Andy Matuschak: Why Books Don’t Work https://andymatuschak.org/books/: 'Books are easy to take for granted.... Words in lines on pages in chapters. And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken.... Have you ever had a book...come up in conversation... [and] discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences?... 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. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.... The books I named aren’t small investments. Each takes around 6–9 hours to read...

...Human progress in the era of mass communication makes clear that some readers really do absorb deep knowledge from books, at least some of the time. So why do books seem to work for some people sometimes? Why does the medium fail when it fails?... People [who] do absorb knowledge from books... are the people who really do think about what they’re reading. The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing. Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily... fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them....

Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?... Great authors earnestly want readers to think carefully about their words. These authors form sophisticated pictures of their readers’ evolving conceptions. They anticipate confusions readers might have, then shape their prose to acknowledge and mitigate those issues. They make constant choices about depth and detail using these models. They suggest what background knowledge might be needed for certain passages and where to go to get it. By shouldering some of readers’ self-monitoring and regulation, these authors’ efforts can indeed lighten the metacognitive burden.

But metacognition is an inherently dynamic process, evolving continuously as readers’ own conceptions evolve. Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. The reader must plan and steer their own feedback loops...


#noted #2019-11-23

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