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

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

How Not to Be Stupid

“…stupidity is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment…

[Stupidity:] overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information…

When it comes to overloading our cognitive brains, the seven factors are: being outside of your circle of competence, stress, rushing or urgency, fixation on an outcome, information overload, and being in the presence of an “authority.” Acting alone any of these are powerful enough, but together they dramatically increase the odds you are unaware that you’ve been cognitively compromised.

…if these factors are present, don’t make any important decisions.”

Interview with Adam Robertson in “How Not to Be Stupid.Farnam Street. January 2, 2019.

Really Reading Means Being Open to Change

To really read any discursive text, whether a philosophical tract or a legal contract, is a disturbing and cognitively disorienting experience, because it means allowing another person’s thoughts to intrude into your own and rearrange your beliefs and assumptions — often not in ways to which you would consent if warned in advance. Even when you deliberately decide to learn something new by reading, you put yourself, your thoughts and your most cherished suppositions in the hands of the author and trust her or him not to reorganize your mind so thoroughly that you no longer recognize where or who you are. It’s very scary; hard, painstaking work of determined concentration under the best of circumstances. So particularly with philosophical texts, the whole point of which is to reorganize your thinking, people often don’t really read them at all; they merely take a mental snapshot of the passage that enables them to form a Gestalt impression of its content, without scrutinizing it too closely.”

—Adrian Piper. Interview with Lauren O’Neill-Butler. “Adrian Piper Speaks! (for Herself).” The New York Times. July 5, 2018.

Excellent interview throughout. For this part, I think you could extend the point to any kind of lived experience. Authentic experience is breaking from the automatic, the prejudicial mental models that we have created to navigate the world and experiencing the world in a way that might fundamentally change us rather than limiting our vision to our existing worldview that renders anything outside of it invisible.

Echo Chamber Test

“[D]oes a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber…

…An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.”

—C Thi Nguyen, “Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult.” Aeon. April 9, 2018.

The central idea isn’t that we all need “epistemological reboots”, although it’s often not a bad idea. The central idea is of intellectual humility, such as the possibility that you could be wrong. Philosophical skepticism, like that of Descartes, is taking it to the logical extreme, that not only can you be wrong, you might be wrong about everything. For example, everything we believe is real could be a Matrix-style simulation. We cannot exclude that possibility, even if it isn’t terribly useful in our day to day existence.

There Are No Reasons

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

Trainspotting. Directed by Danny Bole. London: Channel 4, 1996.