Taking books for granted

Andy Matuschak writes that “books are easy to take for granted:”

Not any specific book, I mean: the form of a book. Paper or pixels—it hardly matters. Words in lines on pages in chapters. And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken. …

Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later. Great: that’s a better model! Let’s look at how it plays out.

I acknowledged earlier that of course, some people do absorb knowledge from books. Indeed, those are the people who really do think about what they’re reading. The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing.

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarize what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them.Baker, L. (1989). Metacognition, comprehension monitoring, and the adult reader. Educational Psychology Review, 1(1), 3–38. Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliarSee e.g. Langer, J. A., & Nicolich, M. (1981). Prior knowledge and its relationship to comprehension. Journal of Reading Behavior, 13(4). and Baker, L., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Metacognitive skills and reading. Handbook of reading research, 1(353), V394..

Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?

Of course, great authors earnestly want readers to think carefully about their words. These authors form sophisticated pictures of their readers’ evolving conceptions. They anticipate confusions readers might have, then shape their prose to acknowledge and mitigate those issues. They make constant choices about depth and detail using these models. They suggest what background knowledge might be needed for certain passages and where to go to get it.

By shouldering some of readers’ self-monitoring and regulation, these authors’ efforts can indeed lighten the metacognitive burden. But metacognition is an inherently dynamic process, evolving continuously as readers’ own conceptions evolve. Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. The reader must plan and steer their own feedback loops.

If lecturers believe that lectures are a warm-up for the understanding developed through problem sets and essays, then at least the lecturers design those activities and offer feedback on students’ work. By comparison, if authors believe that understanding comes only when readers really think about their words, then they’re largely leaving readers to design their own “problem sets” and to generate their own feedback. All this effortful “thinking about thinking” competes with actually thinking about the book’s ideas.I’ve oversimplified here a bit. In fact, this kind of meta-processing of material—designing one’s own questions and generating one’s own feedback—are sometimes effective cognitive strategies. But as far as learning science understands it, they’re only effective for people who are already proficient with both the object-level concepts and also the relevant metacognitive skills. For others, these activities appear to detract from understanding the material; see e.g. Kalyuga, S. (2009). Knowledge elaboration: A cognitive load perspective. Learning and Instruction, 19(5), 402–410.

If the model is that people understand written ideas by thinking carefully about them, what would books look like if they were built around helping people do that? …

Rather than “how might we make books actually work reliably,” we can ask: How might we design mediums which do the job of a non-fiction book—but which actually work reliably?

I’m afraid that’s a research question—probably for several lifetimes of research—not something I can directly answer in these brief notes. But I believe it’s possible…

There’s something valuable in exploring metacognition as an undervalued aspect of the art of learning.