Pub Day Repost: 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.

—–

4 Stars

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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.

—–

4 Stars

I Am Not Posting About How to Think by Alan Jacobs Today

If I was posting about it, below the pilcrow, you’d see a few paragraphs about the book:

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


But now, I just can’t. I’m really surprised I read this all in one day, but there’s something very engaging about this book that you can’t put it down. It’s much more fun than you’d think from the title. But one of the things Jacobs stresses is taking time to think — and this is one of those books I have to ponder about before putting down any thoughts.

(which works out nicely, because I’m beat, and this helps to justify taking a night off — but really, I need to think about it).

(and yes, I also realize that this isn’t exactly the point he’s making — but you’ll have to read the thing to see how much I’m twisting his point)

I’ll try tomorrow, but for the time being: go order this before it comes out and give it a read. Whatever I end up posting will be very positive.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

by Alan Jacobs

Hardcover, 150 pg.
Oxford University Press, USA, 2011

Read: December 21 – 25, 2015

A while back my teenage son drifted into the room where I was reading, tilting his head to catch the title of the book in my hands. It was that venerable classic How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. “Oh man, he said, “I had to read that in school last year. Maybe I learned something about how to read a book, but after that I never wanted to read a book again.”

Oh, I hear ya, brother! I endured Adler/van Doren for a graduate-level course and thought it was one of the most pointless books I’d ever read. Now, Jacobs finds more profit in the tome than I do, but he’s clearly not a fan.

The book starts with a call to read what you want, reading based on whim, rather than thinking of it as a self-improvement program (which it is, in a way, but it doesn’t have to be followed like one). In fact, Alden, Harold Bloom, etc. turn

reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens. . . That sort of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

Instead, Jacobs calls for people to:

Read what gives you delight–at least most of the time–and so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day.

Jacobs is a Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University, and author of many books and articles on books, reading, and authors. He’s one of those guys I’ve seen the name of everywhere, and associated with insight, but if push came to shove, I couldn’t tell you why. But now he’s the professor I wish I had (nothing against most of the early ’90s English department at the University of Idaho, most).

Reading on a whim doesn’t mean you can’t stretch yourself, read above your comfort level, or to better yourself — but you do it because it interests you, because you want to (and when you want to), rather than subjecting yourself to someone’s checklist.

After that, Jacobs moves into trying to understand how reading works, how it captures so many imaginations — and sure, he cites some studies that explain how we take black marks on paper and make them ideas in our head, at some point even the professionals have to stop and say, “it just works.” (but Jacob puts it better).

We also get discussion about the “iron-clad Law of Diminishing Returns” regarding rereading too soon (and yet, why we should reread). An interesting defense of/encouragement of fanfic. I was surprised, quite surprised, at his advocacy for e-Readers — I fully expected him to be solidly Dead Tree Edition Only, whoops — I don’t use my Kindle the way he does, but I can see where it’d work for him (or Nook, either). Why a lot of the doomsayers about the state of reading/publishing are wrong.

But mostly this is advice and guidance for the reader trying to recapture the same joy that he had before (or never had), encouragement for the active reader to keep at it, the person who still can’t get poetry, etc., etc.

I can’t resist another quotation. Towards the end of the book, he talks about the joy of finding a book by Serendipity:

serendipity is the near relation of Whim; each stands against the Plan.

Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendipity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan.

Charmingly written, full of allusions (that most of us can get even without reading the works), witticisms and research — a book to entertain and edify. This one really speaks to me as a reader — it’s practically a mission statement for this blog. I expect I’ll come back to this one soon (maybe even annually). Still, for this time, I’m rating it 4-Stars, though I expect it’s a 5-Star book. I think it’s because I read it in 2-5 page spurts (one of those weeks, y’know?) after I got to page 70. Which doesn’t do the thing any favors. Towards the end of the book, Jacobs says:

All books want our attention, but not all of them want the same kind of attention.

I didn’t give this the right kind, and I’ll regret that for awhile.

If you like this blog, you’ll dig this book.

—–

Big Thanks to Aman Mittal for pointing me to this book — I haven’t read his take on it in a couple of months, so I don’t know how much we agree, but I know his post made me look for the book.

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4 Stars