Most old books are a rebuke to the modern reader, as they demonstrate the crudity of contemporary language and the sloppiness of our thoughts.

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I would add textbooks to the list of books that are worth reading. Not always, but often its the best way to learn a complex new field. Open to suggestions of alternative formats, like reading papers--though if you want an intro & problems, textbooks are still great.

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So, I had to suffer through Plato in college and when I tried reading Thucydides a couple years ago, I gave up because it was so dry, but a couple minor defenses of reading old thinkers:

1. The analogy with the lost Amazon tribe I would say is off. The Greeks invented Western Civilization. Amazonian tribes haven't invented much of anything; odds are the best minds of ancient Greece were a little higher caliber, and probably less remote from the modern world, just because Greek city states are more similar to modern nation states than any hunter gatherer tribe.

2. You learn intellectual history reading old books, which can be just as interesting as reading modern history books. Think of it like reading the source material for a history book on the evolution of Western philosophy or what have you.

3. Revered old books usually have some good lines or famous quotes you might otherwise remain ignorant of. "Only the dead have seen the end of war." "The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must." The funeral oration of Pericles, etc.

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I think you're missing at least two important categories of worthwhile books:

(1) famous books by old-to-ancient authors on subjects that don't change much over time. And nothing is more fixed than human nature. The reason to read Sophocles or Dante or Shakespeare isn't to get the benefit of an understanding of the modern world, but by absorbing the themes of how people behave and what sorts of narratives shape them, a lot becomes clear. For the same reason that anyone seeking to understand New York City needs to read The Power Broker (surely in your category #1), anyone who wishes to understand people can find plenty of value in timeless works which don't depend on any recent innovation. I think Tolkien and Freud are worth reading because they *invented an entire field or genre*, and so it's useful to understand them even if we'd discard almost all of their contemporaries' works.

(2) foundational pillars of thought in a discipline, which are necessary or at least valuable background for *any educated person*. For the same reason that someone who plans to live in the West should read parts of the Bible, or someone who wants to understand biology would benefit from 1-2 works by Darwin, by the same token, someone who wishes to live in a democracy should read Locke (even if we have later political philosophy that maybe refines some of it), and probably Hobbes too. Someone who wishes to meet a standard of "educated" in our society probably needs a baseline of works we all agree are timeless parts of the canon of western literature and philosophy and science. Is the Stanford Prison Experiment the latest and greatest in behavioral psychology? No, but you need to know about it before you could call yourself knowledgeable in it. Most works in this category have stood the test of centuries if not millennia, and while some might fit your category #3, some are distinct but still essential.

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May 11, 2023·edited May 21, 2023

This is a supremely silly post. Not everyone reads books in order to optimise their life and/or compress as much knowledge into as little room as possible. For me, reading is a pleasure in itself, and reading a well-written, well-structured and well-thought-out text has intrinsic value, regardless of whether its ideas could've been expressed more succinctly.

When I want to learn about a particular topic, I'd rather read three hundred pages with examples and detail and even repetition, than a five page essay that I'll surely forget within a few weeks. The longer form aids memory and makes points and ideas stick; you spend way more time with the material at hand.

Also, why use such a contemptuous and morally bankrupt character as Bankman-Fried to make your case?

I do agree that many books are mostly fluff and it's a known fact that getting a short book published is a lot harder than a long one, because of how publishing works, but this does not make a case "against most books". Not even close. Many books are not worth reading and they contain little value in them, but this is an entirely different matter, and the wild generalization made in the post strikes me as lazy, more than anything.

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A fundamental part of your case against (non fiction) Great Books is "But anything intelligent or insightful they said you’ve probably absorbed already through run-of-the-mill blogs and self-help books, shorn of all the stupid things that inevitably made their way into their writings." This means, among other things:

a) You're relying on other people to read them

b) You're relying on these readers (and the readers of readers, and so on) collectively to convey the ideas _better_ than the original. Even under the doubtful premise they could, it's a very likely massive loss in opportunity cost. Do more "stupid things" make it into Marcus Aurelius or the vast industry that rehashes the Stoics? You're telling people to join the worst game of (multithreading!) Telephone ever, clearly a massive packet loss.

c) You've foreclosed the ability to draw particular lessons from a work that this transmitting crowd might have missed, forgotten, or misinterpreted. Let's take at random something I doubt has been transmitted in Plato. Maybe it's just trivia that the Theatetus ends dramatically where the Euthyphro begins. Maybe it's a waste of time to try to figure out if that is meaningful in his theory of knowledge, and if his theory has anything to teach us today. Even the act of wrestling with a deep work will make your mind stronger at finding connections in other material than scrolling through a slipstream of tweets and blog posts from a bunch of UCLA philosophy grad students.

In short, you're frustrated with David Sinclair's book padding, but are fundamentally reliant on LOTS of writings like that collectively to have absorbed and transmitted all the good ideas of the past. I won't read Thucydides to decide whether to take rapamycin, just as you shouldn't read Sinclair on politics.

A good litmus test of whether a book - or any piece of information or literature including fiction - is great is: Can you draw different lessons from it on a second or more reading, or even just thinking about it longer. Few books and fewer tweets, substacks, whatever meet that threshold.

I'll read a book by you over some random forgotten Church father that might get assigned at St. John's, but over 99.99% of stuff that will show up on Amazon? A much safer bet. And I do hope people are reading Hanania in a century in whatever form ;)

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I have read David Sinclair’s Lifespan. It is an easy read, quite well written book. As you say David could have written an essay in NYT to convey his ideas, but it would not have been well known. You can read an article within a few minutes, but you need to spend a few hours reading through the book. You are right that many ideas are repeated in the book, but it is tool of persuasion rather than knowledge. By presenting the core ideas and arguments again and again, the book tries to persuade you to agree with him.

A good example of this is Milton Friedman's book - Capitalism and Freedom. His core thesis could be just a 4 page article, but he would not have the cultural cache if he just wrote a paper or article in NYT. When someone buys a book, given its an investment, they normally try to finish the book, and successful books like that of Friedman normally focus on few simple ideas and repeatedly argue for them and hopes a reader would be persuaded. And once persuaded they recommend it to others, which does not happen with news articles as you spend too little time on it. I would argue for this reason, such books are good. A person with an idea could persuade a large number of people to agree with him with a book, which is not possible even with a well written article.

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People retain little information when they read non-fiction books and articles. It’s worthwhile to use spaced repetition software to remember the important points.

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The purpose of books is not and has has never been to convey information. That's barely of any interest at all in my book writing process.

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"When I wrote my piece on Enlightened Centrism, some took issue with me saying that I don’t believe in Great Books. After thinking about the topic a bit, I’m more certain that I’m correct."

"I’m not mad at people who want to read old books. The problem is that I get the sense from some of them that they think they gain more wisdom than others by doing so. Last month, there was a tweet going around that showed how absurd this worship of the past can get."

I'm sorry, Richard but there is so much wrong with this essay and with your perspective, it's almost comical. First is your title. "The Case Against Most Books." Really? In your lifetime, you will not read even a small percentage of the books in the world, you're aware of that, right? So what percentage of the 129,864,880 books in the world are you referencing? Just curious.

Other people reading "old books" is not something you should concern yourself with, nor should you presume that books only represent history, and/or nonfiction books. Moreover, why would you be "mad at people who want to read books" and why would you even phrase it that way? Do you realize how self-absorbed you sound? Your preference with regard to reading and/or encouraging others not to read is not "correct" It's just your preference, as in an opinion and as you know opinions are like --------, everyone's got one.

And then there's this gem... "I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that…If you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post."

The fact that you use profanity in that snippet of content, and think that a book should only be a six paragraph post tells me a great deal about how much you have not read and how much you don't know about writing and reading, and education.

Do you realize how much this short essay makes you seem, hmm, how shall I put it? Not "smart" perhaps? Please keep reading, because if anyone needs to read, a lot, YOU do.

Be well. :)

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I think the point about older thinkers is correct with one notable exception. That exception are books/essays which allow (or more often force) you to reinterpret a large amount of data in a more simplified and probably framework. Socrates, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Pareto, etc. are all good examples of this. Imo the Straussian interpretation is pretty much correct:

1) there are truths most people deny

2) people who plainly tell the truth can be persecuted

3) "Lindy" texts are preserved precisely because they have some interesting hidden truth which people continue to deny

That being said I think there is an overcorrection in conservative circles where they don't actually test whether their interpretations line up with observed reality. I'd be interested to know what you think of people who try to test older philosophy with modern empirics, like Brett Andersen (https://brettandersen.substack.com/).

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This was excellent but too brief -- you should contact your publisher about a book deal.

I never read books because as a class they're not lindy. The traditional way to digest information is to have it spoken aloud, which is why we have audible now. Substack represents the longest-form that I can commit to reading with my own eyes, like some kind of pleb who has no lector.

Finally, the thinkers of the past weren't better at thinking than we are, but they had frittered away a smaller portion of evolved human wisdom than we have now. Socrates isn't interesting because of what he said that was cutting-edge when he said it, but because of the things he says that his own newfangledness hadn't infected. I'm not just talking about (via Henrich) to prepare manioc. Little glimpses of the sanity of the past can be deeply unscientific but remind us of true things we're tempted to forget. Consider St. John Chrysostom assuming that adipose tissue is undigestible because people who eat a lot of fattened-up animals appear to collect this tissue in themselves. Utterly wrong, of course, but it's good to see a direct reminder that people have always found the obese disturbing to look at, to the point of spontaneously generating bogus theories about them.

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Just to see if I understand your argument: You are assuming that individuals read books because they want to obtain information or insight; and, with time, wisdom. Then, you rightly point out that if you want to maximize the amount of information you obtain, you are better-off reading a blog post or a summary -- or anything that is short and potentially comes from several sources.

I would pushback on this. People who like books read them for the experience of going through a long, cohesive text. This includes, of course, obtaining insight, but also includes entering a deeper state of reflexion that is impossible to achieve when you are reading a blog post. A state that requires a long engagement (maybe days) with the text. And I claim that deep reflexion probably generates more important insight than light reflexion. Moreover, because of the way the brain works, it also makes you happy.

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I agree with categories 1 and 3. Those make up most of my reading (esp category 1). I’d add that good fictional novels are worth reading, but it’s something I really only enjoyed when younger.

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Jeff Bezos famously said that knowing what won't change in 10 years is important, because you can build a business model around things that you know won't change.

Just so, I tell all kids who are going to college that if they can learn what won't change in their lifetimes, they can build a life plan around that. And what won't change in their lifetimes? The same thing that hasn't changed since people began recording their stories and thoughts: human nature.

And the best way to see unchanging human nature over the ages? By reading the classics, sometimes called The Great Books.

There is something to be said about learning what Marcus Aurelius said so many centuries ago, or what any number of other astute observers of human nature said a long, long time ago in so many other entirely different settings: The Tale of Genji, The Bhagavad Gita, The Odyssey. After seeing it here, there, and elsewhere enough times, it begins to sink in, and sink so much more so than reading someone's blog post or a Wikipedia entry.

I agree that acquiring the information in things like William H. McNeill's "Plagues and People," or Suzanne Simart's "Finding the Mother Tree," could probably done more efficiently via your method. But learning the deep lessons of humanity—and perhaps gaining some wisdom instead of just information—takes a bit more commitment.

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This could’ve been a tweet.

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