Sam Seitz

Several days ago now, Andy Matuschak wrote a post about how little we absorb from books. I think he raises an excellent point, and it is worth excerpting him at length:

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book.

This is not all that surprising, though, and it is a phenomenon that is not unique to books. It is rare for people to remember much of anything unless it is directly relevant to their daily lives. For example, unless you work in STEM or are a professor of European history, it is doubtful you remember high school calculus or the different governments that comprised Revolutionary France. The same is true of books, which are frequently read recreationally and not as a means of gaining detailed knowledge.

This observation leads Matuschak to conclude that “books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.” They are a huge time investment and yield surprisingly little, at least according to him.

I think Matuschak sets the bar too high. If one can retain the core arguments and most important supporting evidence of a book, that is usually sufficient. Often, even this can prove too much, as readers tend to go on autopilot, reading the words without actively grappling with their meaning. Authors can also contribute to the problem by writing excessively verbose prose that is boredom-inducing and insufficiently information-dense. But it is not that difficult to retain the central arguments and supporting evidence, especially if readers make a habit of reviewing the book, thus forcing themselves to remember and evaluate its core contentions. Another tip is to simply skip sections that are ancillary or simply unpersuasive. Yes, books can be long, but one need not read every single word to glean something new. And by cutting out much of the excess verbiage, one is able to make reading a far faster, more efficient and enjoyable experience.

Books also tend to build on others. Academics review the preexisting literature while fiction series build up plot and characters across multiple volumes. Remembering every nuanced detail is, therefore, largely unnecessary because readers are usually reminded of the core developments and claims. The real issue is that people read too little. They give far too much weight to the claims of a single author and then, as Matuschak points out, tend to forget much of the bases for those claims. Instead, people should pursue quantity over quality. Read large numbers of books on a given topic. This will help to remind yourself of the core arguments and debates within a topic or field while also shielding you from the tendency to overvalue one argument or claim against another. (As an aside, it is shocking to me how many times I encounter otherwise smart people who hold extremely strong views on a topic but, when pressed, can only cite a single source to substantiate their convictions).

But even if everything I’ve said is wrong, books still have one major advantage: They are excellent storage vessels for information. While we may forget most of what we learn during our lives, we can at least retain the books we’ve read and reference them to reacquire the obscure details and claims we have forgotten. This is not the case with old conversations or lectures that, once concluded, are impossible to precisely recreate. It is also difficult to do with other media, such as podcasts (try scrubbing through ninety minutes of recording to find the specific point you’re looking for).

So yes, books are long and often inefficient. Many of them are stuffed full of unnecessary prose and redundant explanations, and a good portion of them should probably be left to long-form articles or blog posts. But books are still an excellent way to transmit information. If people would just start critically engaging with them and treating them as tools as opposed to objects of reverence, I think many readers could substantially enhance their reading experience and retain far more from the books they read.