3 min read

Books Are Fake And Don't Work

This is a second 'pairwise' experiment where I combine two things and see if I get anything interesting out of it. This time it's Sarah Perry's Why Books Are Fake and Andy Matuschak's Why books don't work. At the very least I'll get a nice clickbait post title.

I first noticed the commonality between these two when I was trying to dredge up 100 interesting text pairs as part of Threadapalooza last year. They're both about pulling apart the naive model of books as a sort of linear sequence of ideas that the reader directly loads into their heads. Matuschak compares this to similar naive models in teaching:

In learning sciences, we call this model “transmissionism.” It’s the notion that knowledge can be directly transmitted from teacher to student, like transcribing text from one page onto another. If only! The idea is so thoroughly discredited that “transmissionism” is only used pejoratively, in reference to naive historical teaching practices. Or as an ad-hominem in juicy academic spats.

... Like lectures, books have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation, but the medium does have an implicit model. And like lectures, that model is transmissionism. Sequences of words in sequences of lines in sequences of pages, the form of a book suggests people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. In caricature: “The author describes an idea in words on the page; the reader reads the words; then the reader understands the idea. When the reader reaches the last page, they’ve finished the book.” Of course, most authors don’t believe that people learn things this way, but because the medium makes the assumption invisible, it’s hard to question.

His focus is on how we can improve on recall of texts by ditching this silly implicit model and building a new medium with a more sophisticated one, maybe by incorporating some of the strategies of successful readers in a more explicit way:

I acknowledged earlier that of course, some people do absorb knowledge from books. Indeed, those 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.

Perry also dunks on the naive model, from a slightly different angle. As well as pretending to transmit linear sequences of ideas (which doesn't work), books also pretend to be discrete, separable lumps of information (which is fake):

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge ...

But books are not separable units of wisdom. Books are tiny fragments of conversation. We are used to our own conversations: what questions are interesting, what counts as an answer, common knowledge, known dramas and their parties. Books (especially old books) throw us into the middle of an alien conversation: what is the author up to? who is he subtweeting? what does he mean by that word?

While Matuschak is suggesting solutions, Perry is more about glorying in the resulting mess. The messy strategy of half-remembering fragments of books and combining them in weird ways actually kind of works pretty well:

It’s easy to forget how we used books before the internet. Now, books are linked, quoted, summarized, screenshotted, dragged like a corpulent raccoon through a small pet door into internet conversations. Back then, reading the book was pretty much your whole participation in the conversation. In the information-impoverished days of one-way media, reading a book could be enough to relieve boredom. The pace of the conversation was quite slow; only a few people wrote books, and they responded to each other on timescales of years and even millennia.

Now, conversations can be had at such a fast and satisfying pace that books are relegated to being sampled and discussed in internet conversations, rather than being the privileged locus of conversations themselves.

I'm generally more on Team Mess myself. I do think that developing new media for better retention of information is also really interesting, particularly for more technical things where the details are really important, or where not remembering calculational techniques slows you down to the point of uselessness. But for a lot of things, messy associative memory works strangely well.

Relevant example: my main memory of Perry's essay is that I first read it on my phone while hanging around an industrial estate on the edge of Exeter, waiting for a delayed bus back to Bristol after a day of walking. I also remembered the title, had a vague memory of an image of blue waves, and had a rough general sense of the topic ('cracks in the book-as-lump-of-information model'). This is not exactly in-depth useful information! But somehow it was enough to retrieve it when I wanted it, and compare it to another half-remembered essay, and get something useful out of it. In some sense it's maybe sad that all these carefully crafted essays get reduced to 'that thing I read waiting for the bus that's sort of like that other thing', but it somehow works anyway.