Do Books “Work”?

You will probably relate.

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.

Andy Matuschak is a designer, engineer and researcher. I’m a fan of his writing and his cred is impressive. He helped design iOS and ran R&D at Khan Academy. He describes his work as:

building technologies that expand what people can think and do. I explore ideas by expressing them in real-world systems, juggling approaches from industry and academia to seek insights they can’t see alone. Thinking through making.

In his essay Why Books Don’t Work he makes claims that provide a basis for his career. It may force you to revalue your impression of familiar activities. (Link with my highlights)


  • Books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.


  • Lectures don’t work because the medium lacks a functioning cognitive model. It’s (implicitly) built on a faulty idea about how people learn—transmissionism—which we can caricaturize as “lecturer says words describing an idea; students hear words; then they understand.” When lectures do work, it’s generally as part of a broader learning context (e.g. projects, problem sets) with a better cognitive model. But the lectures aren’t pulling their weight. If we really wanted to adopt the better model, we’d ditch the lectures, and indeed, that’s what’s been happening in US K–12 education.

Education is changing.

To understand something, you must actively engage with itThat notion, taken seriously, would utterly transform classrooms. We’d prioritize activities like interactive discussions and projects; we’d deploy direct instruction only when it’s the best way to enable those activities. I’m not idly speculating: for the last few decades, this has been one of the central evolutionary forces in US K–12 policy and practice.

This is a topic I’m thinking about a lot these days. Whether we are re-training adults or experimenting with childhood learning, this is a thread worth watching.

If interested, know that Matuschak’s claims about books are contested. (Link)

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