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Matuschak, Why Books Don’t Work

Essay notes


As a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and most readers don’t realise it. [...] How might we design mediums in which “reading” is the same as “understanding”?

  • One implied assumption at the foundation of the medium of the book is that people absorb knowledge by reading sentences.
  • After reading whole books, often people find they remember only a few sentences
  • Books (and lectures) do not have an explicit theory of how people actually learn things
  • There is a reason solving problems, writing summaries, doing projects work to make us learn—they are leveraging a truth about our cognition.
  • There is an implied deep theory about cognition: to understand something, you must actively engage with it.
  • Both books and lectures, as mediums, operate under the faulty assumption that knowledge can be transmitted—known as ‘transmissionism’.
  • There are ways to use the book as raw information that can then be absorbed using a combination of techniques; specific reflective strategies which are necessary to absorb information, but are not the default. Take notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response.
  • Employing these require the reader runs their own feedback looks and understands their own cognition (known as metacognition).
  • These metacognition strategies and feedback loops are useful for people who are familiar with the content and have the relevant metacognition skills, otherwise they detract from understanding of the material.
  • The reason people enroll in university courses, as opposed to reading textbooks themselves, is the course handles the metacognitive burden by offering a scheduled scope and sequence, so students need to do less planning of their own. Feedback is available through instructors too.


Matuschak, Andy. ‘Why Books Don’t Work’, 2019. https://andymatuschak.org/books.