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Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books

27 patrissimo 27 March 2011 07:54PM

A large element of instrumental rationality consists of filtering, prioritizing, and focusing.  It's true for tasks, for emails, for blogs, and for the multitude of other inputs that many of us are drowning in these days[1].  Doing everything, reading everything, commenting on everything is simply not an option - it would take infinite time.  We could simply limit time and do what happens to catch our attention in that limited time, but that's clearly not optimal.  Spending some time prioritizing rather than executing will always improve results if items can be prioritized and vary widely in benefit.  So maximizing the results we get from our finite time requires, for a variety of domains:

  1. Filtering: a quick first-pass to get input down to a manageable size for the higher-cost effort of prioritizing.
  2. Prioritizing: briefly evaluating the impact each item will have towards your goals.
  3. Focusing: on the highest-priority items.

I have some thoughts, and am looking for more advice on how to do this for non-fiction reading.  I've stopped buying books that catch my attention, because I have an inpile of about 3-4 shelves of unread books that have been unread for years.  Instead, I put them on my Amazon Wishlists, which as a result have swelled to a total of 254 books - obviously un-manageable, and growing much faster than I read.

One obvious question to ask when optimizing is: what is the goal of reading?  Let me suggest a few possibilities:

  • Improve performance at a current job/role.  For example, as Executive Director of a nonprofit, I could read books on fundraising or management.
  • Relatedly, work towards a current goal.  Here is where it helps to have identified your goals, perhaps in an Annual Review.  As a parent, for example, there are an infinitude of parenting books that I could read, but I chose for this year to work specifically on positive psychology parenting, as it seemed like a potentially high-impact skill to learn.  This massively filters the set of possible parenting books.  Essentially, goal-setting ("learn positive psychology parenting habits") was a conscious prioritization step based on considering what new parenting skills would best advance my goals (in this case, to benefit my kids while making parenting more pleasant along the way).
  • Improve core skills or attributes relevant to many areas of life - productivity, happiness, social skills, diet, etc.
  • Expand your worldview (improve your map).  Myopically focusing only on immediate needs would eliminate some of the greatest benefit I feel I've gotten from non-fiction in my life, which is a richer and more accurate understanding of the world.
  • Be able to converse intelligently on currently popular books.  (Much as one might watch the news in order to facilitate social bonding by being able to discuss current events).  Note that I don't actually recommend this as a goal - I think you can find other things to bond over, plus you will sometimes read currently popular books because they serve other goals - but it may be important for some people.
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The Best Textbooks on Every Subject

167 lukeprog 16 January 2011 08:30AM

For years, my self-education was stupid and wasteful. I learned by consuming blog posts, Wikipedia articles, classic texts, podcast episodes, popular books, video lectures, peer-reviewed papers, Teaching Company courses, and Cliff's Notes. How inefficient!

I've since discovered that textbooks are usually the quickest and best way to learn new material. That's what they are designed to be, after all. Less Wrong has often recommended the "read textbooks!" method. Make progress by accumulation, not random walks.

But textbooks vary widely in quality. I was forced to read some awful textbooks in college. The ones on American history and sociology were memorably bad, in my case. Other textbooks are exciting, accurate, fair, well-paced, and immediately useful.

What if we could compile a list of the best textbooks on every subject? That would be extremely useful.

Let's do it.

There have been other pages of recommended reading on Less Wrong before (and elsewhere), but this post is unique. Here are the rules:

  1. Post the title of your favorite textbook on a given subject.
  2. You must have read at least two other textbooks on that same subject.
  3. You must briefly name the other books you've read on the subject and explain why you think your chosen textbook is superior to them.

Rules #2 and #3 are to protect against recommending a bad book that only seems impressive because it's the only book you've read on the subject. Once, a popular author on Less Wrong recommended Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy to me, but when I noted that it was more polemical and inaccurate than the other major histories of philosophy, he admitted he hadn't really done much other reading in the field, and only liked the book because it was exciting.

I'll start the list with three of my own recommendations...

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A Rationalist's Bookshelf: The Mind's I (Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, 1981)

15 colinmarshall 26 August 2009 07:08PM

When the call to compile a reading list for new rationalists went out, contributor djcb responded by suggesting The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, a compilation of essays, fictions and excerpts "composed and arranged" by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. Cut to me peering guiltily over my shoulder, my own copy sitting unread on the shelf, peering back.

The book presents Hofstadter and Dennett's co-curation of 27 pieces, some penned by the curators themselves, meant to "reveal" and "make vivid" a set of "perplexities," to wit: "What is the mind?" "Who am I?" "Can mere matter think or feel?" "Where is the soul?" Two immediate concerns arise. First, The Mind's I's 1981 publication date gives it access to the vast majority of what's been thought and said about these questions, but robs it of of any intellectual progress toward the answers made in the nearly three decades since. (This turns out not to be an issue, as most of the answers seem to have drawn no closer in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s.) Second, those sound suspiciously similar to questions hazily articulated by college freshmen, less amenable to "rational inquiry" than to "dorm furniture and bad weed." They don't quite pass the "man test," an reversal of the fortune cookie "in bed" game: simply tack "man" onto the beginning of each question and see who laughs. "Man, who am I?" "Man, where is the soul?" "Man, can matter think or feel?"

Hofstadter and Dennett's fans know, however, that their analyses rise a cut above, engaged as they are in the admirable struggle to excise the navel-gazing from traditionally navel-gazey topics. The beauty is that they've always accomplished this, together and separately, not by making these issues less exciting but by making them more so. Their clear, stimulating exegeses, explorations and speculations brim with both the enthusiasm of the thrilled neophyte and the levelheadedness of the seasoned surveyor. They even do it humorously, Hofstadter with his zig-zaggy punniness and Dennett with his wit that somehow stays just north of goofy. Thus armed, they've taken on such potentially dangerous topics as whether words and thoughts follow rules, how the animate emerges from the inanimate (Hofstader's rightly celebrated Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid) and consciousness (most of Dennett's career), on the whole safely.

But obviously this is not a "pure" (whatever that might mean) Hofstadter-Dennett joint; rather, their editorial choices compose one half and their personal commentaries — "reflections," they banner them — on the fruits of those choices compose the other. Nearly every selection, whether a short story, article, novel segment or dialogue, leads into an original discussion and evaluation by, as they sign them, D.R.H. and/or D.C.D. They affirm, they contradict, they expand, they question, they veer off in their own directions; the reflections would make a neat little book on the topics at hand by themselves.

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