Why books work: A rebuttal to Andy Matuschak

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Andy Matuschak wrote a thoughtful piece called “Why books don’t work.” I think he’s a bit off-target. But his arguments will get you thinking about how your book can work better.

If you’re an author with any capability for introspection, Matuschak’s essay ought to make you think. Here’s some of what he wrote:

And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken.

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish GeneThinking, Fast and SlowGuns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment. . . .

All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it. . . . 

Like lectures, books have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation, but the medium does have an implicit model. And like lectures, that model is transmissionism. Sequences of words in sequences of lines in sequences of pages, the form of a book suggests people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. In caricature: “The author describes an idea in words on the page; the reader reads the words; then the reader understands the idea. When the reader reaches the last page, they’ve finished the book.” Of course, most authors don’t believe that people learn things this way, but because the medium makes the assumption invisible, it’s hard to question. . . .

I take this critique seriously. Matuschak posits that what is essentially a written lecture — a bunch of sentences strung together — makes it difficult for the a readers to acquire and then internalize what they are supposed to be learning. And when a book is no more than a bunch of declarative sentences, he may be right.

Why books are better than Matuschak thinks

Let’s go back to Matuschak’s test of whether a book hits home: when asked, can you recall and spit back the thesis and elements of a book?

Even if you can’t, that doesn’t mean those ideas aren’t in there. The inability to articulate them aloud is not the same as not having retained much.

Think about what non-fiction books are made out of.

They include overarching principles. Matuschak and I agree, if those are any good, people retain them.

There are the arguments that support those principles. Sometimes people retain those arguments, sometimes they don’t. But you don’t have to see the framing to understand how the building stays up. I’d argue that retaining the arguments is less important.

There are subsidiary ideas. A good book has lots of those. And a reader is going to recall those subsidiary ideas only to the extent that they are relevant for her. If there are 15 subsidiary ideas and three are relevant for you, those three may be sufficient. If a book is really useful, you may retain more.

There are also, in any given book, hundreds of bits of knowledge. There are facts, statistics, diagrams, and, crucially, stories. There are long case-study stories and short “for example” stories. When the author chooses these bits and delivers them well, the reader retains them.

For example, readers of Writing Without Bullshit may quote back to me that 81% of business readers say that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. Or they may remind me of the story about the 1,100-word email that Microsoft’s Stephen Elop wrote, the one that buried the lede — 12,500 job cuts — 80% of the way through.

The last thing to remember is that even if you can’t spit something back, it may still be in there. People who read my book may be able to tell you to put the most important information up front, but they may not recall the specific technique — cut opening paragraphs until you find one that you can’t cut — until they actually need it. It’s amazing what’s hiding in your head, waiting for the moment that it becomes relevant.

Making your book better

I agree with Matuschak that when a book is a lecture, delivered from on high by the almighty expert to the poor ignorant plebes that are reading it, it probably won’t be retained well.

So don’t write this way.

Here are some simple tricks to make your book useful and make its ideas stick.

  • Write directly to the reader, using the words I and you. When people see prose directed at them, they sit up and take notice. You should talk to your boss about this, for example, or I’ll repeat this since it’s going to change the way you work forever. Writers trained on academic prose never think of this technique, because academics rarely write this way — they’re in almighty expert mode. But if you want people to retain what’s in your book, you have to adopt this tone.
  • Tell stories. People retain stories. The more relevant stories you have, the more they will retain.
  • Ask rhetorical questions. This makes the reader think and wonder if they’re getting it. It wakes them up from the litany of declarative sentences.
  • Include graphics. Put the same information in text, in headings, and in graphics. Most people retain pictures better than words. Everyone retains information presented in several different forms better than information presented in only one form.
  • Vary presentation. Use quotes, links, heading, subheadings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, tables, and anything else that breaks up the march of sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. This keeps the reader engaged and makes it easier to scan the book and understand its structure.
  • Introduce and sum up. As the saying goes, “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” To reinforce ideas, prepare people for what they are about to read before they get there. When it comes to summing up, a great tip is to include a bulleted list of takeaways — things you can actually do differently based on what you read. That makes readers more likely retain it.

This is not a complete list, but you get the idea. Work a little harder on using all the capabilities of writing, not just a dictated lecture, and you’ll improve retention. Here’s how I’d restate Matuschak’s thesis: The problem is not that books don’t work, it’s that lazy, boring books don’t work.

If you follow my advice, you’ll get a bonus, too. When people retain the ideas in a book, they talk about it. When they talk about it, other people hear about it and read it — and the book becomes more influential and successful. That’s what you’re aiming for, isn’t it?

4 responses to “Why books work: A rebuttal to Andy Matuschak

  1. A better title for his post might be “Why Some Books Don’t Work.”

    He is a software engineer. Some of they aren’t very good but are all of them?

    It’s folly to reduce the benefit or value of a book to whether or not you can recall specific facts. As you point out, ideas matter. I read quite a few business books and, when it’s time for me to write one, I can connect the dots from different ones. No, my memory isn’t photographic, but it doesn’t need to be for me to benefit from long-form texts. I’ll walk away from a good book with ideas that help me understand the world.

  2. Hi Josh. Sometimes I think you are reading my mind. I love this post because (even though I could accuse you of burying the lede) this is the BIG TRUTH – “…even if you can’t spit something back, it may still be in there.” That’s what I have been thinking about. I can’t measure the exact nutritional effect on my body after eating a salad. But it’s in there and it’s nourishing me. For me, books are like that. I am not the same after reading a non-fiction book. I have changed in some way, even if by default. Sometimes I have learned not to think or write that way, which is still valuable.Your list of simple tricks is great. As I’m writing I’m telling myself to be careful, and to avoid sounding like an “almighty expert.” I don’t like reading it, so I surely don’t want to write it.

  3. The value I see in business books is that it makes me aware of new knowledge or techniques, rather than imprinting it in my memory. I may not act on it immediately, but I know where to go when the situation calls for that information. That provides value for the authors I work with.
    For example, I just read “Talk Triggers” by Jay Baer & Daniel Lemin. After reading it, I don’t need to retain everything in the book, but I know the basics of what talk triggers are. When a client can benefit from creating and implementing one, I don’t have to remember exactly how to go about it because I can refer to the book. The steps to get that done are all there in print, ready for me to follow.

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