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.

Myrmecologist quote

The Finnish myrmecologist Rainer Rosengren showed that when the ants emerge in the spring, an older ant goes out with a young one along the older ant’s habitual trail. The older ant dies and the younger ant adopts that trail as its own, thus leading the colony to remember, or reproduce, the previous year’s trails.

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.”

Tactile and visual memory

As onerous as it might be, the very process of filing things physically helped to organize your work life and your life life. In the same way people acquire and retain information better when handwriting rather than keyboarding, manually going through papers and positioning them in a physical space reinforces the information.

For those with a tactile or visual orientation, placing documents in a particular place imprints them in your brain: the folded corner, the weight and smell of the paper. “I remember putting that memo with the chart here in the back,” you’d think to yourself, making your way to the rear of filing cabinet K-M.