Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker gained notoriety of late because of Bill Gates’ statement that it was “My new favorite book of all time.” Bill’s hard to ignore, especially when something reaches the top of any of his lists. I picked up a copy and dove in.
It’s a great book. Not sure it makes the “favorite book of all time” list for me, but even having not completed the book I can already heartily recommend it. And yet, I’m setting it aside.
Why? Because of something I stumbled across elsewhere, and the fact that I agree with the message behind the book.
Enlightenment Now is a lengthy, dense book full of stories and data that support its underlying proposition: that by almost any measure the world is better today that it ever has been, and — again, by almost any measure — in the long run it continues to improve.
While I call it “dense”, the information is presented such that it’s easily understood and consumed by anyone with an open mind and analytical bent. There are copious notes and references throughout, as well as an amazingly comprehensive index.(1) While it’s written by an academic, and in many ways has that feel, it’s written by an academic who cares deeply about writing, which contributes to its readability. More on that below.
It’s full of great information and stands as a refutation of the doom-and-gloom attitude proffered by the majority of today’s media. That’s why I so strongly recommend it: if you have any doubts about humanity’s progress or future you should read Enlightenment Now. The data — not sensationalistic enough for click-bait headlines — literally shows us otherwise.
And therein lies my problem. I already agree.
There are two problems that result.
The echo chamber
The echo chamber is a problem in today’s cliquish, information-rich society. Various sources of information, from algorithm-based social media sites to the friends we choose and the celebrities we pay attention to, all feed us information with which we already agree. Let’s face it, the world feels scary, and it’s comforting to see so much agreement with our pre-conceived ideas.
All that agreement, however, only serves to cement those ideas in place. We’re not challenged and we’re not forced (or even encouraged) to question or think. Our ideas feel right, and the information we see only supports that feeling.
All that only serves to foster what some might call intellectual laziness, as well as a sense of smug superiority.
The realization that I was headed towards both of those contributed to my decision to back off. I already agree with the fundamental premise of Enlightenment Now. Reading it to completion wouldn’t challenge me or my beliefs. I would instead derive comfort from knowing I was right all along.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — reading and researching to support your beliefs has value as well, and I’m not saying it should never be done.
But I ran across another thought.
We’re facing information overload like never before.
The common thought is that we’re being flooded with lots of low quality, even crap, information. Be it books, articles, news blurbs, clickbait stories, the thinking is that all the crap is responsible for the overload.
As I keep adding things to my reading list I see that’s not necessarily true. Oh, there’s tons of crap out there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s easily identified and discarded. No, the problem is that there’s too much quality stuff as well; more than anyone could read in a lifetime, with more being created every day.
There are great books to read, fantastic blogs to follow, amazing authors on publication sites like medium.com, and more. There’s even good stuff in many of the higher-quality “mainstream media” that are worth paying attention to. The problem is given that time remains fixed, how best to choose where to spend it?
Unfortunately I’ve lost the references (I think it was more than one), but I came across this criterion to add to my choice of what to read:
Might this change my life?
I choose to interpret that on two levels: big and small.
The big level is the level we’d generally refer to as truly “life changing”. Something comes along that changes your fundamental beliefs, enables a fundamental change to your world, or otherwise causes some serious damage — ideally in a good way — to your status quo. I’m not generally looking for this, and I expect it to be pretty rare.
The smaller level is more practical and tactical. Will reading this give me some serious insight, some tool, some thing that changes how I approach my life, my work, my relationships, or myself? I look for this all the time. If the answer is yes, the item is prioritized a little higher than things on my list for which the answer is no.
For Enlightenment Now I realized that the answer is no. It’s a good book, but I won’t walk away changed from having read it. At best I’ll have a resource I can refer to should I need to support an argument in the future, but — it’s not going to change my life.
The book I moved on to is a great example, and by complete serendipity, it’s by the same author.
Possibly life changing (in small ways)
Some time ago I realized I’d become a writer. No one was more surprised than I.
I’m not a great writer, but apparently a fairly good one. At least that’s what my audience over at Ask Leo! tells me. It’s a skill that allows me to add value to the world in a way that, apparently, many others cannot. I often jokingly refer to it as translating technology into English.
Having accepted that mantle, I’ve started to pay attention to my writing, and even take steps to improve it. My personal blog is one of the tools I use to practice. Even this post is an exercise. Call it “deliberate practice”, to use the popular buzzword.
So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled across The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by none other than Steven Pinker.
The Sense of Style is not a reference manual in which you can find the answer to every question about hyphenation and capitalization. Nor is it a remedial guide for badly educated students who have yet to master the mechanics of a sentence. Like the classic guides, it is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better.
Writing is a craft — my craft, it would appear — and I would like to improve. Sounds like a fit to me.
And 14% of the way in(2) I can already see that this book might change my life in small ways by enabling incremental improvements in my writing.
Time is short
One of the lessons from the stoics is that time is short. Choices need to be made. Our lives, our values, and our virtue is reflected in those choices.
And yet, choices are hard. There are some really good books (and articles and blog posts and stories and, and, and….) that I’ll reluctantly and painfully set aside by choice. While “might this change my life” isn’t my only criterion, having it be explicit actually makes those choices, still painful, a little easier.
Choose wisely, by whatever criteria you might have.
(1) I found, in the Kindle version at least, over a quarter of the book is index, ~10% references & bibliography and another ~15% footnotes. “The book” takes up only 55% of the book. On finding that as I research this post I’m rethinking my decision to stop; I’m much closer to the finish line than I thought.
(2) In this case “the book” takes up 75% of the book — meaning I’m closer to 20% through?