“Since the internet has made the entire world a library with no exits or supervisors, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response.”
Sean Parrish on “the illusion of knowledge”
“Most of consuming the news is us letting other people think for us,” he says. “Somebody else giving us an opinion that we take as our own. We forget that we get it from somebody else, somebody who's paid to come up with hundreds of opinions a year on a variety of subjects.”
“Then you go talk about this thing, but you really have no idea what you're talking about,” says Parrish. “You don't know the nuances of the law. You've never read it. You don't know the second- and third-order impact. You know what this person in this newspaper or mainstream media wrote about it. That's the extent of your knowledge. That is the illusion of knowledge.”
But, really, it doesn’t matter how your [reading/note-taking] system works. It only matters that you have a system. Why? So that you can have a catalog of ideas that you can revisit. Parrish organizes his blank sheets by putting them into topic binders [...], and then sits down to look at his binders about once every two months. Over time, he finds himself remembering things and making connections he may not have otherwise, mastering these various subjects.
“Not only do you understand the book at a different level, but you're writing it down. It's tangible. Instead of rereading all these books, you can just pick up this binder. ‘Oh, this is great. I want to go back to this story. Maybe I missed something [here].’ You're connecting things across different domains or different situations. That's effectively how we improve our thinking.”
Remapping the neural circuitry
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. [...] Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Reading gains and losses
One thing that changed pretty dramatically is that the visual cortex, the part of our brain that processes our vision, became dedicated to deciphering text. [...]
As we practice that, more and more neurons get dedicated to reading. Eventually, you no longer have to decipher a particular letter or even a particular word because our brains represent those letters and words — it’s automatic. So we got all the benefits that come with being good readers, whether it’s the value of losing yourself in a novel or the value of gaining complex information from some sophisticated nonfiction book.
But we also lost something. One thing we lost is a lot of our visual acuity in reading nature and reading the world. If you look at older cultures that aren’t text-based, you see incredible abilities to, for instance, navigate by all sorts of natural signs. This acuity in reading the world, which also requires a lot of the visual cortex, we lost some of that simply because we had to reprogram our brain to become good readers.
To read promiscuously is to comprehend the caresses of one work in the arms of another—and the promiscuous reader is a pedagogue par excellence. How should we read? We would read as gourmands eat, gobbling down huge gobbets of text. No one told me not to pivot abruptly from Valley of the Dolls to The Brothers Karamazov—so I did; anymore than they warned me not to intersperse passages of Fanny Hill with those written by Frantz Fanon—so I did that, too. By reading indiscriminately, I learned to discriminate—and learned also to comprehend: for it’s only with the acquisition of large data sets that we also develop schemas supple enough to interpret new material.
Primed for distraction
The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn't surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn't come easy and it was never "natural." Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.
Off to the reading state
The heightened state brought on by a book—in which one is “actively present at every moment, scripting and constructing”—is what readers seek, Birkerts argues: “They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.”
Matuschak on book absorbtion
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. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.
Some people may have read Thinking, Fast and Slow for entertainment value, but in exchange for their tens of millions of collective hours, I suspect many readers—or maybe even most readers—expected to walk away with more. Why else would we feel so startled when we notice how little we’ve absorbed from something we’ve read?
All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.
Yet back [in 2010] the evidence already was strongly suggesting that the internet was a very powerful way to access lots of information very quickly. We were all concentrating on that great new bounty of information: the more information, the better — the faster it comes to me, the better.
What we lost sight of was how we actually take that information into our mind. There’s all sorts of very good evidence that if you’re distracted — if your attention is shifting very quickly — you can gather lots of information in a very swift fashion, but you’re not going to assemble it very well into knowledge. It’s going to just remain bits of information. You’re not going to develop a rich store of personal knowledge, which is all about connections and associations.
Farnham Street Note-taking tips
At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also, note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.
Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. Most of these will be garbage but there will be lots you want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number.
Copy out the excerpts by hand or take a picture of them to pop into [archive]. Tag accordingly.
I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day.
...online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.
When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served. This doesn't mean we're reading less – not at all. In fact, we live in a text-gorged society in which the most fleeting thought is a thumb-dash away from posterity. [...] For myself: I know I'm not reading less, but I also know I'm reading worse.
Conversation as book reading metaphor
Think of reading as a conversation between you and the author. One of the ways you can process a conversation with someone who is not there is to write in the margins. It’s ok to question the author or disagree. This is how we think.
Books as warmup
Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later
Birkerts on the diminishment of literature
Writing in 1994, [Sven Birkerts] worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived. The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness.
Adler on reading
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably, he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.