The myth of the myth of the well read person
"Perhaps in that unimpeded air he will see all philosophies as but one groping, all faiths as but a single hope"
I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!
Richard Hamming, You and Your Research
People understand in the abstract that they can read a lot of books - that a book a week adds up to thousands over a lifetime - but they don’t seem to realize what exactly it would mean to have read thousands of great books.
As it happens, thanks to my podcast, I’ve actually gotten to interview some extraordinary infovores - Tyler Cowen and Byrne Hobart come immediately to mind. What has struck me in talking to these polymaths is how functionally illiterate I am in comparison to them. My knowledge about the world is a strict subset of theirs. There is no counterexample or counterargument I could present which they have not already considered and reconsidered. The best I can do is jog their memory.
David Deutsch points out in The Fabric of Reality that contra conventional wisdom, it actually is possible for a single person to understand most things - not in the sense of memorizing the names of ant subspecies or the GDP of different Asian countries, but in the sense of appreciating the main explanatory theories in each field.
One consequence of living in The Great Stagnation is that there is relatively little turnover in these fundamental ideas. Quantum mechanics, that nascent branch of physics which elicits the sense of woo woo from popular culture, is about a hundred years old. So is the theory of computation. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is over 50 year old.
So you don’t have to be scouring through the newest papers on Arxiv in order to know the most important things. A dozen or so textbooks even from a few decades ago contain about 80% of legible scientific knowledge.
This is a story that repeats in many fields. If you’re interested in economics, then you don’t have to memorize the prices of goods and the rates of growth throughout history. Instead, read books that try to explain a broad range of phenomena with a single theory, like the Baumol cost effect or the efficient market hypothesis or nominal GDP targeting.
People worry that these kinds of books provide less understanding than long tomes published by academic presses which present you with a legion of brute facts. But to understand something is not to know random minutiae about it - to understand is to know how the parts compose the whole, to notice patterns and discern their causes, and to be able to make predictions on the basis of these insights. In that sense, understanding is precisely what the weighty small print books fail to provide and what books advancing or attacking an explanatory theory are supplying.
Which means it is actually possible to understand a wide range of topics and fields with a reasonable number of books. In most fields, you really could understand the most important ideas by reading a dozen books (or depending on the technical complexity of the field, a textbook or two plus a handful of seminal papers). If you took reading seriously and read a book a week (approximately an hour or two of reading a day), that’s just 3 months of reading. Half a semester to understand much of an entire field. That is unreasonably effective.
Admittedly there are many fields where it takes a longer climb to reach that plateau of insight and understanding, and where the esoteric details and specific examples are not distractions from the subject, but rather the subject itself. In this category I include biology and history - more than a few great historians have been close to death before they were ready to compose their magnum opus. Think of your study of these fields as you would a Roth IRA account - your investment slowly accumulates in the background and eventually, when you are appropriately mature, that compounding sum is made available to you for use.
Why are there so few of these well-read generalists? I’m making it sound like you could understand most of what humans know about science and society in less than a decade. Why have so few people taken up this offer?
Apart from pure apathy, here are some of the failure modes which prevent people from becoming well read.
The returns to reading scale with intelligence, and most people are just not smart enough to comprehend a vast stock of knowledge. If intelligence is the ability to understand complex ideas, to notice patterns and make inferences, and to build connections between new information and existing knowledge, then it’s no surprise that dull people don’t get that much out of reading a lot. I’m always shocked when I talk to someone who claims to have read the same book or blog post I read, and they didn’t seem to absorb the basic thesis of the text. Undoubtedly, I have embarrassed myself in a similar way to others with a higher capacity to extract meaning.
People choose the wrong books. Either they become bored of uninteresting details or entertained by unenlightening stories and metaphors. I suggest the following strategy for reading about science in my post on barbell strategies:
Instead of reading mid-wit pop-sci books which just offer vague metaphors or irrelevant anecdotes, read books that are either pure fun (fantasy, sci-fi, manga, etc), or actual hardcore science (textbooks and review papers.
The goal is not just to have some printed text in front of your face for an hour a day, but rather to consume the best that has thought, to understand as much as you can as deeply as you can, and to vicariously participate in that timeless conversation between the great scientists, historians, and philosophers. Such a lofty quest leaves no time to spare for the mediocre.
People don’t engage with the ideas in book, say by writing a book review or reading books and articles with a different thesis on the same topic. It’s incredibly easy to forget what you read (or to fail to absorb it in the first place). Again, I suggest in my barbell strategies post:
You could read a book a week, but you’ll inevitably end up forgetting even the main thesis of most of the titles you pick up (the auxiliary ideas and information will be gone even faster). Here’s another idea. Don’t read a book the following week but instead spend your allotted reading time writing a Scott Alexander type book review, where you explain the book’s main points and think carefully about its weaknesses, implications, and lessons. Go on Wikipedia and Google Scholar goose chases for all the interesting topics which the author didn’t go into enough detail on. For extra brownie points, start a podcast and invite the author on for an interview. It was only after I started my podcast that I learned to read with judicious skepticism of the author’s claims and deductions, sensitivity to his message and intent, and genuine openness to his explanatory models and challenging conclusions.
That being said, I do think there’s a Laffer curve in book engagement. If you spend too long on consolidating a book’s ideas, you may reduce the amount of new reading you can do by too much.
People often use these failure modes as a reason for reading less. They’ll say, “I used to read 50 books a year but then I realized that I forgot most of what I read.” That’s a bit like saying, I used to invest for retirement but then I realized that I wasn’t saving as much as I would want to, so now I don’t even bother. The appropriate response is to cut other costs, or at least save what you can.
Same goes with reading. Do things which force you to absorb the main ideas from books, like writing reviews or organizing discussions. And if that doesn’t work, it is still better to learn what little you can than to decay intellectually and abandon that dream you must have had as a teenager to conquer every region of knowledge.
If you’re a farmer in the 18th century, it’s not clear what exactly you would do with the knowledge from books (not that you could afford many of them anyways). Maybe books that were extremely specific to your trade, like one on Guano farming or forest clearing, could be useful. But it’s not like you could have a great idea based on something you read and then go get some funding to build a startup or nonprofit. Or become friends with people from around the world who have read some of those same books. Or start a blog synthesizing all the ideas you’re learning about. But you can do all these things if you’re a Westerner in the 21st century.
So knowledge has gotten cheaper at the same time that it is gotten more valuable. If you’re reasonably intelligent, curious, and motivated, an hour a day of reading could really add up to a comprehensive summary of much that has transpired and been thought and discovered in history.
When I suggest that there is a myth of a well read person, I’m not saying that people explicitly deny the scope and depth of knowledge one can gain over years and decades of reading. I mean that they do not seem aware that becoming extremely well read is a thing you can do.
One reason why is that most people don’t have a living breathing demonstration of a well read person. If they get one while they are still young and impressionable, it can alter their reading habits for life. Tyler Cowen said on my podcast:
There was one fellow I met when I was young. His name was Walter Grinder. And he had tried to read as many books as possible. And just the notion that you could be a human and try to read as many book as possible, I got for him. That was incredible. Huge influence … I think I was 14 when met him. That was just amazing. Now did he once tell me, read as many books as possible? Who knows? But I got that lesson in any case.
I feel like I still haven’t conveyed the romanticism of reading, the feeling you have in a beautiful library which tells you that you could learn everything about everything, and become wiser, more competent, and even enlightened from the effort. I have heard this sentiment best captured in the following passage by Will Durant:
Perhaps in that unimpeded air he will see all philosophies as but one groping, all faiths as but a single hope; it will not be in his heart to fight any of them any longer, or to refuse the fellowship of his mind to any honest creed; a great sympathy for all the dreams of men, a loving understanding of all their harassed ways, will widen and deepen him, and he will know the peace and simplicity, the tolerance and catholicity, of the sage.
Will Durant, Fallen Leaves
Before I die, I hope to glimpse this comprehensive perspective, from which every event and discovery is placed in historical continuity, illuminated through scientific understanding, elevated by philosophical analysis, and softened with literary sympathy.
Thanks to my good friend Ibrahim Abouzied for comments.