How to Read Big Books

“…it is a principal task of a successful modern university to teach people how to read [big, difficult, flawed, incredibly insightful, genius books]. Indeed, it might be said that one of the few key competencies we here at the university have to teach—our counterpart or the medieval triad of rhetoric, logic, grammar and then quadriad of arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology—is how to read and absorb a theoretical argument made by a hard, worthwhile, flawed book. People need to understand what an argument is, and the only way to do that is actually go through an argument—to read the argument and try to make sense of it. People need to be able to tell the difference between an argument and an assertion. People need to be able to do more than just say whether they liked the conclusion or not: they need to be able to specify whether the argument hangs together given the premises, and where it is the premises, and where it is the premises themselves that need to be challenged. People need to learn that while you can disagree, you need to be able to specify why and how you disagree.

The first order task is to teach people how to read difficult books…Teaching them how to read difficult books will stick with them over the years. Knowing what to do with a book that makes an important, an interesting, but also a flawed argument—that is a key skill.

…we urge you to focus on the “meta” to the extent that you can: it is not so much the ability to answer the question “what does Marx think about X?” that we want you to grasp, but rather “how do I figure out what Marx thinks about X?” that is the big goal here…

We have our recommended ten-stage process for reading such big books:

1. Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.

2. Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.

3. Read through the book actively, taking notes.

4. “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.

5. 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.

6. Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading.

7. Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.

8. 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?

9. Decide what you think of the whole.

10. 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.”

-Brad Delong, “A Note on Reading Big, Difficult Books…Brad DeLong’s Grasping Reality. December 28, 2019


“…I’ve been able to observe for long enough that I’m fairly confident the pattern works both ways: not only do people who do great work never become haters, haters never do great work. Although I dislike the word “fanboy,” it’s evocative of something important about both haters and fanboys. The fanboy is so slavishly predictable in his admiration that he’s diminished as a result. He’s less than a man. And I think this is true of haters too.”

-Paul Graham, “Haters.” January 2020.

Ironies of Automation

“…the more we automate, and the more sophisticated we make that automation, the more we become dependent on a highly skilled human operator.”

-Adrian Colyer, “Ironies of automation.” the morning paper. January 8, 2020.

A robot surgeon might be a great idea, but it’s going to handle the routine, the easy surgeries. What’s left is what’s hard. That’ll be the new work for human surgeons.

And who fixes the surgeries that the robot got wrong? Who watches the robot surgeons and steps in when they can’t do they job?

This is true of automation in every area. The jobs it eliminates are the easy, routine jobs. With more automation, the level of difficulty simply goes up.

If the robot does the job better, then they get the job. But, someone who does the job better than robots will always have to evaluate their work and step in when the work is beyond them.

Where will we find such people, if we don’t become them?


Everything the body needs.

Open Questions: Will agriculture by fundamentally transformed in the next decade? And if so, what are the likely health implications?

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.”

-George Monbiot, “Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet.” The Guardian. January 8, 2020.

“We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago. This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics. The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.”

-Catherine Tubb & Tony Seba, “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030.” RethinkX. September 2019.

A Community is Defined By Its Center and Not Its Periphery

“My sense is that you need to build up a nucleus of people who know each other and who can network and support each other [in developing a proficiency in a technology with the complexity of R.]”

—Hadley Wickham in an interview with Dan Kopf, “What’s next for the popular programming language R?Quartz. August 17, 2019.

Made me think of a Larry Wall Slashdot interview, question 7, from back in the day.

Cast Reason Aside

“You can tell time by the cry of ‘Never again’…The future is obvious. Escalating suicide, the 20-year real-terms recession, the blackout, the plagues, those people falling onto the tracks, microhomes and governments’ continued abuse of ’emergencies’, are obvious. Yet many feel it a duty to portray shock of surprise when it comes along…Human beings aren’t content to cast reason aside—it has to hit someone.” -Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett