Scott H Young

Why You Should Read Textbooks


Okay, file this piece of advice in the pile that nobody is going to follow (even though they probably should): you should read more textbooks.

Let’s assume for a second that you’re one of the few people who does read to learn more about the world. Let’s also assume that you’re interested in topics that are heavily researched: finance, health, nutrition, science or psychology. This probably eliminates most people, but I’m guessing as a reader of this blog you’re more inclined to such intellectual pursuits.

Ask yourself where you get information about these topics. Blogs? News? Popular non-fiction books?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these sources. Some blogs and popular non-fiction books are crap—but many are not. Sometimes sacrificing empirical rigor can also be useful if the content is more pragmatic or impactful.

But if you do care about a subject, it probably makes sense to read at least one general textbook on it. That textbook may not fill you with the detailed knowledge of a PhD, but it can give the foundation for evaluating many other ideas.

Why Not Textbooks?

The value of reading a textbook (or, better, doing an online course) is that it gives you a baseline for examining other aspects of that field. Taking one physics course would be enough to know why perpetual motion machines are scams.

Similarly, if you’re going to read books on the financial crisis, political blogs or start investing money—maybe it makes sense to have read one book on basic economics. I find it baffling that people have complex economic and political philosophies but haven’t learned concepts like supply and demand.

Ditto for psychology. One psychology textbook will hardly make you an expert. But it will at least make you aware that truths can’t be concluded from a single study, or that generalizing from a very narrowly designed experiment is dangerous.

The point of reading at least one textbook is to give an awareness of (a) the fundamental concepts most people agree with in a field and (b) where experts disagree.

Opinions and Experts

This blog is my opinion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you realize that’s what it is. I’m not infallible, so there are probably quite a few opinions I’ve shared that are false.

I read other blogs that are mostly opinions. I like those blogs because they challenge me to think about topics, or introduce me to ideas I wouldn’t previously considered. As such, I try to strive to do the same in my own writing, open up new questions rather than just provide answers.

This is also true for the things where I’m an “expert”. I write about learning methods based on my experience and from working with students. I also try to use the science as best I can to guide the methods that I then test extensively.

Even then, I’m probably wrong about at least a few things. This is why I strive hard to push my own knowledge on the topic so that I am constantly adjusting or reevaluating past ideas.

The Danger of Only Using Secondhand Expertise

As a blogger, however, I’m also guided by other constraints. I need to write things people want to read. I would never write anything I knew to be intentionally false or misleading, but sometimes that means I write less about a topic that is boring, even if it is equally important.

For example, I consider doing practice questions with solutions to be one of the most important methods for learning technical subjects. I’ve stated this before, but there really isn’t much more to that. Just do a lot of practice questions.

My methods like the Feynman technique, metaphors, visualization are things I spend significantly more time covering because they are unusual to students. Despite that, they probably only took up about 20% of the time during the MIT Challenge, in comparison to about 40-50% doing practice problems.

All writers face these constraints. Science journalism tends to hype results more than the research would warrant. Pop-psych books tend to make the field appear more unanimous in opinion than it really is. Bloggers categorize the unusual or interesting details first.

Reading a textbook, which is less influenced by these constraints, can give you some awareness of these biases and correct for it in your thinking. I won’t stop reading blogs or popular books—textbooks are dry and often impractical—but having knowledge of one or two helps me balance some of the biases inherent in popular writing.

Degrees of Belief

I’ve written before that the only appropriate way to look at knowledge is through degrees of belief. This means that almost nothing (aside from logical truths) is known perfectly. Instead everything is known to different degrees of certainty.

Scientific principles like relativity are so well-established we can safely say they are correct to some minuscule measurement with enormous accuracy. That’s enough to warrant rounding down that doubt to zero for most situations.

Higher-order theories in social sciences or popular opinion have more doubt built in. That doesn’t mean they need to be rejected, simply that you give yourself more room to reject them later if better theories are generated.

For now, I’m confident in the learning techniques I use, but I’m always looking for better models that might have more evidence and therefore better reliability. The hard part is realizing that this is an ongoing process. You can never just put your hands up and say, “Done!”

Different sources of information have different degrees of evidence as well. A blog article providing an opinion has significantly less evidence than dozens of controlled, well-repeated studies on a particular fact. When the two directly conflict, I side with the research.

However, often the research isn’t in yet. In these cases, I enjoy others’ opinions since it lets me entertain speculative theories while also allowing me room to continue investigating. I’ve enjoyed all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but it would be ridiculous to assume that he isn’t making any assumptions or leaps to stitch together a cogent narrative. I’m willing to accept this uncertainty, but I wouldn’t mistake it for fact.

Thinking in degrees of belief is not an easy task. I also understand the attitude that we need to draw a line somewhere, above which all facts are compelled to be believed, below which anything can be safely ignored. But, ultimately I think this is a weak position as well. It is often abused to allow you to accept some opinions but not others with exactly the same volume of evidence.

Well-Rounded Knowledge

My advice is to read one textbook on a subject for every 4-5 popular books or 50-100 articles you read about it.

Reading only textbooks is probably impractical. I want knowledge not just for knowledge’s sake, but to do something useful with it. Reading a book about exercise that distills research into practical tips is probably more useful than a textbook in physiology. Same for personal finances, learning, productivity or nutrition.

Reading only popular nonfiction is probably misleading. If you’re going to read a dozen books in personal investing, it probably makes sense to at least understand the rationale behind the efficient market hypothesis. Some authors will do this for you, but a lot of it won’t because of the constraints mentioned earlier.

Picking Textbooks

I’ve used the word “textbook” here loosely, but broadly I’d say it means two things:

  1. The book tries to describe established viewpoints, rather than argue for a particular one (except where there is consensus). Academic textbooks are good for this because universities usually try to pick books without any severe bias.
  2. The book focuses on fundamental concepts necessary to understand the field, not just minor details or conclusions. A good textbook should teach you how to think about a field, not just what to think.

Since textbooks are rarely the trending topics on social media, finding good ones comes down to searching for them. Look for ones that have good Amazon reviews from researchers in the field, or ones that are used in classes at major universities. Older editions are often better, because you can get them used for cheap.

Have you read any textbooks that you felt were engaging and informative about a topic you’ve studied? Please share them in the comments!

Edit: March 6, 2013 – Reader, Luke, has posted a link to a fantastic resource for finding great textbooks. Check out LessWrong’s best textbooks on every subject.


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30 Responses to “Why You Should Read Textbooks”

  1. [...] of the few people who does read to learn more about the world. Let’s also assume that you’re …read more Via: Scott H [...]

  2. Luke says:

    Also see “The Best Textbooks on Every Subject”:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/3gu/the_best_textbooks_on_every_subject/

  3. Brian says:

    Great post Scott. Textbooks definitely provide the backbone of any field of study.

    Here are my recommendations in many aspects of engineering:

    Basic E&M: Griffiths; focuses on concepts and math; solutions are widely available
    Advanced E&M: Jackson; focuses on the advanced theory; requires solid knowledge of tensor mathematics, vector calculus, series solution techniques…
    Nuclear Physics: Kenneth Krane’s book
    Nuclear Reactor Theory: Duderstadt & Hamilton
    Nuclear Instruments: Knoll
    Intro. Plasma Physics; limited explanation of math, broad conceptual overview of the physics

  4. Skya says:

    I concur and had been wanting to read them. However, I must admit that I never do it. Either I don’t have time, or the time I have are usually outside, on the trains and such. Have you seen the size of those books? It is not portable. I kept wanting to tear them up and divide them, but don’t bear to and haven’t found a good way to tear it too. This is one of those idea that some people wants to practice, but don’t usually.

  5. Rob says:

    Hi Scott,

    I also enjoy experimenting with new learning techniques, and I had a thought yesterday that I would like to share with you. I was thinking about how original thinking leads to the deepest understanding of a concept. For example, Newton (and Leibniz) understood calculus better than everyone else in their time because it formed from their original thinking.

    Then I thought, how can a learner today get the same level of insight when acquiring knowledge of a subject today comes almost exclusively from reading and interpreting someone else’s original thinking or observations?

    An idea I came up with was instead of first gathering information on whatever concept one is starting to learn, writing down everything you know or think you know about it. The next step would be to form as many questions as possible about what you don’t understand or what you want to understand. All of this must be done with no outside reference of any kind. One would pretend that nothing else on the subject exists. You would then take your list and start with what you deem the simplest question to answer and think about how to answer it. This may involve experimentation or observation or both. The goal would be to try and answer all of the questions (and any that might be added during the observing and experimenting) without referencing any other materials or person. Once you have that, you would try and write a summary of the concept based on your discoveries. Finally, after the summary is written and you are content with the understanding you’ve achieved on your own terms, outside references would be introduced to analyze and compare with your original findings.

    I haven’t done any of this yet, but my gut feeling is that even if the original findings are off base from the already developed sources, that just the process of thinking in original terms will produce deep understanding. The negative aspect of course would be time and effort required. Sorry for this scattered thought, I was just wondering what you think about that and if you had ever considered that type of learning before.

  6. Scott Young says:

    Luke,

    Thanks for that. That’s an excellent resource, I’ll append it to the post!

    Rob,

    I think I understand your point, but I’m not sure I agree. Original thought does lead to new insights and deep knowledge, but I would say that’s because of how intense and consuming original thought is. I’m far from Newton’s genius, but I can easily comprehend the laws he painstakingly discovered (indeed, most high-school students can) because they are guided by his research to pick on the correct insights earlier with fewer dead-ends or faulty reasoning.

    I also feel that if you do want to have original thoughts, they must be based on an enormous foundation of prior ones. Otherwise the chance that you’re exploring a dead-end or an area of research that has already been exhausted is too high.

    Although there are some rare inventions made by laypeople, the majority are found by experts in their field. People who have consumed the secondhand insights of all the past researchers that came before them.

    Skya,

    I have seen more and more e-reader versions of textbooks, so I have hope that a more portable reader may be possible.

    -Scott

  7. Leon says:

    To find good text books can be difficult.
    Many text books I like for biology are fairly advanced.
    So, when someone wants to learn more about
    evolution I would probably recommend to read
    first a book of Darwin to get a good introduction
    in order to form some connections and then being able
    to read and enjoy an actual text book.

    @Rob: How is your strategy supposed to work in anything
    science related? Just from the practical perspective.

    And did you try this actually? Let’s say you want to start
    with the brain and then write down everything you know,
    which is probably form high school classes. How would you
    progress?

  8. beachmama says:

    We have a friend that works with PhD students to complete their studies ONLINE. Online education is now and the future of education. I’ve taken online college courses and courses through Zen Habits. I’m currently enrolled in B-School created by the dynamic Marie Forleo. With online education you can pack a whole lot more learning into a whole lot less time ~ LOVE IT!

    Books I love ~ All of Gladwell’s books, Anthony Robbins ‘Awaken the Giant Within, Steven Pressfield ‘Do the Work’, ‘The War of Art’ . . .

  9. Rob says:

    Thank you for your reply Scott. I agree with everything you said. I don’t think I explained the idea very well. Actually what you stated about areas of research being “exhausted” is similar to what started my thought yesterday.

    I thought about how nowadays (most) everything attained starts from second-hand knowledge, and we in essence are trying to gain understanding on an equal level with the originator. Being able to ever reach that same level, however, might be unlikely.

    So the idea is to try and mimic the original thought process in an attempt to tap into that unattainable level of comprehension – not to produce new ideas on the subject matter.

    Of course all of this could be nonsense; it was just something I was contemplating on my drive home yesterday. It seems plausible though that coming up with conclusions of your own and afterwards comparing them to verified references, even if the results are way off, could catapult your understanding higher than traditional methods.

  10. Bill Brown says:

    I’ve bookmarked this Ask Metafilter thread for just the reason you elaborate – http://ask.metafilter.com/71101/What-single-book-is-the-best-introduction-to-your-field-or-specialization-within-your-field-for-laypeople

    I also just finished reading Henry Hazlitt’s Thinking as a Science – http://mises.org/document/3456/Thinking-as-a-Science (free) – and this was his advice too. He outlined a whole process to become an expert on a subject that started with reading the definitive work. Interestingly, for Rob at least, he urged that reading was important but thinking was equally so. It didn’t have to be original, he argued, but the act of thinking made the knowledge yours.

    It’s an outstanding book despite its age.

  11. Leon says:

    Some chapters in “Principals of Neural Science” work like this that they explain what the scientist did and why they chose that kind of experiment and not another one. This is indeed very good to follow the thought process. To get to an even deeper level you have to work in the field I think.
    for instance, when I had lectures about molecular biology and the methods used I couldn’t understand it well, but when you actually use it in the lab it becomes clear very quickly.
    Of course you can learn the methods also theoretically, but it is likely that you forget them immediately, because you cannot use this knowledge for anything.

    Review articles to certain subjects might be a good start for that as well as they focus more on the primary research. Unfortunately you either need to be a member of a university or pay 30 $ per paper.

    Further I can recommend podcasts like the Nature podcast. those are for free and with interviews of the scientists. Of course they don’t offer you a deep understand, but maybe a usefull addition to the text book and its always a cool thing when you heard the guy talk of whom you read the text book.

  12. JB says:

    When learning more about hands on topics I couldn’t agree more with you. Practice is absolutely essential. I see some people watching tv shows on physics and they think they are actually learning something from it. If you really want to get the tools to understand the universe you are going to need to practice problems.
    But here is where the criticism comes in. For subjects that don’t require much prerequisite knowledge and aren’t hands on I support more wiki-pedia way. Let’s just say your interested in the Spanish Civil War, you shouldn’t get a european history textbook or whatever.

    * As a side note I have found forums (i.e reddit) are fantastic to getting to learn less academic subjects. I was completely lost about weight training but they pointed me in the right direction like saying I should read Starting Strength ed 2. Anyways for a lot of things that people are trying to learn I suggest giving something like reddit a try ( look at their stickies and not at their newest posts )

  13. Tre Critelli says:

    Scott, great post and a nice blog. While I agree wholeheartedly with you about the need for people to continue reading textbooks, the problem is that most people don’t know how to read a textbook because they were never taught how to do so while in school. Instead, they were forced to. Those who try as adults often simply pick up a textbook and start from Chapter 1 as if it were a novel. That is neither the most efficient nor effective way to read or learn from them. Since your learning is self-directed, you won’t have a teacher to help, motivate or cajole you into sticking with the material so your readers will need to find ways to do it on their own.

    When I was studying to become an English barrister, I was simply handed a list of suggested treatises and told to show up in three months to take their version of a bar examination. There were no preparatory courses for me to attend. So I purchased all of the books whilst in London, hauled them back to the US and took a three month sabbatical from my law practice to undertake my own self-directed study. Here are some techniques that I used to not only get through the material, but also to understand and remember the content sufficiently to pass the examination:

    (1) Read the front, back and any book flap covers of a text book to get the “ten thousand foot view” of what is going to be covered in the text book and what the author’s qualifications are. While the adage that you “shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” holds a lot of truth, the fact is that when it comes to textbooks you need to do this to ensure you are learning what you want from the person that best knows it. Presumably you have Google’d the person and/or book already, but if not you should do that as well. If you are looking for your first text book in an area, get one written or aimed at the “layperson” as it will generally be a more engaging read than one written for those that are already knowledgeable in the field.

    (2) Read the pages at the beginning of the book that use Roman numerals. These could be a Forward, a Preface or even an Introduction. Often times they provide a meaningful commentary on the contents by someone else (such as another expert in the same field), which can be informative. Or they are a couple of pages by the author of the text on why he or she thought the work was needed. Suffice to say that if you can’t understand or don’t enjoy reading these parts of the text book, then you should probably look for another.

    (3) Read through the Table of Contents, as it is your guide through the text book. Most people skip the Table of Contents or skim through it. It is the most important set of pages in the book as it tells you not only where the text book will be taking you (i.e. what subjects will be covered), but also will help you to put them into a context. Presumably your author will have written the text book in the typical “build a house method” by starting with foundational subjects, working through the major sections of the subject and then ending up with ending chapters on the current status or thoughts of something. By knowing where in the process the material you are studying takes place, you’ll ultimately have a better grasp of the overall subject material. I like to refer back to the Table of Contents before beginning each Chapter just to remind me where I am in the process. This is what I call the “thousand foot” view.

    (4) Page through the book to see how the chapters are laid out, if there are sub-topics, questions, footnotes, pithy quotes, whatever. That always helps to see how the information is going to be presented. A textbook full of charts and diagrams is going to read differently than one that simply consists of text. It will also give you a good idea as to how you are going to budget your time when reading the text book. While a chapter a sitting is a great goal to have, it often depends upon how many pages there are in each chapter or how dense the material is.

    (5) Examine the Appendices at the end of the book. These usually contain information that the author thought would be helpful to you, the reader, but either couldn’t include it directly into the main text due to its format or functions in a supportive or supplemental role. You may also find an Index at the end of the book and answers to questions raised in the chapters, both helpful things to know about before you start to read.

    (6) Whenever I read a text book, I always have three things with me: a pen, a highlighter and a notebook. Use the notebook to jot down anything that strikes you as “note worthy” or if you have a question or don’t quite understand something. Keep going through the chapter until you reach the end of it, even if you have a bunch of questions. Once you get through the chapter, you’ll probably have found that a lot of your questions were answered so you can cross the off your list.

    Then, go back and read through the chapter again. This second read through is the most helpful as you now know how the information at the beginning of the chapter relates to whatever else is covered in that chapter. You will get through it the second time in about half the time it took you the first time. This review of the material will help not only impress it into your short-term memory, but give you an opportunity to answer those remaining questions that you had.

    Lastly, once your review is finished go back and skim through the material a third time and highlight the main points of information, the kernels of wisdom or essential bits that you now know make up the heart of the teaching of that chapter. Too many people try to compress this and highlight stuff on their first reading, thus guaranteeing they highlight everything on the page because they don’t know enough to know what is important. It is tempting to do it on your review, but you will still be highlighting more than you really need to as you are still in the process of learning your way through the material.

    On the third read through, the sentences that need to be highlighted will almost always jump out at you. These become the “hundred foot view” of the material. By the way, none of this takes as much time as you imagine it will. If the first read through took you 30 minutes, the review will take you probably 10 minutes and the highlight would take you 5 or so. That extra 15 minutes spent then, while the information is fresh, will reward you immensely as you will know that material.

    (7) If your text book has sections or a meaningful division other than chapters (like a unit), at the conclusion of a section or division, go back and read the portions of the text that you highlighted in the chapters of that section. This mini review will give you a reminder of what material the author thought went together.

    (8) If you are reading more than one chapter of a textbook in a single sitting, stand up and take a short 5 minute walk if at all possible. The mind will only comprehend what the seat can endure.

    (9) Once you finish the textbook, take a few minutes and read through all of the highlighted portions one last time. I like to do this with a different colored highlighter in hand, as I often see something in the final overview that I didn’t think was important the first time. Now that I have greater knowledge of the subject after reading the text book all of the way through, I can better discern what is truly important and what is not. The other benefit of using a different color is that I can easily see how well I did on the first highlighting; it provides a nice visual as to my initial comprehension of the material.

    Sorry for the length of this post, but I thought you and your readers might find it of benefit.

  14. Nick Goodall says:

    I’m all for textbooks, but how dense should they be? Currently I’ve got a chemistry one on the go, one created by an exam board to cover an entire syllabus. Each page is full of facts, principles and ideas – it’s packed, seriously. I don’t mind that, in fact I enjoy that kind of stuff.

    As you say, you’re more likely to cut out the waffle and hype with a text book – that in itself is a great reason to read them. But on top of that I think it’d be a good idea to take on some ‘pop-viewpoints’ afterwards, not only to expand your range of understanding, but maybe even give you some extra useful insights.

    - Nick

  15. Andrew says:

    This is so true, especially for economics. I see people all the time claiming that we are facing imminent hyperinflation and that we need the gold standard, or that the banks are “stealing” from us. Now, I suppose you could make arguments about any of these things, but after reading just a basic introductory macroeconomics textbook, you’ll understand much better why the gold standard is a terrible idea, among other things.

  16. Shreen says:

    I wouldn’t exactly call myself an intellectual but I am definitely very curious about anything and everything. I read lots of textbooks but couldn’t easily recall any that were particularly amazing, except for KA Stroud’s Engineering Mathematics. It stands out because it starts with such simple ideas and gets very complex in an easy-to-follow manner.

    I also read text books on carpentry, psychology, science, mechanics, history, geography and art and design. I have a habit of stocking up on cheap text books from charity stores and returning them when I’m done. I dare not go anywhere near a library or I’ll borrow so many text books I wouldn’t be able to carry them home (has happened at least once to me).

    You’re right in that books are a good starting point to found a solid base to build yet more knowledge. A mixture of theoretical knowledge, practice and experimentation and observation is needed further down the line to further your interest and expertise in a topic.

  17. James B says:

    Enjoyed the article. I have been using textbooks as a grounding to all the mainstream books I run across and have found that you are correct in the ability of the textbook to open perspectives to severely bias books.

  18. Steven Chen says:

    Thank You Scott for your eye opening Opinion!

    As an avid fan of reading non-fiction books, it just connected to me that the textbooks I’ve read in college although boring, was really helpful compared to many of the non-fictions books I’ve read, Although it doesn’t always appear that way.

    Thanks Again!

  19. AbhiJ says:

    Hi Scott,

    You should publish Tre Critelli post in a separate blog post. He has explained the “How” of your “Why” :).

    I would also like to point out that reading one text book in a subject will not help gain any long term take aways. You will probably forget everything after 2-3 months. To get to a point where you can apply a knowledge in a real world needs more effort than that. Even to truly appreciate a subject would need greater effort.

    Taking an online course / getting a certificate from your local college that involve 4-5 courses will give you a much better ROI in the long term.

  20. Logan York says:

    Scott, what I appreciate most about this post is that it doesn’t feel the need to even challenge most people’s assumption that textbooks are meant for a classroom, or that reading one on your own, even after university–even on a Sunday afternoon!–is excessive, useless, or weird. (Yeah … I get picked on for reading a lot.)

    Instead, it just starts with the point that textbooks are a rich, concrete source of information, but that most people find them too boring compared to the internet and popular non-fiction.

    As truly revolutionary as the internet is, I still find so much value in a foundational table of contents and a front and back cover for a subject. Knowing where the edges are feel like at least 20% of the learning for me.

    Of course, I love the value of irony, too: I’m happy to be reading this on a blog for fellow nerds who feel the same!

  21. Duff says:

    Yup, this is what I’m doing, going through studies and scientific journals and books on psychological science. It’s more work but also more fun than reading popular books and blogs.

  22. Kiran says:

    I have to disagree with the bit about textbooks. Textbooks, in my opinion are simply one path through a set of material, one which hasn’t changed since the advent of the printing press in the 15th century.
    A much better way to get through the same material is to complete an (online?) course, if available. If your goal is simply to understand the material in a broad fashion, an online course with its forums to interact with other students, timelines to finish quizzes and properly guided assignments, has a much higher probability of seeing you across the finish line than working with a textbook alone.
    I finished a few online courses in the last 15 months, and I seldom had to look at the textbook prescribed for the course, except as reference material. If both an online course and a textbook are available, I do not see myself recommending that someone read the textbook.

  23. Lee29 says:

    Appreciate what tre had shared. It always helps to see the big picture. This is what some people call “zooming out”. By this we can easily identify the important concepts which from the essence of the subject.

  24. Nimi says:

    Hi Scott

    Interesting books are just too many; sometimes you start another topic before you can finish the earlier. Mixing text book, blogs and other forms of observation sometimes make a subject of interest very interesting and easy to understand.

  25. Scott Young says:

    To the many suggestions–I definitely recommend courses over textbooks, however a course is a much larger time commitment. Also, current courses do cover quite a few topics, but the breadth of textbooks is almost limitless. If you want to learn something that isn’t currently packaged as a course, it’s a great tool.

  26. Clem Nickel says:

    Hi Scott, you’ve probably answered this elsewhere, and so my apologies if this is a repeated question, but if you spend 20 to 30 percent on the ‘exotic’ techniques, and 40 to 50 percent on practice problems, does that mean that the other 20 — 40 percent are online courses, reading textbooks, etc?

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