Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Smart Books Make You Feel Stupid

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 17, 2013

Reading “smart” books—challenging books that actually teach you something—doesn’t make you feel smart. It makes you feel stupid.

Books that make you feel smart are not smart books. To take a popular example, Malcolm Gladwell is often criticized for writing books about elaborate theses and then essentially failing to support them. He offers dozens of anecdotes to support his ideas, but nothing that would pass for rigorous evidence. This definitely seemed to be the case when I read his book The Tipping Point, although I can’t speak for his other books.

Here’s a common experience when reading books that make you feel smart, such as The Tipping Point: “Wow, these ideas are so clever! I feel so smart for reading them!”

Now let’s take an example of a book that’s actually smart. I’m currently reading Henry Sidgwick‘s The Methods of Ethics. This is how I feel when I read it: “Wow, I’m so confused right now. I’d better read that paragraph for a third time. I must be an idiot.”

This is a common experience any time you read something that takes serious effort. And only rarely is a smart book—a book that teaches important, difficult concepts—easy to understand. Difficult concepts require you to work to comprehend them. As a rule of thumb, if it’s easy to understand, it’s not as valuable as it could be.

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2 Responses to “Smart Books Make You Feel Stupid”

  1. phynnboi said

    If I have difficulty understanding a piece of writing, I’m a lot more apt to blame the writer than myself. Is it not, after all, the mark of a good writer to take difficult concepts and express them in a way that’s easy to understand?

    • Well, that’s certainly true. All things being equal, it’s better for a difficult concept to be explained clearly. But some concepts are inherently difficult; even a particularly lucid explanation will still require the reader to struggle to an extent.

      For example, I’ve recently been learning about monads. I’ve read parts of about half a dozen explanations; some of them were very well-written, but monads are simply difficult to understand no matter how they’re explained.

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