A friend of mine tells me that whenever he walks by a bookstore he’s hit by a feeling of waste at the huge number of books that really nobody has any good reason ever to read. Call this the first of three important qualities that books have:

1. Most books are not worth reading.

In particular, whole categories of books merit suspicion:

Popular academic nonfiction often contains useless anecdotes and historical trivia from authors who got a book deal to expand a paper or a media piece. Indeed, I welcome any publishers reading this essay to pay me to expand it into a book. I could make each bullet point into a chapter and add background information about intellectual expectations in different historical social classes, random case studies about intellectuals who read a lot and others who read very little, lengthy comparisons to other media formats, and other digressions.

This is the main kind of book that Richard Hanania denounces in “The Case Against (Most) Books” and led Sam Bankman-Fried to tell a writer for Sequoia Capital that “I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.” Summaries or reviews of these books get you the important information in much less time.

Great Books of the “classic” nonfiction variety only become more suspicious the further forward we advance in time. No one would learn mathematics from Euclid and as we get Darwin and Skinner and economics and industrialization, past thinkers look more out of place. Fiction seems fine. Its claim that it presents things that are hard to convey with straightforward description has held up.

2. Most people remember roughly nothing that they read.

Most people who read a book ultimately retain little and sometimes nothing more than someone who just read a review. Holden comments on this with a table of how he perceives the time/retention-percentage curve for different levels of investment. Plotted:

The blue line reflects an increased understanding from reading the title → skimming → reading the book quickly → reading the book slowly. Meanwhile Holden doesn’t even think it’s “really possible to understand more than 50% of a serious book without e.g. spending a lot of independent time in the field.” Not pictured on the chart is Holden’s estimate of the value of reading a book slowly, which he rates as strictly worse than reading reviews and discussion of the book before analyzing and evaluating the sections they reference. Reading a book by itself is like listening to university lectures without any flashcards or essays or problem sets.

3. Reading books is incredibly high-status.

Holden complains about the “raw deal” you get by either reading reviews and being outshone by people who read a book, or gaining little social benefit if you “digest the heck out of it.” In “Honesty About Reading” he makes a futile suggestion that people change their norms about this. In reality people get a lot of respect for being big readers specifically, in a way that they don’t for audio or video or even shortform content.

Reading longform content is incorrectly believed to be not only a source of information but a unique avenue for worldliness. To avoid it is “solipsistic”; a post in the Atlantic from January about anti-readers SBF, Kanye West, and Sean McElwee warns us that “Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character” and that SBF’s position is not just inefficient but “galling” and “ignorant” and “arrogant” and “worrisome.” We’re reminded that reading is a mark of strong character

  1. Simply because it takes a long time (“the rare patience a book still demands of a reader—those precious slow hours of deep focus—is also a virtue”),
  2. Because valuing your time is suspicious (“One might reasonably ask just where, after all, these men have been in such a rush to get to?”), and even
  3. Merely because the books took a long time to write (“Writing a book is an extraordinarily disproportionate act: What can be consumed in a matter of hours takes years to bring to fruition”).

Molly Roberts in WashPo says that “Sam Bankman-Fried doesn’t read. That tells us everything” before expressing in more direct terms that reading books is just inherently profound:

But no matter the type of book he’s talking about, what SBF is missing is the experience. You’re supposed to read not in spite of the digressions and diversions that stand between you and the denouement, but because of them; the little things aren’t extraneous but essential. And what you come out of a book with isn’t always supposed to be instrumental at all, at least not in any practical sense. You read to read; you don’t read to have read.

The solution: Analyze some books in detail with a goal in mind and write about them. “Pretend to read” hundreds of books. No one can tell.

After some initial study, the best way to improve at chess is to play slow games and deeply analyze them afterward for mistakes. But I know few excellent players who never studied by “skimming”—the term I use for looking at hundreds of high-quality games very quickly, maybe one game per minute. Everyone seems to attribute it to International Master Jeremy Silman:

Q: What kind of study program did you use?

A: I mostly looked at endless master games (while simultaneously eating copious amounts of ice cream), sometimes going over several hundred in a single day (only stopping when I was slaphappy and drooling). Most young players I talk to don’t go over nearly enough master games, but now that databases are available there’s simply no excuse for this.

By going through the games so quickly, you’re able to absorb thousands of patterns despite the weaker depth of understanding. There’s a dead zone between skimming and scrutiny where you could play slow games without analyzing them and get neither the immediate benefits of cognitively-demanding analysis nor enough information to gain a passive understanding of the underlying patterns.

Apply this to reading by undertaking two sharply contrasted kinds of reading:

Scrutiny: Read with some goal in mind or a claim you want to prove or disprove. Take notes and revise your claim and form a useful opinion and so on. Maybe conduct a minimal-trust investigation or learn by writing.

Skimming: Gobble lots of content. For a given book, maybe read a summary and a few reviews and skim through the text so fast that it’s almost more like experiencing the book rather than reading it. Don’t stop and reread, don’t think too hard about what you’re reading, and accelerate or just quit the more boring a book gets. Claim you read the book. Profit.


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This advice is probably good in most social contexts -- but I really appreciate the rationalist norm of taking deception very seriously. I resolve this class of conflict by being much more apprehensive than usual about casually misleading my rationalist-adjacent friends and business associates.

I would go even farther, it's fundamentally bad advice for anyone that plans to interact with anyone, or any group, that is actually sophisticated. 

This kind of pretending wouldn't even fool the modern day equivalents of von Neumann's secretary.

I have the sense that if you did shorten (some) books to a blog post, the result would contain all the important points, and most readers would miss or misunderstand them. All the less-relevant-to-the-core-idea bits in a book are often there to fill space, but ideally are there because different people will be receptive to (and will intuitively grasp) different examples, arguments, styles, and contexts. So really what you'd want are potentially dozens of blog posts that all say the same thing in different ways, but somehow target it so each person sees the one best suited to them. I don't think this is a thing you can do, at least not with any available tools I'm aware of.

Yeah. Padded books are definitely a problem, but people benefit from having implications made explicit and enough examples to be able to cleanly picture things. 

6 paragraph blog posts can, at best, help crystalize something you already knew. Conveying something novel with genuine inferential distance just takes a while. 

So really what you'd want are potentially dozens of blog posts that all say the same thing in different ways, but somehow target it so each person sees the one best suited to them.

Here's something I've been wishing would exist, for a sequence on health I hope to write at some point. (Maybe a tool or service for writing like this does exist, but I'm certainly not aware of it.)

There's one big blog post, on, say, anatomy. At the top of the page, the reader is asked how they want to read it, and which parts of it they want to see. Then there are a bunch of filters which they can set to different levels, which then display the post in different ways.

Examples of filters:

  • content: "I'm afraid of spiders."; "I can't stand the sight of blood."; "I don't want to see NSFW content."
  • expertise: "I'm familiar with this topic, so don't show me the introductions meant for laypeople."
  • learning style: "I want to memorize this topic, so show me spaced-repetition questions throughout the text."
  • detail: "I don't care about any corner cases, so hide all nitpicks and footnotes."
  • use case: "I don't care about idle theory, just show me actionable claims."
  • epistemics: "I don't care about your improbable speculations, just show me the universally-accepted facts."
  • personality / accessibility: "I lack somatic awareness, so give me alternative ways to notice sensations of X."; "I'm depressed / anxious, so please accomodate that."

Then as an author, one would write this kind of post by tagging sentences and paragraphs with specific tags, which these various filters would filter on.

Or if it turned out that the method above was too annoying to actually write, a simpler version would be just to have a detail filter ("Do you want to read the short / medium / long version?"). Then as an author, one would just tag paragraphs by which level of detail they belong to (no tag / 1: main text; 2: some detail; 3: very detailed).

This seems like the kind of thing Arbital attempted to implement, based on my experience reading the Bayes theorem stuff.

I agree with some of it. There are definitely too many books. (Disclaimer: I used to sell them).

I have just recently read Inventing Medieval Czechoslovakia 1918-1968: Between Slavs, Germans, and Totalitarian Regimes, a collection of essays. It is not quite targeted at laypeople. Highly recommended.

Perhaps it is more interesting if you already know something about the place and time. I personally was lured in by unspecific positive feelings from reading fiction about Medieval Europe in general; think The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak (of which I have only the vaguest impression left, 20+ years after reading), Notre-Dame des Paris, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Thomas Mallory, Serbian folk songs, that sort of thing. Of Czechoslovakia proper I'd had only some memory of Jan Hus. (Because they burned him at a stake.) Sure, I had read nonfiction about "Medieval" "Europe", but it was way more narrow and random: something about science, something about commerce, etc. Pieces of a puzzle that are not supposed to give you the whole picture. I prefer it that way; for a deeper understanding, there are scientific papers anyway.

(I am sure that I don't have a good idea of where the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. It is too jumbled together in one myth.)

But back to the book. The thing it describes is how different scholars interpreted the same pieces of culture. Some of them were Germans and wanted to stress "the Germanic influence" or lack of it, or something. Some were Czech, some were Polish, some were Soviet, some were Russians-but-not-Soviet. (The story of Institutum Kondakovianum reads like a black comedy - for me personally, blacker than black, but all the funnier for it.) Everyone wanted something for their own agendas and some were in correspondence. It was like they all had one claw to reconstruct the dinosaur, only it happened to be a political animal. (Kidding. It's way more complex than that.) They wanted to find the meaning of the art... and they were also prepared to read the meaning into the art.

So on the one hand, my expectations were wrong. The book did not have a "let's invent the Middle Ages!" motif. But I am glad I was wrong. Because I used to value my nonfictional "pieces of a puzzle" simply for being nonfictional. I would never have thought in any depth about the history of historiography. I just kinda thought that yes, some people lied, but surely everyone knew what was propaganda and what was honest science. It was an expectation I had never questioned.

I still have my fictional Europe. I would be glad to rid myself of an old myth, but it seems easier, in terms of time and money, to add a new one as a counterbalance.

So - what I mean to say: read everything and digest what you can. It's too late to get picky.

There are two reasons I like books:

  1. Many books I read are pretty good, they aren't dense with new information, but they are dense with justifications for the information they're giving. Much of the time I am not super surprised about the evidence presented after hearing the claim, but it makes later analysis not computationally intractable. This is important when trying to change your mind in light of contradictory arguments & necessary when approaching the claims with a critical eye[1].
  1. As I said after the Hanania post

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.

Of course, if you have access to the person making the argument, or aren't mainly trying to learn a technical subject, books are probably inefficient.

  1. This is why I think books have the faults which you mention, compared to blogs. At least the good ones need to make an argument robust to many different criticisms, since the feedback loop between publication, and public commenting is far longer than that for blogs. Publishers notice that good books tend to be long, since there are usually many criticisms you can make, and so regardless of how narrow the author's assertion is, they make their book 300 pages to increase the appeal. ↩︎

Good point about mostly not remembering things. Summaries and reviews are probably often a better use of time. But I use those when I can find them before choosing what to read next.

On the other hand, I learned several programming languages from textbooks, including some I still use professionally, so I think textbooks that teach particular skills can be worth it. I would not have gotten the same depth of understanding from scattered blog posts.

In the case of fiction, the point isn't so much to learn things, but to enjoy the reading. But even that does have side benefits of improving language skill. Habitually reading even fiction is going to result in a larger vocabulary, and probably better writing skills, because you become used to the "sound" of quality writing. There may be more subtle benefits from expanded philosophy and perspective.

Agreed with 1 and 2. Human forgetfulness is yikes, and there's a kind of existential dread in re-reading a book after a few years and not recognizing any of it.

I'm skeptical of 3, however. I don't necessarily see your examples as demonstrating that the act of reading books is intrinsically high status. An alternative interpretation is that people who earn money by writing and being read, and whose readers likely read a lot, make bids to raise the status of reading. And relatedly, the act of publically dissing books is either considered low status, or these people make bids to lower its status. All this would be consistent with book-reading being, among the broader population, ~irrelevant for status.

I don't approve of suggestions to lie (and I would've upvoted the post if not for the parts which advocated for lying). But I don't think the lying is necessary, either. Assuming the aforementioned status benefits even exist, here are some virtuous alternative strategies to gain (or lose less) status on this topic:

  • Make bids to lower the status of (reading) books. The OP seems like a good example of this (again, except for the suggestion to lie). Another way would be to associate reading with passive consumption of content, and contrast it with the more virtuous acts of creating content or otherwise achieving real-world outcomes.
  • Make bids to increase the status of skimming books. E.g. signal-boost people who advocate for skimming books.
  • Demonstrate the virtues of skimming books by visibly deriving outsized benefits from your book-skimming habit. Even quicker, refer to famous productive people who habitually skim books.
  • If you don't like books, don't diss them in the presence of people who would lower your status for this. Same for not liking to read books. There's no need to have a public opinion on every issue. (That said, I wonder how unpopular your position on books even is. It seems too popular for the 10th Dentist subreddit, for example.)
  • SBF-related: Probably nobody will care about your controversial statements one way or another, until you commit a crime which makes you national news. At that point any controversial statement, no matter how mild, will be held against you. This suggests a strategy of not making the controversial statements, and/or of not commiting the crime...

I'm writing a book, and I'm very cognizant of these issues as I write. It's academic nonfiction, so basically the worst of the worst. I don't read these sorts of books myself normally and prefer to find summaries. There's only rare books in this genre where reading the whole thing is worthwhile, and that's mostly because it's a way to get you to think in depth about something.

So what am I doing in response as I write? I'm keeping the book dense and short. I'm aiming for <50k words and am more likely to hit 30k. That means it has higher density than typical academic nonfiction.

Why write a book, though? I am posting the draft chapters here as I write them. But books have a few nice properties:

  • Perceived by others as prestigious so they are more willing to trust you might have something worthwhile to say.
  • The format forces a different style of writing that has to be more self contained and can't lean as easily on references to explain things.
  • Even though I could explain the main ideas of the book in just a few paragraphs, some of the arguments take time to develop if you disagree, so the book in part serves to develop those arguments and make the case in enough detail that more people will be convinced.

There’s a dead zone between skimming and scrutiny where you could play slow games without analyzing them and get neither the immediate benefits of cognitively-demanding analysis nor enough information to gain a passive understanding of the underlying patterns.


I think this is a good point. I think there's a lot to be said for being intentional about how/what you're consuming. It's kind of easy for me to fall into a pit of "kind of paying attention" where I'm spending mental energy, but not retaining anything, but not really skimming either. I think it is less cognitively demanding per unit time, but gives you way worse learning-bang for your mental-energy-buck.

I don't think I fully understand this dead zone or why it happens, but I am suspicious that it also plays a pretty large role in a lot of ineffective/mainstream education.