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