How to Think by Alan Jacobs

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at OddsHow to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

by Alan Jacobs
Uncorrected Proof, 156 pg.
Convergent Books, 2017

Read: October 3, 2017

I haven’t read any of them, but over the last few years I’ve seen a pretty good number of books about human thinking processes — how it works, how it can/can’t be changed, and how this can/may/should change the way we approach decision-making, etc. (it’s not that I’m uninterested, there’s only so much time). Unlike me, Alan Jacobs has read many of these — and one thing he notes, that while these books are great on the science of human cognition, there’s also an art to it. Enter this book.

The sub-title is “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.” Now, while it’s clear that our society is quite divided, I honestly don’t think that the world is really all that much more divided than we’ve been before — even in this society. However, I think it’s safe to say that we’re much more open and aggressive about the divisions that exists, and far less inclined to listen to the other side(s). Jacobs’ writing can help his readers bridge some of the divisions with those they interact with (not every one will want to, I’m sure, but they could try if they want to). I almost think that this book could be called How to Disagree instead, because so much of the book (but not all of it) is about how to disagree with others like civil, empathetic, adults, looking to change minds (or have our own be changed); not simply to attack someone or win an argument.

Jacobs begins by showing what strategies, devices, etc. we all already use in our thinking (taken largely from common sense/experience or all the science-y books mentioned above), and then as we’re aware of these, he shows how we can improve them. Building on ideas from one chapter to the next and showing how something we learned already can inform what he’s discussing now, these are not individual essays, but a cumulative case. I find it difficult to give examples for just that reason — his is a carefully laid out argument, and summarizing some of my favorite components would do little justice to those parts and not work that well out of context. So, I’ll keep it vague. He addresses how the idea of “thinking for oneself” is impossible, how it’s problematic to have an “open mind” always, the importance of waiting, of not having to address everything, and how it’s vital to keep a diverse selection of thoughtful people in your life.

Jacobs doesn’t only draw from social sciences and philosophers (but he does, and frequently — in an accessible way), he cites and draws from Robin Sloan, Walter White, C. S. Lewis, George Orwell and many others. He does so in a way that illustrates his points, strengthens and furthers his arguments. (I point this out, because I just finished a book that seemed only to do this kind of thing to lengthen chapters — no light was added, just space taken up). While readers from High School on up can feel as if the ideas are stretching their minds, the writing will not — Jacobs (as always) is good at convincing the reader they can handle bigger ideas.

Frankly, I wish this book (or one much like it) was required reading for anyone wanting a social media account — I’ve been telling all sorts of people to read it for a few days now, and I probably won’t stop anytime soon. How to Think is helpful, insightful, entertaining, wise, and — dare I say? — thought-provoking. Go get it.

Disclaimer: I received this copy from a Goodreads Giveaway.

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4 Stars

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