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I have noticed an interesting trend in our discourse about reading lately - there seems to be more and more moralizing and virtue signaling. So much self-help and "motivation porn" focuses on reading books, as if it's a magical activity that will unlock the best version of oneself. It's part of the new aspirational message - imagine yourself rich, happy, driving a Lamborghini, living off dividends from your stonks, and reading books. The people pushing that message get lots of eyeballs on their content because too many people have come to see reading as a lofty, obscure activity only fully accessible to the morally (and therefore financially) superior.

It's almost like reading has been elevated to a kind of rare alchemy, whereby you can unlock secret cheat codes to life. The feeling that you're in rareified air to actually read books. I think anyone who regularly reads books for pleasure should easily see through this - reading is just a hobby. It's a fun, intellectually challenging, infinitely variable hobby with a very long and distinguished history. But ultimately you could learn just as much about yourself and the world by doing pottery, woodworking, kayaking, knitting or whatever else you like to do with your spare time. Making it into such a self-serious pursuit kills most of the joy (and value, for that matter).

Let's try to make reading commonplace, something we almost take for granted. Of course I read books, you read books, we all read books. Everybody poops, and everybody reads books. Wouldn't that be great? In that world, a Youtube commercial or Medium article promising that you can unlock secret lamborghinis on the moon by reading exactly 18.75 books a week would suddenly be absurdly transparent in setting off everyone's bullshit meters. The question "read any good books lately?" could take on less of a challenging air and more conversational, the way so many people can casually drop 10 quotes from their favorite Netflix show they've been binge watching during their commute to work.

Longform reading is magic because it's rarer than ever - it's an art now, according to people like this author. That's why we have so much performative reading, a cheap replacement for the real thing. I'd rather reading be boring and commonplace, something we do as easily as breathing.




> But ultimately you could learn just as much about yourself and the world by doing pottery, woodworking, kayaking, knitting or whatever else you like to do with your spare time.

I agree with the rest of your post, but this sentence is a hard disagree. Books let you live a version of the lives of other more intelligent people from almost any point in history. How can pottery and kayaking do that?


What I think is somewhat interesting, is that there are numerous pieces of his/her comment, like the piece you quoted, that essentially imply the need for articles like the one posted here.

The idea that you can "learn just as much about [...] the world" from things other than what, until very recently, has been the primary mode of inter-generational human communication is pure absurdity. An idea whose absurdity is illustrated by all of human history. The fact that this requires explanation or demonstration is the reason that the current "trend" of elevating reading to a "rare alchemy" exists, because it essentially is if you're coming from a place of treating all activities as equal methods of learning.


Ah! You quoted me but you put a very convenient [...] in place of learning about "yourself". I think the reason you did that is because your criticism is only coherent if you zero in on learning about "the world" and leave out that messy other business of self-discovery. But learning about yourself is pretty important for personal growth, too, in my opinion so important that I even listed it first when writing that sentence ;)


I think his argument still holds when you also include "about yourself": in the 18th century people recognized the novel as having a power to help us exercise "moral imagination". I fail to see why reading cannot help one understand oneself. EDIT: and I see that you were not arguing against that, in any case.


And you very conveniently don't address anything I actually said, because after "yourself" you also wrote "and the world."

This isn't some "gotcha." I addressed the parts of your comment that I disagreed with, and didn't address the other parts...


Kayaking at least (not sure how much concentration pottery needs) would give you a _lot_ of time to just stare at the beauty of nature and think. Now this may or may not result in anything, but if you are reasonably intelligent and trying to improve yourself but you are lacking the 'downtime' to just let your mind wander then kayaking might do the trick for you. Best combined with a good book for when you're in camp, so that you can read some other bright people's ideas and incorporate them into your thinking process, the pros and cons of what they're saying for your own life etc.


I dearly love both sports and reading, but they are very different activities that give you happiness in very different ways. Kayaking won't teach you quantum mechanics or ancient Greek history. So from a certain knowledge-adquisition point of view, pottery and kayaking are way less efficient, if not a waste of time. Just like reading is a waste of time from the physical happiness POV.

As with most things in life, a good balance is needed.


Doing pottery and kayaking is a better choice for me than reading someone do pottery and kayaking.

Edit: and not everything can be learnt from books


But I can’t lead armies in battles or travel under the sea or challenge a rival to a swords duel. In such cases I’m accepting the reading as substitute.


Also, I'd rather read about other people's cherry orchards, it's way easier compared to me getting one: I'd have to move to the countryside, plant the cherry trees themselves and then wait for 10-15 years for the trees to become big enough.


Sports are often pretty close to battle, and you can learn fencing. Most great writers about swordsmanship could never have written about it without having used them for years...

I have a whole long piece I want to write about this some day but physical experience is about 100x richer than reading. If you read about the best restaurant in some place, and tell me it, your ability to convince me it’s good is very weak. Whereas someone who ate at a hundred places in that cuisine could write a book about it. They could convince me only because they have first hand knowledge.

It’s funny in that way: the best writing comes from people who experienced the most, and yet people get attached to reading as the best way to learn!


No, sports are not pretty close to battles. People killing and getting killed makes a difference. My emotional state would be very different if I would meet a rival at dawn for a fight on life and death than if I'm fencing for points in a club. And most importantly, by reading I get the thoughts, feelings and motivations from other people, which teaches me different ways to see the world and empathy.

And if we for a moment ignore the fact that reading about food is one of the most boring things I can imagine, reading about someone else's experience of food let you see aspects you aren't aware of which your own experiences richer.

People don't read as a substitute for living their own life. People read because it enriches the life they live. Not only in the moment of reading, but also in everything else they do.


I have nothing against reading and enjoy it thoroughly, the discussion here isn't that, it's about learning and being considered competent, and I'm simply pointing out a specific qualia of learning first-hand vs read and how it manifests in your reliability to others.

UFC and boxing are certainly life and death and I'm sure you'd have quite a similar feeling to going to battle. Though again this really misses the point: going to battle is a great example, in fact, not replicable through reading in a million important ways.

No one who has only read about war will ever be in the room deciding important things about war, nor will their stories about war (reciting from a book) ever be quite as interesting or well-said. Of course it's a spectrum, and someone who has read and experienced it first-hand can be better, but the point stands.

I'd argue empathy manifests in real life experience more than reading, but it's hard to convey in writing.


Few people read more than generals. Few leads more than a handful of battles in their lifetime, and they better not repeat anyone else’s mistakes.

And most people, not only 4 of the 5 last US presidents, who decides important things about wars, have in the best case read about wars, rarely fought in any themselves.


Currently reading Greek and Roman Naval Warfare A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) by William Rodgers (the 1964 edition).

While in general I agree with you that experience is the best way to gain understanding, there are rather a lot of topics that are hard to get experience with.


There’s a lot of history certainly. Though I’d rather read historians with as much physical connection as possible - familial ties, visiting ruins, practicing the traditions, speaking the language etc.


> not everything can be learnt from books

I'd argue that you can't actually learn anything from reading. Mortimer Adler argues in "How to Read a Book" that you can only actually learn by action, which means doing something with what you read.


Can I learn from what you wrote, or do I need to do something to learn I can't learn anything from reading?


touche.

The only way to test it is to not put it into action, then see if you learned it, but then ... that process of testing it is an action, so... ???

I applaud your meta-inquiry.


That's really taking it out of context.


> Books let you live a version of the lives of other more intelligent people from almost any point in history. How can pottery and kayaking do that?

I do agree with your statement about books, because I personally love reading. Henry David Thoreau wrote a chapter of Walden called "Reading", and put it way better than I ever could:

> "To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written."

But pottery, kayaking, or a number of other hobbies can also make you a better person.

Pottery can teach you patience, flow, adapting to mistakes, and turning an idea into something real. It exercises your creative muscles. Kayaking gets you in touch with nature, and gets you physically active (both of which have proven cognitive benefits). You can learn about your local geography and history by exploring waterways. Being on the water all day without a watch can give you a new perspective on time and the natural rhythms of a day in your own life.

The best part is that, if you are a curious type, those activities will probably lead you to reading anyway. You spend a whole day doing pottery - then go read up on the history of pottery. You confront the amazing fact that you are learning the same technology with your hands that allowed humans 8,000 years ago to invent the brewing of wine, to efficiently carry water to their fixed settlements, even to make primitive batteries which served as the centerpieces of religious shrines. Your hands are following after Og, the neighborhood potter from Babylon, who erected human civilization from scratch out of the literal dirt a few thousand years before God breathed life into Adam from a pile of dust (what's that line about "life imitating art" again?). That's infinitely more intellectually engaging than just reading a book in a vacuum. It's the kind of practical insight that is almost life-affirming.

During your weekend kayaking trip you paddle by the ruins of an old textile mill on the banks of the river. Your interest is piqued, you go home and read about that textile mill, the history of textile production, you learn about the fact that they named your hometown after a silk-producing region in China when some eccentric entrepreneur made a failed attempt to import silkworms and start a silk industry there. And you got to be right there in the flesh where it happened. You are now a better person; you have a sense of being grounded in your local community, a sense of place, a sense of history derived from something you have directly experienced with your 5 senses.

But most importantly, all three activities (pottery, kayaking, books) give you access to a community of other people who are also interested in them. Learning from intelligent dead and/or inaccessible people from books is a great pursuit. But exchanging thoughts, connecting, and learning from a community of real, everyday, stupid, in-the-weeds people just like you and me is arguably just as valuable, if not more.


Sure, I'm not saying that other activities don't have value, I was commenting only on your phrase "just as much." George Martin wrote, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, and the one who doesn't read, lives just one." Whether that is valuable or not is, as you say, debatable, but it's certainly not possible any other way.


Just to be clear, I agree with you 100% that accessing other people's best thoughts through reading is very valuable and very awesome.

On the other hand, you don't need a thousand other lives to live one good one. As Thoreau wrote, "It takes more than one day to extract the wealth of a day." And as a Buddhist saying goes, "You can learn everything about the entire universe from the head of a pin".


> You can learn everything about the entire universe from the head of a pin

This is just not true haha.


Understandable to disagree, you're not gonna learn to drive a car or do calculus or speak another language from the head of a pin. Nevertheless, I think there's a valuable philosophical perspective in it.


It isn't true that a reader lives a thousand lives, either, they live one life, and it includes reading, but you weren't nitpicking over that distinction.


I didn't interpret either one literally and was being equally nitpicky.


I agree with you on most of these points and would argue the defining traits you’re putting forth is curiosity and some grit. You’re curious about pottery and will learn about it but with enough grit and obsession that you’ll actually do it and once you’ve done it once you want to know more. Most people I know (including myself) have a tough time staying curious once you get that initial taste. You see the cool textile mill and in the moment wish you knew more but by the time you get home your mind is elsewhere.


Yeah that's a great thought - a combination of curiosity and persistence. For me, the curiosity is the easy part. The thought of "Oh I should go learn more about that, might be something interesting there" comes along often enough. It's the follow-through, or the grit as you put it, that is tough for me.


Adding on to what you are saying, it depends on what one's objectives are. Books do a great job at exposing concepts but mastery is only gained by experience.

If I read a book on pottery, but I never apply those concepts, it doesn't do me much good. Furthermore, refining one's craft is almost always much more time consuming than reading alone. Reading is necessary but not sufficient to thrive and be at one's best.


Is reading good for you because other forms of entertainment have gotten worse? I suspect reading is so great because time spent reading is not time spent toiling away on social media or other shallow distractions. The same reason tea is good for you simply because it's not soda.

Or do successful people tend to read because successful people don't tend to get dragged into shallow activities. The reading didn't make them successful- the reading is a side affect of already having that trait.

I dislike the article's take on reading for pleasure with a goofy emoji. It mentions reading to broaden your world and make connections between disparate things. Reading for pleasure also accomplishes this.


Reading is vague. It could mean anything, and can absolutely be shallow. Successful people just have a portion of their life that produces something valuable to others. You can be a celebrated boxer while not even knowing how to read. Taleb once mentioned the story of a futures trader who made a killing with green lumber while thinking it was literally lumber painted green. The trader didn't know the first thing about the product itself, but they knew and could perform the actions that really mattered to the goal of trading.

Many professions require reading to be successful, but it's more the case that getting the necessary information would not be realistically possible without reading at some point. People in that position don't read for its own sake in their work life (whether they read for pleasure is another story), they go find the information they need in the format it exists in. This is then confused as "reading makes you successful" but it is as trivial a statement as "having the right information makes you successful"


I suspect that people who disdain reading for pleasure have never tried it as an adult. In every book there is a unique perspective and story that you can learn from. As an example, I recently read the Wheel of Time series because I like fantasy novels. Post-reading, I have a greater understanding of personal growth and how people change over time due to life experiences. It wasn't a nirvana state that was reached, but it gave me a unique perspective of people in various scenarios, many relatable to the real world.


Do "successful" people in fact read more? It might be true, it certainly sounds good. But I don't know if we can so easily make that assumption. I recall a section of "The Millionaire Next Door" where most of the people interviewed chalked up their success to some combination of "Luck" and "Hard Work". Education was a bit lower on the list, and I don't remember anything about reading in one's spare time.


> Do "successful" people in fact read more? It might be true, it certainly sounds good.

There are also people like myself for whom "success" means getting to read everything that we want. Well, not everything, because at some point in life one gets to acknowledge that death is a thing that actually happens and that will interrupt said reading, but other than that reading and the thought that there will always be interesting books for us to read is one of the main thing that keeps us (as I think I'm not the only one thinking like that) feeling alive.


I definitely appreciate this. Your point reminds me of what Beeple once said about art and creative work:

"Looking at creativity as something that’s much less precious will help you stick with it long-term. Along with that, people around you will be a lot more supportive if you’re a bit more flexible and a bit less douchey about it. Like you’re not so pretentious in terms of, 'I’m an artist, I need to blah blah blah.' If you take it down a notch and just look at it as something you have to do today, just like taking a dump or eating supper, then it will be more sustainable in the long run."

https://www.theverge.com/2020/1/3/21046790/beeple-mike-winke...


There are two kinds of reading. Reading that is hard and reading that is easy.

Nobody who reads 100 books a year (or even 50 as the author cops to) is reading anything particularly difficult. It's either fluff self-help, or fiction that vacuums your attention in, or a medium article by some MBA blown up to 250 pages by a publisher, or something you should be listening to as an audiobook on your commute. Look at what the author of the article is reading! Come on, this stuff is embarrassingly easy. It sure as hell ain't Knuth.

I'm an advocate of reading about 6-8 books per-year, and it is miserable. About 300 pages into a nonfiction technical book and I'm pacing around the kitchen island, djent in the headphones cranked up to 1,000, jaw clenched on my nicotine gum, 12 cups of coffee playing chicken with my guts, muttering to myself, scribbling nonsensical notes in the margin. Miserable.

It sucks. I absolutely hate it. I don't understand 30% of the goddamn thing. But, I learn a hell of a lot.

So, I strongly distrust anyone who brags about reading, and I listen closely to anyone who bitches and moans and complains, but slogs their way through a small number of serious, technical, nonfiction books per-year. The difference between reading SICP and reading Simon Sinek is immeasurable.


I wish people bragged about reading ONE book. "Heard that you read a lot, what are you reading lately?", "Well, I've been at it with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the last five years, highly recommended".


If you're into that kind of thing, I highly recommend William T. Vollmann's Imperial.


One thing about reading is the ROI aspect.

Internet comments take ~5 minutes to write, 30s to read (6x ROI).

Blog posts are ~4 hours to write, 10m to read (24x).

Magazine articles are ~3 months to write, 30m to read (960x).

Books are ~5 years to write, 8h to read (1300x).

Obviously, books are one of the best reading ROIs. Now, of course, you've got to balance the book quality, your interests, the thesis, the author's biases, etc. But as a rule of thumb, books are good investments of time. I think that's why they are this 'rare alchemy'. It's not that you unlock cheat codes to life, it's that they offer some of the best kismet to doing so.


Besides the idea that finance (i.e., ROI) is relevant at all to the decision to read a book, this doesn't even work as an ROI analogy. You're comparing the investment by one person (the person who writes the work) with the "return" that someone else gets (the person who reads it, though calling the fact that they can read it in less time than it took to someone to write it is hardly a "return").

All this has nothing to do ROI, which measures the return that a single entity gets from an investment they make. If you want to make the ROI analogy work (which I don't think you should) one way to do it would perhaps be to compare the time invested with the amount of people the writer reaches. In that case the "ROI" of any method of writing could be super low (if nobody reads it) or super high (if everyone reads it).

Another way to look at it would be that the time to read something you cite is actually the amount of "investment" by a reader. In that case I expect that many readers experience zero return (or even negative return) on their investment of 30s to read an internet post, while they may experience incalculable, life-changing return from 8 hours spent reading a book. Or, probably less often, vice versa.


I think it works well as an analogy, thank you very much.

If I want to learn about, I dunno, the ancient Maya, I can go ahead, book a trip to Mexico, go to all the museums, get my hands on the primary sources, etc. This process will take some amount of time, likely years. Im not talking about the knock-on effects, very great as they are, just the pure knowledge.

Or I can grab a few books and use the authors' time and effort. This will take some number of hours, maybe days. But not years.

Such books are a much better use of my time to learn about the Maya than reading NatGeo articles (though still good), or some blog posts (alright in quality) or a bunch of internet comments (still, maybe good here and there). Yes, of course it's a mesh of all these things. But I believe that well researched content (mostly that still means a book) is the best 'bang for your minute' that you can get.

I'll put it this way: I'm trying to invest some limited amount of time in learning more about something or enjoying my time fruitfully. With what little time I have, the best way to learn more about something is (typically) via a book. Enjoyment, sure, it varies more, but books tend to be more, I dunno, rich (?) in a way.


Internet comments have room for your current thought. Is there any reason to think that your current thought is in some way less informed by your experiences than a book is?

Blog posts give you 4 hours to write, backed by years of life experience, probably based on things you've had on your mind for a while.

Magazine articles pay you to write what the audience/advertisers want to see. They've got to be a net negative, convincing someone to write when they didn't necessarily want to, to say something they didn't necessarily want to say.

Books are an item for a CV or resume, and a status symbol. Sure there are respected textbooks, but there are a lot of worse books out there than respected textbooks. Look at "Why we sleep" recently - years to write, torn apart by one blog post. Look at bestseller lists rigged by false purchases. Look at tech books where writing a book on a language or tech stack is almost more of a status grab, or at worst a "teach myself $thing by writing a book about it" than a long standing tome.

(Also, 8 hours to read a book??)


I'm curious. What is the blog post that tore "Why we sleep" apart?


This one: "“Why We Sleep” Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors" - https://guzey.com/books/why-we-sleep/ via https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21546850 where the blog/website author is responding in the comments as well.


This analogy falls apart because time spent to write != value to the reader.

An expert can take 5 minutes to write something that is far more valuable than an amateur can write in years. I'd also argue that it's much easier and common for amateurs to write books nowadays, so it's becoming less and less good of a heuristic to say "books > blogs, articles, etc"


What ROI? There are tweets more information dense than articles, articles more valuable than books.


Are you sure you're making a relative argument, and not just a statement about the existence of a counter-example?


The worst is some arbitrary goal of reading X books per year. That clearly optimises for short, easy to read books (eg New York Times Best Sellers) and avoids more technical and difficult books (eg Art of Computer Programming)


I love to read and always have since I was a kid. Over the years I’d just fallen out of the habit, similar to how I don’t watch movies much anymore. I set a goal to read a large number of books since I’d slowly collected a long list and just went in order. If I wasn’t enjoying a book as much as I thought I would, back to the library it went. I found it quite helpful to have a goal in mind.

I will agree with you that the temptation was there just to read fluff. I think having the list effectively mitigated that. The only downside is that many books reference other books so the list would just expand exponentially.

Am I magically able to access the secrets of universe just because I read a lot? No. But when people ask me “read any good books lately” I can talk about the new Brandon Sanderson book, neuroscience of aging, or the art of non violent communication and the interesting parallels between all three of them.

Reading does make you more interesting but so does watching Sundance film festival movies or listening to obscure podcasts. Anything off the beaten path is interesting by definition.


I agree. I used to try to read X books a year, participate in Goodreads year in books, etc. This year I decided to stop consuming 90% of news and 99% of social media (mostly instagram) and try to read at least one 800+ page book per month (usually historical biographies).

After reading two of these larger books in 2021, I feel like (and this is nothing new or profound) that concentration really is a lost art and it just takes practice. I also feel like these large books probably help with retaining info because you spend so much time in them, being inculcated on the subject. It's kinda like a giant monthly experiment in SRS.


The worst is the obsession with min/maxing books and disdain for fiction around here as easy and plebeian.


That criticism is warranted but I feel that having a "goal" of books to read is a very useful tool to develop the habit of reading in people that never read.

As for the type of people that do not typically read, I would encourage them to read what they would love reading (even if its NYT Best sellers) until they love reading.


Please try to avoid gatekeeping in public, particularly with regards to what people read.

Please?


I'm not sure it's fair to say that I'm gatekeeping what people read. It's more about the spirit behind the reading.

Anyway, if it's gatekeeping to suggest that people should pursue personal growth through their own authentic interests rather than reading as a chore to be "more efficient", then call me president of the gatekeeping club for all I care.


"That clearly optimises for short, easy to read books ... and avoids more technical and difficult books..."

If someone reads short, easy to read books for any reason, that's dandy. I'm sure they'll get something useful out of it.

On the other hand, are you reading The Art of Computer Programming? (Oddly enough, I can currently answer yes, since I've been playing around with the section in Seminumerical Algorithms on testing random number sources. :-) )


Please try to avoid gatekeeping gatekeepers with regards to where they gatekeep.

Also, is it actually "gatekeeping" to say that arbitrary numeric goals optimize for a different kind of reading than what you'd get with different kinds of goals?


Setting a goal, even if arbitrary, is positive if an increased in the measured activity is positive. I think we'll all agree that, in most cases, reading more is a positive outcome. Instead of "read X books" think "run Y miles", do you still feel it's "the worst"?

> That clearly optimises for short, easy to read books (eg New York Times Best Sellers) and avoids more technical and difficult books (eg Art of Computer Programming)

Some will "cheat", but most won't. Even if you cheat, is reading 15 short, bad books better or worse than reading 0?


>Even if you cheat, is reading 15 short, bad books better or worse than reading 0?

If it's done as a chore to hit a certain number, or in a performative spirit to show others how much one has read, I think that person would get more value spending those hours doing something in which they have an authentic interest.

Also, it's not an all-or-nothing prospect. A better question might be, "Is it better to read 15 short, bad books or 3 longer, more challenging books that one may not even fully understand on the first reading?"


I've been thinking about the halo around books on and off for years.

I think whatever special value books used to represent in our society from before the internet is long gone. I remember the pre-internet times when the information world you had access to was small. You could consume silly low-information things on the tv or radio or you could read a book on the topic, which had a much higher information density and chance of being correct. There was no one you could talk with about a detailed topic unless you had maybe built up a professional circle you met with regularly, so a book was your only opportunity to "converse" with an expert. If you paid thousands of dollars, you could take a class on the topic and have an knowledgeable person take you on a basic guided tour of some of the good books on the topic. You would never have been able to get Warren Buffet's detailed thoughts on the economy without reading his book.

In the post-internet world, information is cheap and plentiful. Endless hours of talks and interviews by major thinkers are available to all. With a quick Google, you can find people discussing any topic under the sun. Micro-niche content on all topics are being produced for YouTube, the likes of which you would have never seen on the Discovery Channel. Dozens of free courses are available on all major topics and you can cherry pick just the pieces you are most interested in. Most information can be just-in-time delivered to you at just the moment you need it. Books are not obsolete in this environment, but just another one of the dozens of formats through which you could consume detailed information on a topic.

And finally, our collective societal values change slowly in comparison to the pace of technological change. Books were far and away the best way to access information for so long that it has a sticky association with class, intelligence, wealth and wit. But really, if you are getting all your information from books, you are an anachronism and definitively behind the curve. Sometimes I think of Raphael's School of Athens and think that the conversions I've been privy to for the past 10 years on HN must far surpass anything they might have said to each other.


There is definitely a ton of value to be had from learning on the internet. Watching a 2 hour 92nd street Y debate on Youtube can be just as enlightening as reading a great book. But I still think books have a certain staying power due to their format.

The rigor of longform reading is still something special. I know I am prone to over-quoting from Thoreau, but as he said, "What is taken as argument in the auditorium is too often later found to be rhetoric in the study."


I think there's a lot of cargo-culting around books being magical in and of themselves, but there is a subtle trap in this line of thinking.

The micro-niche aspect of the internet is unrivaled for straightforward, practical information. I won't question that. That said, if you want the detailed thoughts of an expert on some topic, they will by definition be in a book or book-analog online format since no other medium allows for this sort of efficient and unforgiving long-form development of thoughts. Online courses and blog posts tend to refer to books anyway, or to summarize them. Videos can offer information as well but the format itself constrains the amount of information you can cram into the work, and the incentive to editorialize is greater.

But in a deeper sense it's not even about the books but the applicability and context of the information that is gleaned regardless of the format. Ten year's worth of HN can be impressive, but it mostly gives you perspective on HN users and which topics interest them to begin with. Just like the School of Athens gave a specific perspective, HN will give you a specific framework from which you may or may not have to escape eventually. To name another example, if you start reading non-popular history books it becomes clear that different experts can have radically different views of the same events. In turn you start to realize that the pop-history books you've read are so distorted as to be almost useless. Similarly, the internet can yield astounding quantities of information, but if they are optimized for views, reinforce an echo chamber, or are repeating ideas as a secondary source, it won't matter. It's seductive to feel this power at our fingertips but the end practical result tends to be the same, since developing thoughts takes effort. More importantly, time remains the true barrier.


I think there is value to reading 20 10-minute articles on the internet. I think there is a different kind of value to reading 1 200-minute book.

I like the knowledge I've gained from reading lots of articles. The problem comes up because I have to very intentionally choose to read a long book instead of defaulting to many short articles. Over time and in large enough quantity, this feels subjectively bad. Like I'm overloaded with information and lots of different perspectives, but without much of the depth, nuance, or understanding that can come from really sitting with one topic, world, story, or point of view in a deep and extended way.

I think the internet is amazing for providing the torrent of information it does. I just found that, for me, I was drawn to the bright, shiny, always-new, always-now nature of it at the expense of reading books. As I've made more of an effort to read lately, books feel like a different kind of information intake, and I like diversifying in that way.


I agree that social media and news media in particular can be an information torrent and very quantity over quality. The best that can be said about it is that it can be up to the minute timely, which is occasionally very important. And the news pre-internet was not much better than post-internet. It's always been a pretty bad source of nuanced info.

I don't think books are dead. I read books. I just think they are no longer the only game in town. For example, it was often said that through a book, you could step into someone else's experience. I had a great time reading Red Mars. Now we have VR and I have come closer to standing on the surface of Mars than anyone else in history; far better than imagining Kim Stanley imagining it. The huge expansion of new digital and interactive media is a lasting win for education and human knowledge. I think we all need a reminder of that in the trough of tech disillusionment.


It’s not that books are better than YouTube, in many cases (like visualizing math) books are much worse than video, but for a lot of topics books are the only source that goes in depth on a topic. It won’t necessarily be the case a hundred years from now, but right now if you want to study a topic that had been around for more than 30 years you’ll probably have to invest time in books. And the part that isn’t mentioned here is that most of those books are out of print so you will need to dig through libraries and maybe even use the Inter-library loan system.


But keep in mind, data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not understanding.

A quick question: Is the plot summary on the Wikipedia page for Hamlet equivalent to watching the play, or to reading the play with timeouts to look up the references?


Hamlet is a good example of the non-primacy of books. Hamlet was meant to be performed, not read silently. It's far better to have access to a recording or taped performance to study it than the text alone. And yes, a plot summary or additional commentaries could be a big help as well. In our current information golden age I can pull up a dozen full performances on YouTube including a 360 degree VR experience where you can stand on stage with the actors. In 1990 such a thing would have been pure science fiction and you would have never encountered a person to even discuss the topic of serious Shakespearian study.


Have employer/employee relationships always been so squeezed, so antagonistic, that the aspirational message included "living off dividends from your stonks" and "leanFIRE" because the only thing worth aspiring to is getting out from wage slavery? It can't be a healthy economy when so much of the public discussion is how unpleasant work is, and not because the work itself is bad, but because the management/expectations/timekeeping/etc. is?

Medical staff, obviously in COVID times, basically any retail worker, basically any callcenter worker, anyone in an Enterprise company as per the film Office Space, people working anything from agriculture to factory work to Amazon warehouses, to delivery drivers timed for the amount of seconds they can step out of the van at each stop, to developers hating on unreasonable expectations of delivery time and price, to takeovers and downsizing leaving fewer people with more work, to individual craftspeople expected to compete on price with mass manufacture, to ridiculous job hopping advice (change jobs every 18 months, never don't be applying for jobs!) to decreases in loyalty and trust.

The aspirational messages have shifted from "thank God you have food for the day" to "own a home" to "get a stable job" to "a gold watch for long service and a pension" to "flip houses for money or rental income" to "desperately try to get rich quick and get out". And then what else is there but escapism with Lamborghinis and stories?


Work was always unpleasant and undesirable.

The concept of "wage slavery" was coined back in ancient Greece (i.e. the people who had to work for a living were not considered really free). The Puritanian work ethics, which consider work to be a virtue and something of innate value, are more a weird quirk of some Western countries rather than an universal stance. Basically, through all times and places, most people dreamt of being wealthy, so that their needs would be met and they wouldn't have to work. BTW now this dream is monetized in the form of various national lotteries.


I love books, and wish for the world you describe. To me books are a sort of alchemy, indeed (I would not use the word hobby, but I see what you mean. And I love pottery). It is serious business, learning the alphabet, putting oneself or others to sleep, enjoying fiction or getting an insight into a technical problem.

There will always be someone who wants the credit without the effort (I read x books a month, look at me) — the looks without the substance — and yes, it is annoying, but at least we have books :)


> at least we have books :)

Agree! I admittedly put on my "critic hat" writing that post so maybe it came off a bit contrarian.

But you're absolutely right. If it's a choice between dealing with some shallowness, or not having books in the public consciousness at all? I'll gladly tolerate the self-help crowd slightly overselling the promise of reading.


> I have noticed an interesting trend in our discourse about reading lately

>imagine yourself rich, happy, driving a Lamborghini, living off dividends from your stonks, and reading books.

This is bill gates, warren buffet. He says this is his secret, who am I to question someone who has actually done it.

https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Summer-Books-202...

"Whether you’re looking for a distraction or just spending a lot more time at home, you can’t beat reading a book. "


I don't see Bill Gates attributing reading to his success at all. This is just a blog post saying he likes to read when he's bored around the house?


> I don't see Bill Gates attributing reading to his success at all.

He did many many times.

"Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read. Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career and in the work that I do now with my foundation."

https://time.com/4786837/bill-gates-books-reading/


He also talks about it in the Netflix documentary Inside Bill's Brain.

Warren Buffett famously said to some students, "Read 500 pages like this every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it."

Charlie Munger is as much of a reader as Buffett. He's especially fond of biographies, according to the book The Joy of Compounding. His children call him "a book with legs." https://fs.blog/2013/05/the-buffett-formula/

From googling these guys just now, I found there are a lot of other examples. Mark Cuban is one, crediting a lot of his early success to reading and saying he still reads over three hours a day: https://blogmaverick.com/2011/04/07/shark-tank-success-motiv...


This is a great comment that really hits the nail on the head for me about how I feel when I see articles like this.

I'm not going to deny that reading more effectively & efficiently can be desirable in certain technical reading where the aim is to absorb, digest & learn the material. But in the general sense its kind of the antithesis of why I would read anything. I don't want to knock off as many paper backs as quickly as I can so that I can rattle off a meaningless number and increase my cultural capital.

I also find it weird and slightly creepy that people elevate book reading to this almost infinite pedestal. If people get more enjoyment and fulfilment out of playing video games, for example, then that's an equally valid use of time. More so if they're not interested in reading.

For me it comes down to if you enjoy reading in and of itself as a hobby then you'll hopefully find time to do it and be enriched because of it. But just trying to force yourself to blitz through as "effectively" as possible loses the magic. Especially when you consider how much time and thought the very best writers put into every single construction.


> It's almost like reading has been elevated to a kind of rare alchemy, whereby you can unlock secret cheat codes to life

I owe my career and livelihood to my ability to study, learn and retain information, and manipulate words and abstract symbols. In other words, to reading. Reading well, and quickly, is a magic superpower with practical benefits.


I agree and disagree, and disagree because in the world we live in, we read more words than ever, but reading books -- things that people craft over time, sometimes with facts and references, and that are stable enough elements in the world that we can have long, thoughtful, referenced reviews and discussions about -- probably less so than in the past.

We don't "review" and discuss blog posts for years on end, the way you can read and discuss books, and books from other countries, in other languages, from previous centuries.

I joke that most parties devolve into a discussion about "what have you watched lately?" and where that discussion used to include movies and films, people at parties mostly talk about TV shows.

So books, for those who are still fitting them into their lifestyle, even after work and family and internet, are slightly more rarefied than they used to be. Moreso than we probably need.


> imagine yourself rich, happy, driving a Lamborghini, living off dividends from your stonks, and reading books

I was immediately reminded of Lambo Tai. I still think it's a parody of something...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv1RJTHf5fk


Yup, that's who I had in mind. He is a sort of patron saint of this cultural trend, I think


> Longform reading is magic because it's rarer than ever - it's an art now, according to people like this author.

Adler wrote "How to Read a Book" (which this article is about) originally in 1940, I wouldn't call that "now". HTRAB is a bit dry and over-analytical, but it's definitely practical. It enumerates all questions that you should ask yourself while reading analytically, and while this may sound like an overkill, unless you're paying attention, you'll likely skip some of the steps. I read many great books only to find that they completely evaporated from my head in a week or two. Isn't it a waste of time to spend months reading Brothers Karamazov, and not be changed by that experience? Reading for entertainment and information already is easy as breathing for most people, but for reading for understanding to be as easy as breathing, you need to deliberately practice it.

While Adler's advice is valid, it lacks another important component, and that's discussion. A good book club (reading the great books, not whatever's on top of the NYT bestseller list) will change the entire experience and increase knowledge retention.


> reading is just a hobby. It's a fun, intellectually challenging, infinitely variable hobby with a very long and distinguished history. But ultimately you could learn just as much about yourself and the world by doing pottery, woodworking, kayaking, knitting or whatever else you like to do with your spare time. Making it into such a self-serious pursuit kills most of the joy (and value, for that matter)

Definitely, but reading is easier :)


If I had to make a bald faced guess? Now that everyone is 'on to' the Skinner Box aspects of Facebook, people are finding other dopamine buttons to push.

Getting people amped up about things they're gonna do feels good (so good, in fact, they forget to do them).


Note similarities with the discourse about getting a full night’s sleep, and eating healthier :-)

I think all of these sometimes play the role of “premium mediocre” virtue signaling.


I see your point and I think the messaging about books is often a bit wishy washy, however I really do think books are a different beast.

I read a lot of biographies of legendary figures. Whether its Stalin, Oppenheimer, Teddy Roosevelt or Robert Moses, they are nearly always big readers. They tend to treat it quite seriously too. Not a few books per year, but 50-100+.. Teddy Roosevelt had 4 hours~ of his days' schedule blocked off for reading particular books, during an election campaign!

For me (and I believe, for them too), reading is serious business and the rewards really are great. This is not 'curl up by the fire with a nice story' and I will suddenly incur some magical benefits. Rather there are some things that are not easily achieved otherwise. Books allow you to efficiently deep dive and when you dedicate lots of hours to it, you can really make staggering progress. Reading all of the books on a particular topic becomes an achievable task. I could spend some hours scouring the internet trying to learn about a particular topic, or I could blast through a 200-300 page book on the topic. When you start treating books as your primary source of learning about new topics, and you build up a sort of grit for getting through books, you become a bit of an information processing machine and it is a bit magical.

I nearly always have a stack of books on my desk now and I just plow through them one after another. I would never absorb so much useful information reading articles on the internet or watching videos. Books are #1 for efficiency..

Right now I'm primarily reading Shirer's The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich.. It's a massive book (1100+ pages) and will take me over 2 weeks. It's hard to imagine how I could possibly get this much information on the same topic any other way. Try and find some documentary series? Follow my nose on wikipedia clicking around? Crap options, mostly. If I do this with two or three more books, by almost any measure, I have become somebody who knows a lot about WW2 and nazi germany. Now follow process with many other topics..


I think I've learned a lot more from Wikipedia rabbit holes than a lot of books I've read.


Reading books for fun is OK, but very few people read book strategically.


Reminds me of the xkcd about older generations always complaining about younger generations no matter what, but with technology reversed.

“Look at them reading! How sad! A completely linear storyline! Never changes with a re-do, not even a bit. Sitting there, in silence! No social interaction. That can’t be good for their brains. Why don’t they play video games instead?”


> "...interesting trend in our discourse..."

> "...more and more moralizing and virtue signaling. So much ... "motivation porn"..."

> "..aspirational message - imagine yourself rich, happy, driving a Lamborghini.."

> "...too many people have come to see reading as a lofty..."

> "reading is just a hobby"

> "Making it into such a self-serious pursuit kills most of the joy."

> "...you read books, we all read books. Everybody poops, and everybody reads books."

WHAT?? This comment is apoplectic with contradictory statements and false beliefs. What could possibly be accomplished by it? It's an unapologetic rant on reading and writing on, of all places, one of the most text focused news and discussion sites on internet. Sheesh!

Clearly, for some people reading is not just for entertainment, or 'joy'. And, clearly, for some of these people, their joy is also writing about reading (hence the OP).

I do agree on one thing suggested by the response, though not said directly. Reading and Writing may converge into a bizarre infinite loop. If you find this maddening, rage inducing, then consider yourself warned! There is one book which you must not read. Dare I say it's name? YES! I DARE!

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter [1]. It is not an easy read for the shitter. You may even need the assistance of this MIT Open CourseWare video series on YouTube [2] about the book.

Read this book at your own PERIL! Extreme brain expansion may occur. WHEW. (Now I'm going to site quietly and meditate.)

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel,_Escher,_Bach

[2]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWZ2Bz0tS-s


oh you don't say! same goes for writing.


Reading is not a hobby. It is the foundation of civilization as we know it. The issue is with the dearth of actual quality reading that goes on today, when everyone congratulates themselves for reading Harry Potter.




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