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Reading and conversation

January 17, 2021

René Descartes famously said that reading books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.

But, I don't agree with that statement. Reading is not like a conversation; writing is more like it. Reading is more like seeing the thought process. It doesn't allow us to ask questions, unlike writing, which invites us to ask questions and seek answers.

The problem with infomania

We are bombarded with information every day. We consume around 100,000 words of information per day by some metrics [1], but compared to ancient Greeks, we are not much wiser. More information is not making us smarter. It is making us dumber.

Our dopamine seeking brain rewards us for constantly jumping from article to article or from book to book. It rewards shallow and short-term thinking while punishing deep and long-term thinking. We are wired to seek new information instead of thinking deeply about things we are already aware of.

Charlie Munger believes that we should take a simple idea and take it seriously. Instead of that, most of us are always on the quest for new information. The next piece of the puzzle that is going to make us smarter. Instead of connecting the pieces of the puzzle we already have, we are constantly searching for the next piece. Which prevents us from ever finishing the puzzle in the first place.

Writing might be like painting

Ancient Greek philosophers were opposed to writing. They didn't believe it was the right medium for transferring knowledge.

Socrates compared writing to painting:

You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.

The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive. But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words.

They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever.

Plato was against the invention of writing in the 4th century BCE. He didn't have access to the internet, television, radio, or social media. Yet, he is one of the founders of western philosophy.

Unlike Plato and Socrates, we are struggling with abundance in most of modern life. Throughout history, our ancestors didn't have access to everything we do today. And the change to abundance was too fast for our brains to adapt.

One of the things that was scarce in the past is access to information. The game has changed. We no longer have to fight to get to the information. We have to put effort to figure out what's valuable. We are swamped with the garbage that is easy to produce. Figuring out the signal through the noise is the struggle of modern times.

The beauty of the conversation

Since I've started this article by mentioning conversation, I want to end it with a couple of thoughts on conversation.

John O'Donohue asks us about the time we last had a great conversation in which we overheard ourselves the things we never knew we knew.

While reading can give us great insights, it can't compare with a great conversation. It reveals not only what others think but what we think in the first place. In a great conversation, we not only learn from others, but we learn from ourselves as well.

Conversation allows asking questions, which allows going deeper in a way that is never going to be possible by reading a book.

  1. I've read it in a PDF written by a person with an email address ending with .edu, so it must be true. 
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