In his article, “Reading Books Will Help You Build These 7 Habits” Chad Grills reminds us of the importance of reading great books.
I have to agree with Chad’s claim that “Books are the most undervalued and under-appreciated technology in the world.” Coincidentally, the next installment of Cognitive Productivity with macOS®: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge, due to be published on Friday, says:
In this context, it is quite disheartening for me to notice what seems to be a trend, namely that many scientists are saying they no longer, or hardly, read books. To paraphrase some arguments I’ve heard “[Books] are not worth my time. I can read a dozen current papers in the time it takes me to read a book. Some of the chapters might have been written five years ago.”
It is true that individual papers can be quite potent. For instance, Einstein’s papers managed to alter the understanding of the world. Still, most people who understand his theory got there through books about it. Reading outside one’s field is important, and such knowledge is often best grasped through books.
To get one’s mind wrapped around a big idea it is often very helpful to read a book-length presentation. That doesn’t necessarily mean reading the book cover-to-cover. Different readers will find different chapters, different aspects of the thesis or argument helpful.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is a good example of an argument that called for a book length presentation (as opposed to technical scientific articles).
That quote will figure in the “Assess Analytically” chapter of Cognitive Productivity with macOS®.
So how are we to respond to the claim that reading books will help you build the habits of
- taking the right kind of nootropic
- upgrading your mental operating system
- sitting quietly in a room alone
- getting direct experience
- strategic isolation
- telling the truth ?
Those are very important habits. I do believe reading is the best kind of nootropic. In 2007-2010 I did quite a bit of reading and thinking about the cognitive fitness software market. (I’ve written for SharpBrains.) For most of my career, I’ve been placing my bet along the lines of Gill’s first point. Reading is a necessary and important “nootropic”. But it does require other technology (see below).
As far as “upgrading your mental operating system” goes: I would point to the concept of mindware development. Mindware is a term defined by David Perkins in his excellent 1994 book, Outsmarting IQ (1994). (That is not to be confused with Andy Clark’s unfortunate use of the term “mindware” as a title of his book dealing with with Karl Popper’s “World 3”.[Footnote 1]) The concept of mindware is given an updated computational spin in Cognitive Productivity, using AI concepts and Karl Popper’s notion of “World 2”. (More on mindware below.)
Skipping forward to Grills’s “telling the truth” habit: whereas a war on truth has been in progress for ages, our era is witnessing a particularly strong assault (fake news, “alternative facts”, etc.) Speaking of the importance of books and telling the truth, I am currently re-reading 1984…
Grills knows that reading in itself is not enough. He writes ” if we use books without intentions or guides, they don’t lead anywhere.” Indeed, we don’t tend to remember, let alone apply, what we’ve merely read. Even applying great “delving” techniques (also known as, constructively responsive active reading) doesn’t have much of a long-term effect—without practice. Re-reading can help, but only a little bit.
Some of the greatest challenges we face in the so called “Knowledge Age”, where there is so much high caliber, useful and potent information, are
- adequately selecting and assessing the helpfulness of information (chapter 11 of Cognitive Productivity describes a 4 part schema for assessing and selecting readings: CUP’A: Caliber, Utility, Potency and Appeal),
- delving it productively (including taking notes, and being able quickly to access notes), and
- mastering the most helpful information (“knowledge gems”).
By definition, potent information is information that has the potential to change us the most. Another way to put that is that we can develop more mindware with highly potent information. By this I do not merely mean more factual (or declarative) memories, but new “monitors”, new “motive generators”, new ways of viewing the world, new cognitive reflexes, etc.
To truly master the best information, it is often necessary to practice with it. Given that time is of the essence, and that we need to develop (produce) mindware, mastery calls for productive practice. Alas, this concept has not really taken off yet. This is partly because of a lack of software. (The closest thing to productive practice software is flashcard software, which is why Cognitive Productivity used Anki as an example — Anki is currently the most powerful, flexible flashcard software).
But even practiced information might still remain bookish knowledge unless we reflectively apply the knowledge. Grills suggests as much by saying
(by reading and applying what we learn) we’ll build habits that will change our lives
(I’ve added the emphasis to “applying”).
Some of you who follow my software company, CogSci Apps, may have noticed its slogan:
Hence CogSci Apps, CogZest, my books, and much of my R&D are about different facets of the type of problem that Grills’s post was about.
To respond to the challenges and opportunities presented in Chad’s article, and in chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity, is of critical importance to everyone personally, and to humanity in general. In particular, trying to get from reading to habits, as Chad was suggesting, is a very important thing to do with knowledge gems.
Bonus Application of Psychology to this Topic
There are many arguments in favour of reading great books. Here’s one that I don’t recall ever coming across: It leverages the escalation of commitment in a way that reading a précis doesn’t. That’s also an argument in favour of delving and productive practice.
- The problem with Clark’s use of the word “mindware” is that it is radically different from the original meaning. The original concept is a “World 2” concept whereas Clark’s concept is “World 3”. This is not a minor point, since on reading Clark I sometimes gets the impression he doubts the relevance of World 2. I emailed Andy about that afterwards — he wasn’t aware of Perkins’ use of the term that predated his own. (I had the good fortune of being a D.Phil student during the heyday of Sussex University’s Cognitive and Computing Science programme, when that brilliant philosopher of mind, Clark, was a lecturer there.) In Cognitive Productivity, I also modernized Popper’s concept of World 2 as World 2′ (World 2 prime), i.e., in terms of virtual machinery.