Cassette Tape Thoughts

“The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements-all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics-to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.”

Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren. “How To Read A Book- A Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.” (affiliate link).

This really stuck with me. More properly, it stuck with me the second time I read it. This turns out to be really important, and meta.

The difference between the first time I read it and the second was that I had four more months of reading books while specifically thinking about how to get the most out of them. My attitude towards How to Read a Book when I first read it was kind of like a cassette tape.* It would teach me Good Reading and then I could do it and Read Better. I didn’t have an idea of what problems I wanted it to solve- neither what axes I wanted to improve on, nor what my blocks were. If I’d succeeded at reading the book at this time, it would have given me the ability to parrot its ideas, but not actually apply them.

[*I fear a cassette tape really is a better metaphor than modern music playing equipment, which is pretty defined by its flexibility and adaptation to the user. Younger readers: imagine something heavily DRMed so you have to sit through all the commercials and can’t skip around within it]

Four months later, I know what my biggest problem is: how to identify what information to record and what to let go of. I am really excited for any insights HTRAB has into that.  And because I know that, whatever I learn from HTRAB won’t be something I parrot back on a test, it will be incorporated into my own models, and I’ll be able to explain every part of them, adjust plans and outputs to accommodate changes in inputs, etc.

I previously talked about how both detail-focused and detail-entwined books were harder to extract value from. Over on LessWrong, John Wentworth suggested this was a gears based problem: books that were just lists of details were like describing gears without detailing how they worked together. Books that entwined their details too much were mashing multiple gears together without disambiguating them. The latter corresponds to what  Adler and Van Doren describe as cassette tapes.

What epistemic spot checks were previously doing could be described as “determining if the cassette tape is good”, and what I am aiming for now (more after conceiving of it this way) is understanding and investigating a book’s gears. This involves both seeing how the gears fit together, and verifying that the gears are “real”, meaning they reflect actual reality.

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