A couple days ago I surveyed readers for deviant beliefs. The results were funny, hateful, boring and bonkers. One of the submissions might even be useful.

If you care a lot about your mind, it is not unreasonable to avoid advertisements like plague rats, up to and including muting your speakers and averting your gaze.

This extremist position caught my eye because humans have a tendency to underestimate the effect advertising[1] has on us. I never realized how much advertising affected me until I got rid of it.

For nearly a year I have been avoiding junk media. I thought this would make me happier, healthier and more productive—which it has—but the most surprising effect is how much the reduction in advertising affects my behavior.

When I give up junk media, I stop thinking about politics, videogames and celebrities. I think less about products in general. Important things eventually expand to fill this void. But for the first week or so, my head just feels empty.

Tim Ferris doesn't just avoid news, television and social media. He even avoids reading books—especially nonfiction. When I first read that, I thought he was an Eloi. Having blogged regularly for the past year myself, I now sympathize with him.

If you are young then you should read lots of books because you need to amass information. Eventually you hit diminishing returns. Reading more books fills fewer conceptual holes per unit time invested.

You cannot discover new knowledge for humanity by reading a book written by a human.

But there is a bigger problem. It is easy to look up answers to common questions in a book. It is harder to look up answers to esoteric questions. It is impossible to look up answers to open problems. The difficulty of looking up important things you don't know answers to increases the more low-hanging fruit you pick from the Tree of Knowledge.

As your power waxes, it becomes easier to invent answers to your own questions. Eventually the trajectories cross. It becomes easier to figure things out yourself than to look up the answer. The comparative value of reading books goes negative. Books, once guides, become reference material. It is more efficient to write your own book than to read someone else's.

I used to read a lot of books. I finished 18 books in the first 4.5 months of 2020.

Date Title Author Page Count
January 1 The Trouble with Physics Lee Smolin 392
January 17 My Side of the Street Jason DeSena Trennert 224
January 19 Saints & Sinners William L. Hamilton 145
January 20 The Quants Scott Patterson 352
February 21 Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality Eliezer Yudkowsky N/A
February 22 The Vital Question Nick Lane 368
February 24 The Last Leonardo Ben Lewis 384
March 4 Mastering Manga with Mark Crilley Mark Crilley 128
March 22 World War Z Max Brooks 342
March 29 The Nature of Plants Craig Huegel 228
March 31 Built not Born Tom Golisano, Mike Wicks 224
April 13 A First-Class Catastrophe Diana B. Henriques 416
April 21 The Plant Messiah Carlos Magdalena 238
April 22 The 4-Hour Workweek Tim Ferris 308
April 27 The War on Normal People Andrew Yang 304
May 1 Seeing Like a State James C. Scott 445
May 5 Botany for Gardeners 3rd Edition Brian Capon 240
May 15 The $12 Million Stuffed Shark Don Thompson 272

Then I…stopped. In the 6.3 months since mid-May I finished only 3 books.

Date Title Author Page Count
July 2 Human Diversity Charles Murray 528
August 4 The Actor's Life Jeanna Fischer 252
November 2 Lost Connections Johann Hari 322

May of this year appears to be when I hit my inflection point where writing became more useful than reading.

When I started writing, I thought it was a substitute for socializing. I now realize it is a substitute for reading. Writing is to reading what entrepreneurship is to having a job. Reading too much (compared to what you write) turns you into a sheep.

  1. In this sense, "advertising" includes not only paid adverts like banner ads but also self-replicating propaganda ("we should raise awareness of…"), grassroots advertising (videogame streamers, artificial communities) and all information derived from a press release. I care about whether an interest group is getting a message into my head. Neither I nor the interest group cares how it gets there. ↩︎

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18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:43 PM

>You cannot discover new knowledge for humanity by reading a book written by a human.

But you can discover new knowledge for yourself. Unless you think you've already read enough that you know all human knowledge. This is why rationalists so often get accused of reinventing the wheel—because if you aren't well-read, you can't tell the difference between a genuinely new idea or insight and an old one. And you may come up with a good idea but be unaware of all the downsides that other people have pointed out in books.

Maybe some people need this advice. But most people read dramatically too few books, and in particular too few books from before the 21st century.

I agree.

Another advantage of reading is to keep open the option of discovering unknown unknowns, shifting your worldview, finding mental tools and maybe even better philosophies in unexpected places (for example, I have been (mentally) referencing cryptonormativity quite alot recently, and Nerst pulled it from reading Habermas – not quite rationalist canon). The idea of the intelligence explosion was sitting in a text by I.J. Good for around 35 years until people seriously thought about what implications that might have, and what could & should be done about it.

This ties in nicely with reading books from before the 21st century (and perhaps even before the 20th century!). Also, one should consider reading books that noone from one's main intellectual group has read.

This is why rationalists so often get accused of reinventing the wheel

I've heard that criticism too, but it's hard for me to come up with specific examples that I agree with. Do any of these count as reinvented wheels?

EDIT: On second thought, whether or not rationalists already do reinvent the wheel, I strongly claim that they should reinvent wheels at least sometimes. Seems like really good practice for inventing novel things.


I’ve heard that criticism too, but it’s hard for me to come up with specific examples that I agree with

Logical positivism/verificationism is the obvious example.


It sounds like you have hit a stale point in your journey. Your book list is not very stark. It generally trends into a certain sort of person, the sort of person you do not want to learn from. I would guess because you already agree with most of it, and so you'd rather just write it yourself.

That's reasonable, I understand, and I have written a good volume of work that will never see day because of this. However, I do have a solution if you will try it.

Take a specific belief you have. Ethical, political, scientific, you name it- something you think is true- and go prove it wrong. Do your best. Not the 'oh hah look at all these dumb posts' but really dig for the reasons that your interests/ideals/ethics may be wrong. Take one of your favorite books and rip it apart. Be fair; always check sourcing, cite yourself. Steelman the target, or counter-strawman, however it can be described.

Play devil's advocate for something you should never consider and then realize that there are so many better ways to criticize your opponents, and that they're really doing it quite poorly.

It's worth noting somewhat apprehensively that you are in fact the sheep here; most of the world already stopped reading books. Some just read more earlier, and some will keep reading until later. Reading or not doesn't help you integrate knowledge, reflection does. Hence why reading and writing is the best way to do it.

  • pick an old research paper's critique, and then figure out how it cherry-picked/straw-manned the paper. Wikipedia is easy for this. Pretty much every source is incorrectly cited or incorrectly summarized
  • watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie and try to describe the scene direction in words.
  • translate a difficult concept into something you can explain to a third grader.
  • translate something from third grade into something a science fiction reader would be convinced by
  • go to a used bookstore and look for books published a long time ago. no revisions. must be originals <1920
  • read through newspaper archives from 1914-1916
  • read Paul's chapters of the Bible and analyze them as a rhetorical piece for arguing a case for replacing their cult with his cult, and whether the techniques he used would have been effective then, at the target audience
  • read papers by Bell or Fourier

The problem with this new era of information is no one really made sure the information was any good, and so we're all loaded up with a lot of inputs and no insurance on the output. As we can see from this latest election, it is quite easy to flood the internet with incorrect data and convince a lot of people who think they are 'doing the research'.

Above all, stay cozy.

This feedback makes sense in the context of what I wrote. I'm going to provide broader context which didn't make it into the original post.

My reading is cyclical. The books I read in any given year indeed tend to be quite narrow. Some years I read lots of science fiction. Another year was about spirituality. In previous years I've read Heart of Darkness, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1984, Ancillary Justice, The Little Prince, The Wealth of Nations, Goodbye Darkness, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, Steal Like an Artist, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, Arabian Sands, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, The Fault in Our Stars, Guerilla Warfare and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.. Technical books don't show up on this list either because I tend not to read them cover-to-cover. The same goes for other books I've tried out without finishing such as Pride and Prejudice, Mere Christianity, Hard Choices, Twilight, Quotations from Chairman Mao and the 1911 Boy Scout Handbook. My scientific research with commercial applications doesn't get posted to this blog either.

I'm slowly working my way through Sunzi's The Art of War. This bodes well with your recommendation to read old writings and translate difficult concepts. We may be on the same page here.

I've also cracked open a D&D book. Your comment is helpful in encouraging me to continue.

Tim Ferris doesn't just avoid news, television and social media.

That statement seems to be too general given that his last post about recommending books he read isn't even a year old. 

It seemed Tim Ferriss did say:

To that end, I’m committing to *not* reading any new books in 2020. This means I will not read any books published in 2020.

Older books seem to be still fair game for him.

I'm going from my general impression of the chapter "The Low Information Diet" in The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris, where he recommends restricting information for a single week. It would be hyperbole to say Tim Ferris always avoids reading books. It may be more accurate to say he sometimes avoids reading books.

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.


The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris

Most people have weeks where they don't read books. The fact that someone needs to make a conscious decision to go a week without reading books is a sign fo a person who reads a lot of books.

A Quora answer from 2016 (a decade after 4-Hour Workweek) suggest he read 1-4 books/per week at the time. 

Ferris is probably coming from a place of the LINDY Effect- why read new books, when books that are older definitively are more useful because if they hadn't been useful they wouldn't have lasted as long.

New content and timely content is more of a bet than a sure thing.

Tim Ferriss (two s) does lay out his reasons in the linked post, so there's not really a reason to speculate.

You may find that this is a cycle.  At some points you may need to process for yourself and give more weight to what you think, but at some points you may feel the need for more information or an outside point of view.

Are you writing your own fiction too? If so, I commend and encourage you. If not, what do you get in exchange for quitting fiction reading?

Thank you for this! I've started writing my own fiction too but have so far been too cowardly to post it on Less Wrong until now.

I liked the original title better :)

Note to mods: If the title of a post is changed, notifications for it still show the old title.

What was the old title? I forgot.

"Evading Mind Control"

Yeah, that's better. I have changed it back from "I have read enough books".