Category Archives: books

How We Read

What we know about how we learn to read and how our abil­ity to read developed is fas­cin­at­ing, and in a review of a book that looks at exactly this — Stan­islas Dehaene’s Read­ing in the Brain — Jonah Lehr­er offers us a won­der­ful teas­er on exactly that: the hows of reading, from a neur­os­cience per­spect­ive.

The intro­duc­tion:

Right now, your mind is per­form­ing an aston­ish­ing feat. Photons are boun­cing off these black squiggles and lines – the let­ters in this sen­tence – and col­lid­ing with a thin wall of flesh at the back of your eye­ball. The photons con­tain just enough energy to activ­ate sens­ory neur­ons, each of which is respons­ible for a par­tic­u­lar plot of visu­al space on the page. The end res­ult is that, as you stare at the let­ters, they become more than mere marks on a page. You’ve begun to read.

See­ing the let­ters, of course, is just the start of the read­ing pro­cess. […] The real won­der is what hap­pens next. Although our eyes are focused on the let­ters, we quickly learn to ignore them. Instead, we per­ceive whole words, chunks of mean­ing. […] In fact, once we become pro­fi­cient at read­ing, the pre­cise shape of the let­ters – not to men­tion the arbit­rar­i­ness of the spelling – does­n’t even mat­ter, which is why we read word, WORD, and WoRd the same way.

Later in the review, Lehr­er­’s descrip­tion of what it is like to suf­fer from pure alex­ia reads like some­thing taken dir­ectly from Oliv­er Sacks’ essen­tial and eye-open­ing book The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat.

via Mind Hacks

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

The First Law of Fan­fic­tion states that every change which strengthens the prot­ag­on­ists requires a cor­res­pond­ing worsen­ing of their chal­lenges. […] stor­ies are about con­flict; a hero too strong for their con­flict is no longer in tense, heart-pound­ing dif­fi­culty. […]

The Ration­al­ist Fan­fic­tion Prin­ciple states that ration­al­ity is not magic; being ration­al does not require magic­al poten­tial or roy­al blood­lines or even amaz­ing gad­gets, and the prin­ciples of ration­al­ity work for under­stand­able reas­ons.

That’s Eliez­er Yudkowsky in an intro­duc­tion to his acclaimed Harry Pot­ter fan fiction, Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Ration­al­ity.

The piece of “seri­al fic­tion” looks at cog­nit­ive sci­ence and ration­al­ity in a Harry Pot­ter-type world where Harry, hav­ing been raised by a sci­ent­ist step­fath­er, is a ration­al­ist, enter­ing the wiz­ard­ing world “armed with Enlight­en­ment ideals and the exper­i­ment­al spir­it.”

Cur­rently 63 chapters long–including chapters such as A Day of Very Low Prob­ab­il­ity, The Stan­ford Pris­on Exper­i­ment, The Unknown and the Unknow­able and Title Redac­ted, Part I–the Meth­ods is a fant­ast­ic read.

There’s a “book-style” PDF avail­able, ePUB and MOBI ver­sions for those on e‑readers, and a great TV Tropes entry. You can find more resources on the unof­fi­cial homepage,

Although listen to Eliez­er when he says “This fic is widely con­sidered to have really hit its stride start­ing at around Chapter 5. If you still don’t like it after Chapter 10, give up”.

via Hack­er News

The Personal Business of Recommending Books

For book recom­mend­a­tions, most of us rely on the sug­ges­tions of trus­ted friends and on word of mouth. This, at least, allows us to hold someone account­able for those inev­it­able poor recom­mend­a­tions. But what of ‘pro­fes­sion­al’ book recom­mend­ers (writers in pub­lic­a­tions, not algorithmic ‘recom­mend­ers’)?

Laura Miller–author of the book recom­mend­a­tion Slate column, –looks at what she calls the fine art of recom­mend­ing books.

“You can­’t recom­mend books to strangers without ask­ing per­son­al ques­tions,” [edit­or of the Par­is Review, Lor­in Stein] told me. As he poin­ted out, what we want to read is often pegged to trans­it­ory moods. The same book may not thrill the same per­son at every point in his or her life. “I don’t think people read ‘for’ pleas­ure, exactly,” he went on. “Of course there is pleas­ure in read­ing. But mainly we do it out of need. Because we’re lonely, or con­fused, or need to laugh, or want some kind of pro­tec­tion or quiet — or dis­turb­ance, or truth, or whatever.” The recom­mend­er must take this into account.

Miller also looks at the book recom­mend­ing pro­cesses of The Morn­ing News’ Bib­li­or­acle (John Warner) and “the doy­en of all pro­fes­sion­al book recom­mend­ers”, Nancy Pearl.

Pearl sug­gests that there are four “door­ways” that intrigue read­ers in the books they read: story, char­ac­ters, set­ting and lan­guage. One or more of these door­ways appeal to each type of read­er and the task of the recom­mend­er is in match­ing the read­er­’s door­way pref­er­ence with a book that deliv­ers exactly that.

Derek Sivers’ Book List

Derek Sivers’ book recom­mend­a­tions con­tin­ue to be some of the most well matched to my own tastes.

Infre­quently updated, Derek Sivers’ book list provides a tiny sum­mary of his recent reads, fol­lowed by extens­ive notes he has taken from each: some­what sim­il­ar to my cur­rent pro­cess, now that Amazon’s Kindle has com­pletely trans­formed my read­ing and note-tak­ing habits.

In addi­tion to the extens­ive book list itself, Sivers lists elev­en of his top recom­mend­a­tions (some that I would change, oth­ers that I’ve heard con­tra­dict­ing views on, but a great start­ing point non­ethe­less):

Educational Typography Ebooks

I’ve only recently taken a look at font retail­er Font­Shop’s col­lec­tion of edu­ca­tion­al typo­graphy ebooks des­pite hav­ing the site book­marked for months. It’s a won­der­ful (yet small) col­lec­tion, cur­rently con­sist­ing of these five books:

The online Typo­grapher­’s Gloss­ary will no doubt come in handy for many, too. In fact, just click on everything they have under the head­ing ‘Type Resources’–it’s all great.

via @jasonfry