In defence of textbooks

After completing THP I felt for a bit of time that I had to write some sort of ‘and this is what you should know from that book…’-post. In the end I decided against writing such a ‘big, all-encompassing post’ and this post was where I ended up instead. Part of the reason was that I didn’t really think it was necessary to write much more about the the book; I’ve already covered it in some detail and I know that I have already written quite a few posts about it already. In one of them I ‘even’ did more than just quote or link to other stuff. The many posts reflect how much work you need to put into a book like this.

If you want to really learn something, you need to put in some hours and some work. Mind you, the ‘work’ you put in should be (very) different from what I’d term ‘ordinary work’ – work you only do because you’re paid for it. Accumulating knowledge should be fun, or at least enjoyable, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong. And if you really want to learn something about something, you need a strong foundation and you need to be able to connect the dots, rather than have to remember unconnected bits of information. You need to read the right books.

I’d argue that often these books are textbooks. Because that’s exactly what most textbooks are trying to do; teach you the basics of whatever it is the book is about and help you connect the dots. I have shifted away from ‘standard publications’ over the last year or so, so that I now read almost exclusively university press publications and/or textbooks (aside from the occasional novel). I’ve done this because I’ve found that they make for much better reading and for much better learning. This is true not only when comparing them to ‘standard publications’ but also, arguably, when comparing them to many alternative online sources.

Textbooks will vary widely when it comes to how much a reader is expected to know beforehand, and if you pick the wrong (too advanced) textbook many of the advantages they have go out the window, because you’ll once again have to struggle to remember unconnected bits of information as you don’t have the foundation you need to understand the material. But there are a lot of introductionary textbooks out there and there’s no shame in reading an introductionary textbook about a subject you know very little about – indeed, this seems by far to be the most sensible approach. I knew a bit about anthropology and archaeology before I started reading THP (e.g. I’d read Clark), but I probably would have done just fine if I hadn’t – it’s very accessible. I’ve gotten reasonably well away with reading textbooks about human microbiology and genetics, though I haven’t read either of them from cover to cover like I did THP. Currently I’m, as mentioned on the twittter, reading a geology textbook, Earth, which is an introductionary textbook as well and will cause me no kinds of ‘this is too hard’-problems. The point being: Just because a book is a university publication/textbook about subject X, that doesn’t mean that you need to attend lectures about X at a university – or anything remotely like that – to read the book and gain a lot of insights from it.

Part of what is cool about reading textbooks about many different subjects is that you get a greater appreciation of the various ways people can/tend to think about the world. An economist might think about human behaviour in terms of the impacts of institutions or perhaps in some instances he’ll observe behaviour through a game theoretic lense. He may be more cautious about drawing conclusions about causal inferences than are people less skilled in statistics. An archaeologist on the other hand will probably see the world in a completely different way; his focus will be more based on how the world looked like in the past and how the past is different from the present, which ideas we as a species have gotten over time and how and when we got them, how those ideas impacted human societies, how different various human cultures are and why that is. A geologist will not see a rock, he will see a glaucophane schist. He will have a much greater knowledge about ‘how the Earth works’ – he’ll know a lot of stuff about processes like weathering and erosion, mineralogy, seismology, volcanism, etc. – and the way he appreciates and interacts with the world will be impacted by his knowledge. An important part of why people with different educational backgrounds have different ways of perceiving the world is because very often different angles are required to appreciate different aspects of the human existence and the world around us. What you know impacts your Weltanschauung, so knowing more about X doesn’t just teach you about X – it will always also teach you something about the people who know stuff about X. But even if it didn’t; when you read a textbook and you suddenly start appreciating things you didn’t even think about before, or become able to see connections between phenomena you had no clue were connected before – well, that’s an awesome feeling.

Textbooks vary in quality, yes, but so do all other books and generally the quality is high. Textbooks are expensive, but in terms of price/hour spent reading, they’re some of the cheapest books available.

As I mentioned above: “Accumulating knowledge should be fun, or at least enjoyable, and if it isn’t you’re doing it wrong.” So if you truly don’t like textbooks, don’t read textbooks. But at least give that type of reading a chance before you reject it – reading textbooks can be an enjoyable experience. And if you make reading these sorts of books a habit, the human mind is set up in this convenient way that reading them will become more enjoyable over time than it was in the beginning.


July 28, 2012 - Posted by | Books, Random stuff


  1. As for price, textbooks are rather easy to find online. This is not surprising as they are marketed to a target group that consists of people with technical finesse and no money, and are excessively overpriced.

    Comment by Emil | July 28, 2012 | Reply

    • I don’t know if they’re overpriced. ‘Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.’ (Publilius Syrus)

      My point is this: If someone objects to going down this route solely due to an impression that he ‘can’t afford’ textbooks, then I’m close to saying that the person in question should rationally infer that he pretty much can’t afford to buy any books – period. Textbooks are, in terms of variables like ‘signal/noise ratio vs price’ or ‘hours of reading/dollar’, among the cheapest books around. The higher nominal price/book should not deceive people into thinking this is not the case.

      Comment by US | July 28, 2012 | Reply

  2. That quote obviously does not apply when the market isn’t working, as it isn’t currently because of the insane copyright laws and cartels.

    Luckily, there copyright infringement.

    Comment by Emil | July 29, 2012 | Reply

    • So goods have an ‘objective true value’, and in the case of textbooks you have a pretty good idea what that ‘objective true value’ is? That seems like a very reasonable inference to draw from your comment. If goods aren’t worth what people are willing to pay, then some other measure of value must be better. Most people who’ve dealt with that problem and tried to figure out that ‘true’ value assumed it had something to do with how much labour went into it producing it. I’m not sure you want to go down that road, that’s fortunately a wildly discredited viewpoint at this point.

      How would you justify the position that a hypothetical clearing price in a different market setup from the one we observe in the real world is somehow more ‘correct’ than the clearing price we actually observe in the real world (this seems to be where you’re heading with your argument)? It’s different, and different market setups have different distributional consequences. But that’s it. The goods are still worth what people pay for them – because what people actually pay for them is the best estimate of the value of the goods that we have.

      Comment by US | July 29, 2012 | Reply

      • I did not imply or think any of the things that you mentioned. I don’t care about fancy economics much.

        Comment by Emil | August 1, 2012

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