Scrolling through my feed I came across this little gem:

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How could I not click on this article? I have several year’s supplies of paper books on my shelf to read, and even more on my e-reader. Justifying this state of affairs is clearly something I need.

Pity the article is rubbish.

The first hint that this story was nonsense is how they start by commending readers as smart. They list a few famous people who read and say you too can be just like them if you read. Somehow reading = lifelong learning, so you’ll be happier, earn more, stay healthier, and become president – I’m tempted to dive into those claims for a fact check, but one piece at a time. I’m willing to accept the claim that reading = lifelong learning… for now.

Lifelong learning will help you be happier, earn more, and even stay healthier, experts say. Plus, plenty of the smartest names in business, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, insist that the best way to get smarter is to read. So what do you do? You go out and buy books, lots of them.

Then it suddenly announces you don’t have to read.

But if it’s simply that your book reading in no way keeps pace with your book buying, I have good news for you (and for me; I definitely fall into this category): Your overstuffed library isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance, it’s a badge of honor.

Oookaaaayyy. Please explain to me how not reading is just like reading.

That’s the argument author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his bestseller The Black Swan. Perpetually fascinating blog Brain Pickings dug up and highlighted the section in a particularly lovely post. Taleb kicks off his musings with an anecdote about the legendary library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a jaw-dropping 30,000 volumes.

Did Eco actually read all those books? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point of surrounding himself with so much potential but as-yet-unrealized knowledge. By providing a constant reminder of all the things he didn’t know, Eco’s library kept him intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. An ever-growing collection of books you haven’t yet read can do the same for you, Taleb writes.

An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.

This is what is commonly referred to as a non-sequitur, or a bullshit argument. Nassim Taleb is notorious for these sorts of nonsense arguments. That and blocking people on Twitter* for not agreeing with him and praising the ground he deadlifts upon.

It is hard to decide where to start with this. The irony of suggesting you need to surround yourself with knowledge in an article on the internet is amazing. Even if we take it, as Taleb implies, as requiring a physical reminder, we already have libraries, bookshops, universities, experts, friends, enemies, who all exist with knowledge we don’t have. It isn’t about the reminder, it is about awareness.

I’m not sure you can take people seriously when they talk about knowledge in terms of what you don’t know. One list is considerably larger than the other. If I was to provide a resume of what I didn’t know it would run to libraries worth in length. Who would suggest we think in those terms?

“People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did,” Taleb claims.

Of course he would suggest that. I guess I’ll mail Taleb a résumé of the Dewey codes** for the stuff I don’t know to become his deadlift partner.

How do they rationalise this anti-library?

Why? Perhaps because it is a well-known psychological fact that it’s the most incompetent who are the most confident of their abilities and the most intelligent who are full of doubt. (Really. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect.) It’s equally well established that the more readily you admit you don’t know things, the faster you learn.

So stop beating yourself up for buying too many books or for having a to-read list that you could never get through in three lifetimes. All those books you haven’t read are indeed a sign of your ignorance. But if you know how ignorant you are, you’re way ahead of the vast majority of other people.

Actually, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is about how people with low cognitive ability are exactly those who lack the ability to realise they are of low cognitive ability so they will rank themselves more highly. High cognitive ability people incorrectly assume others are at their level, so will rank themselves lower (see also Imposter Syndrome). You can see from this explanation of the effect why surrounding yourself with knowledge doesn’t really achieve anything.

It’s about awareness.

You would have to be aware that your knowledge is lacking, not just have a reminder of it. If you are ignorant or arrogant then you won’t benefit from the stacks of books around you. We are already surrounded by knowledge in our society – I mean, we’re on the internet here, you can look up literally anything and potentially get the correct answer… potentially. But this article – and Taleb himself – are proposing a form of arrogance. Surround yourself with books and you’ll be better than the vast majority of people.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy heaps of books, I myself already own more than I’ll probably be able to read in a lifetime. But don’t be fooled by these sorts of feel-good pieces that give you a pseudo-justification for doing so. It doesn’t say good things about your mind, nor make you better, it just says you like books and would like the authors to be able to afford to eat this week.

* Seriously, check out his profile or this search to see how often he justifies blocking people. As someone whom he has blocked, I can say that he really hates engaging in discourse. Oh, and the reason I was blocked was that he Tweeted about disease resistance in plants and how it works, except he got it massively wrong. When I pointed this out I was immediately blocked.
**Get it? The joke is that there are more library classification systems than just Dewey Decimal. I’m hilarious!

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2 thoughts on “Reading is awesome even when you don’t do it…

    1. Yeah. It annoys me that this stuff is lapped up by supposedly educated and intellectual people.

      And I secretly suspect that the snobbishness directed toward genre comes from this same lack of critical thinking. I’m working on an essay response to a piece in Aeon that denigrates anything that isn’t “high art” that addresses this. Not sure where to submit it though.

      Liked by 2 people

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