likely works better for me than Blake, given the miracle of incandescent light).

    Don’t start the day with someone else’s thoughts (via)

    It’s the only chance you’ll have to think your own.

    So, what might this look like in practice? All of these 80/20 or 70/20/10 ratios are terrifically arbitrary, but they’re an interesting starting point.

    • 16 waking hours each day
      • 20% media = 3 hours
        • 80% production = 2 hours, 26 minutes
        • 20% consumption = 34 minutes

    Of those 34 daily minutes:

    • 70/20/10 eras = 22 minutes pre-1900s/7 minutes 1900s/3.5 minutes 2000s
    • 70/20/10 media = 22 minutes writing/7 minutes film/3.5 minutes tv/videos
      • Of the 22 minutes writing: 15 minutes books/5 minutes magazines/journals/2.5 minutes news/opinion/blogs

    Now, pre-1900s is really only books, so that would wipe out the entire “writing” allocation, leaving no room for magazines, journals, or opinion, or for anything since 1900. And you wouldn’t really watch video news from any other era than the present, so the 3.5 minutes on the 2000s would be all video news. So some wiggle room is necessary.

    Still, the rough daily schedule is something like: 22 minutes reading classic (pre-1900s) books, 7 minutes watching a film, and 3.5 minutes catching up on the news.

    That’s not much time! And it’s hard to imagine watching a film 7 minutes each day. So let’s expand it to a two-week scale: 5 hours reading books, 1 1/2 hours watching a film, and 45 minutes catching up on news. That would roughly correspond to 1 300-page book (at a thoughtful rate of 1 page/min) and 1 film every two weeks, and 45 minutes on blogs/news catchup.

    The era breakdown is probably best spread out over time, so that you’d tackle one book or movie at a time rather than splitting your attention between several. So at a rate of 26 books per year, you’d have 18 pre-1900s books, 5 from the 1900s, and 2-3 from the 2000s. Your 26 movies, being mostly from the 1900s and 2000s, could be split more evenly, and perhaps given their rapid evolution give half (13) from the 1900s and half from the 2000s. (Having just reviewed my Netflix queue, I’m tempted to give even more emphasis to recent films. Movies from the mid-80s don’t carry the same weight as Plato’s 2000-year-old dialogues).

    How would you practice this? It seems important to first have a set of items that you are interested in consuming in the near future. I keep a massive Amazon wishlist of things I’m interested in, so I’ll need to prioritize from that a set of 18 pre-1900s books, 5 1900s books, and 2-3 2000s that I will actually tackle. Same exercise with films from my Netflix queue.

    Next is to set aside the time for consuming and producing. A daily time for reading seems right, as does a biweekly time for a film. News or blogs could be done as either a daily check-in (3.5 minutes! What tools would make that possible?) or as a biweekly binge (might help prioritize what’s really important). Experimentation is probably necessary here.

    Producing is a more nebulous area, but setting aside an hour to write each morning, and perhaps one afternoon a week to film or write something longer, would be a good use of that time. And, similar to consuming, keeping a list of things I’d like to produce–and scheduling them–would make sure I’m ready to go immediately.

    So, given that I started with those arbitrary numbers, how does this look?

    The first big ratio was “80% life, 20% media (meta-life)”. Is it right to spend a fifth of my waking life on media? Well, the average America watches 5 hours of television each day (almost a third of their waking life), and my combined internet and video consumption is probably at least that much. So slimming down to “just” 20% actually seems like a good first step, and I enjoy books and films enough that I’m happy to start there.

    The producing/consuming ratio is the part I’m least clear about. Is producing media really 4 times as important as consuming it? Worth spending 2 1/2 hours a day? How would I even do such a thing? Well, blogging is a part of it, and personal journaling could be considered media production as well. Beyond that, it would be interesting to blend more rich media production, creating video or music on a variety of topics. This is something that is subject to big change given experimentation, however. The thinkers I most respect, however, are tremendously prolific in their writing and filming–even if they are not “professional” writers or filmmakers. So there’s something in this media production craft that seems worthwhile.

    And the 20% consumption is not the limit of all media I’ll see. Media is a part of many other parts of life (that other top-level 80%), and if movies, books, or the internet are included in my work or social life I consider that separate. Watching a movie with friends is socializing, not “consuming”. But I hope to be more intentional about the things I personally choose to consume on my own time.

    Here’s the schedule I’m going to start with during my sabbatical:

    • 1 hour of writing daily
    • 30 minutes of book reading daily (~1 book every 2 weeks)
    • 5 min blogs & news daily (5 min catchup at the end of the day)
    • 1 filmmaking or long writing session each week
    • 1 film watching session every 2 weeks

    I’ve also separated my media wishlists (Amazon & Netflix) into the appropriate categories:

    Thoreau said that we should “be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on [our] attention.” Hopefully my new media diet is an appropriate mix! I’ll check in later with an update…