Read A Classic

I love donuts, and so also the people who make donuts. (Krispy Kreme is tops.) Donuts can be “part of a balanced diet” as they say; eaten in moderation, donuts can make your life better overall. Nevertheless, if I made donuts I might worry sometimes that I was tempting folks away from a balanced diet, to eat too many tasty donuts.

Similarly, as a blog author, while I realize that blog posts can be part of a balanced intellectual diet, I worry that I tempt readers to fill their intellectual diet with too much of the fashionably new, relative to the old and intellectually nutritious. Until you reach the state of the art, and are ready to be at the very forefront of advancing human knowledge, most of what you should read to get to that forefront isn’t today’s news, or even today’s blogger musings. Read classic books and articles, textbooks, review articles. Then maybe read focused publications (including perhaps some blog posts) on your chosen focus topic(s).

Of course you should allow yourself some breaks and leisure. And my blog can be part of such leisure. But never confuse leisure that makes you sweat with work.

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  • Rick James

    Condescend much?

  • Duke


    Could you list maybe 5 or 10 essential papers/books/essays that you would recommend for a typical college-educated adult?

    • Benquo

      I second this request. And recommendations would be most useful when they are in your field(s) of expertise.

      • Tribsantos

        Same here

    • Rob

      Same here. Perhaps some items you would consider canonical for Cynic Textbooks.

  • eigenman

    Krispy Kreme, oh no. Let me commend to you Top Pot Donuts of Seattle. The donuts produced by Krispy Kreme are dense little grease monsters next to the airy wonder-behemoths Top Pot builds.

    • kzndr

      Top Pot donuts are to die for.

  • darghe

    “Read a classic book”? What is this, Unqualified Reservations?

    • gwern

      Why do you say that like it’s a bad thing?

  • Campbell

    Aww, you’re not going to start giving sage, fatherly advice.

  • Maybe I consider Robin Hanson posts as worthy as the classics 😛

    You appear a tad judgmental here. Some people have poor diets in spite of knowing the health effects because they value taste a lot more than health. Some people read lightweight material because they don’t really care about becoming a well-rounded intellectual.

    But even conceding your point if you were a donut maker, I’m not so sure it is analogous here. Even if your posts aren’t as “nutritious” as the real classics, a Hanson-only diet would still be healthier than the diets of the vast majority of the population. It’s like criticising people for consuming slightly too few fish oil tablets, not too many donuts.

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  • If I want to read Overcoming Bias-like ideas, but want to read them in book form, which books would you recommend?

    Only slightly related: have you considered adding a Best Of Overcoming Bias list to the site, maybe on the right under the blog roll? I’d include posts like Beliefs Are A Mirror-Suit, Cut Med In Half, the one introducing Near and Far Mode, and something about prediction markets. Even if all blog posts are donuts, some donuts are healthier than others.

  • Andy McKenzie

    Distinguishing between clear “work” and “leisure” time seems foolhardy. In Creativity, Csizytsenmlayi (sp) notes that the most prolific scientists and professionals do not make such a distinction and consider themselves to always be working. You yourself have said that you often accomplished your best work while “cheating” on stuff that you were “supposed” to be doing.

    Moreover, the “bit” based learning model has quite a lot of benefits to it. Do check out Tyler’s Create Your Own Economy / Age Of Infovore, where he discusses some benefits to this cognitive style. Reading info as short bits also has merit from a spaced repitition memory perspective.

    If you wrote this post out of guilt, you need not feel any, IMHO. If you wrote it as a serious recommendation, it deserves a more serious treatment.

    • From a fairly interesting new book, Getting Organized in the Google Era by Douglas Merrill:

      A more realistic goal is to integrate your work with your life in a way that reduces your stress, rids you of resentments, and puts you more in sync with the joys and challenges of you likfe. That’s what my organization principle no. 22 is all about: Integrate work with life instead of trying to balance the two.

    • John Maxwell IV

      Having planned work periods and taking planned breaks works insanely well for me when I’m doing work I don’t enjoy.

  • ravi hegde

    why sure, daddy!

  • Perhaps commentors should overlook the tone (if they don’t like it) and focus on the message, which is bang on. I am a big fan of ‘bit learning’, however because it provides more short-term utility than engaging with true foundational learning, I spend excessive amount of times scanning, reading blogs, articles, etc, at the expense of building up my base knowledge to the point where I can better think for myself rather than reading somebody else’s commentary and thinking ‘clever idea’. The sheer variety of the dim sum approach to learning is so appealing and entertaining, but as Robin says, maybe we should spend less time reading ‘the latest’ and more time reading and revisiting the benchmark and original sources.

  • I guess I’ll have to go back and read your older classic blog posts.


  • hmm

    I always think “BULLSHIT” when i head “read a classic”

    • Dan

      Isn’t that a classic cable TV show?

  • “I worry that I tempt readers to fill their intellectual diet with too much of the fashionably new, relative to the old and intellectually nutritious. Until you reach the state of the art, and are ready to be at the very forefront of advancing human knowledge […]”

    Not until then are readers ready for your blog posts? Hah!

  • You lost me at Krispy Kreme. Those bastards managed to wipe out half the good donut shops in San Antonio during their expansion and flood the stores with their over-sugared grease bombs. We’re only now beginning to recover.

    Pfui on your thesis, too. I’ve been led to more classics by reading blogs than I would ever have discovered on my own.

  • I don’t see why someone has to read the whole classic, let alone any original part of it. Typically, there’s just a few insights from it that can be explained without having to read the whole thing. I’ve never read Coase’s famous paper on externalities, but I’ve read enough about it to be fluent on his insights in discussions of externalities.

    The few times that an economist has told me that I MUST MUST MUST read Coase’s paper before I can be knowledgeable enough to continue conversation with them, it turns out they concentrated a high probability mass on an incorrect prediction, when they realized it *wasn’t* responsive to the point I was making.

    I think the real problem is the experts not being able to phrase the key points in their own words and apply them to critical policy matters, leaving everyone else starved of such “nutrition” and forcing debates to plod along helplessly, deprived of knowledge that can be gained with little effort — certainly not the amount required to read the whole classic. (And that suggests me that their supposed understanding of the insight isn’t good enough.)

    What are you doing about that, Robin_Hason?

    • I think the real problem is the experts not being able to phrase the key points in their own words… forcing debates to plod along helplessly, deprived of knowledge that can be gained with little effort— certainly not the amount required to read the whole classic.

      I agree with you about this; but not the conclusion you want to draw. It needs to be recognized that, just as translating from a foreign language is a distinct skill from merely comprehending that language, so too is the explaining of ideas a distinct skill from merely understanding them. (In other words, it does not follow that unless someone can explain their knowledge, they don’t have any.) Until the experts are trained in the art of explanation, the best we can do is look where they direct us (and hopefully learn to explain the ideas ourselves, saving others the trouble).

      • In other words, it does not follow that unless someone can explain their knowledge, they don’t have any.

        But it does mean they have a much weaker level of knowledge than they pretend to. This is why I created my hierarchy for identifying the levels of understanding.

        Someone with a sufficiently high level of understanding of their field — the kind one would *expect* out of an expert[1] — is necessarily capable of explaining their insights in many different ways, simply by virtue of recognizing the numerous inferential chains from their expertise to the existing public discourse and knowledge. Being “bad at explaining” ultimately comes from having this superficial level of understanding that can’t connect one’s domain knowledge to all the other domains; that operates from a sort of “Chinese room”.

        But what do we see instead? In the debates about gay rights, we see no one making the arguments about negative externalities (e.g. hampered ability to perpetuate a culture to the next generation) that many experts *certainly* are aware of, as they were presented at least as far back as Victorian times.

        And if such experts lack the ability to articulate such knowledge and connect it to practical concerns, that suggests a far weaker level of understanding, calling into question how deep their insights were in the first place. The predictable result is cases like the one I described, where people *think* such-and-such classic work “took care of that” argument a long time ago, but on closer inspection, didn’t.

        Gene Callahan also plays the role well in this discussion, where he rolls his eyes at other commenters’ not having read classic works, but turns out to be unable to articulate the arguments himself or say how their insights bear on the debate.

        [1] And I’d put that at Level 2 in the link I gave.

      • Sorry, that second link should be this one. I accidentally repeated the first one.

  • Michael Foody

    I am not reading this blog to try and get a good education. I am reading this blog to reinforce my self conception as a practical minded lucid thinker. I am also reading this blog because I enjoy the experience of altering my beliefs and believing that the world is wrong and I am right. This is probably the same reason why I enjoyed Daniel Quinn when I was in highschool and Nietzsche in college.

    Now maybe I could do better than this blog by reading Daniel Dennet or trying to read Wittgenstein. Maybe it would be even better if I stopped worrying so much about having an accurate world view and just focused on being a really good barber or engineer.

  • Alex Flint

    In contrast to other commenters I’m impressed by Robin’s humility in publicly declaring his posts to be less worthwhile than substantial readings. Reading a lot of musings on many topics doesn’t necessarily ever lead to a good understanding of anything.

  • Lisa Cohen

    First, read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Then, once you are convinced you should read a classic, read:
    The Republic (Plato)
    Metamorphoses (Ovid)
    The Golden Bough (Frazer)
    or whatever you want because reading classics develops your souls and gives you free will.
    Or whine. There’s always that.

    • Disagree wrt. Closing of the American Mind. It’s a classic reactionary work, not a classic original. The mind that wrote it had already closed.

  • Vlad

    Classics, especially the technical ones, aren’t as fun and edgy as new and fashionable works. Making settled science fun is an open question, isn’t it?

  • Excellent suggestions. I use to listen to free audio readings of many of the classics. Do you know of blogs dedicated to summarizing or discussion on the classics? Or even specific tips for finding blogs given certain desires. I mean, other than saying… try google.

    Aside from the inconsistency of commenting (for example notice this site does not have a send email followups, while many some big providers do, as just one example of the difficulty a reader faces when dealing with blogging). I find FINDING blogs on subjects that interest me, the most difficult part of my blog enjoyment. If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • Too late.

    (just kidding, I am reading War and peace partly due to your mention on econtalk)

  • It seems commenters don’t like having their judgment questioned.

  • Roko

    I think one of the main things I have got out of overcoming bias is meta-information: info about what other pieces of info and paradigms are most important. This is typically not found in academic textbooks.

    Before I really got into OB, I was doing very academically reputable geometry and topology in pure mathematics, but now that I’ve read OB I don’t really see that as nearly so important for me to know about.

  • He says in the post to include textbooks and review articles, not just original publications, so that dodge won’t work.

    Another reason to read the originals is that they’re written in a much more lively style — if they’re classics. Trivers’ papers on reciprocal altruism etc., Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments — not exactly as captivating as Predator or Aliens, but for scholarly work it’s very fun. By the time the key nuggets get distilled into textbooks or reviews, it becomes even drier.

    You can’t get a feel for how awesome Elizabethan lit is by only reading history of lit books. You have to crack open some of the originals.

    • You can’t get a feel for how awesome Elizabethan lit is by only reading history of lit books. You have to crack open some of the originals.

      But why would you care how awesome Elizabethan literature is? Why is it vital that you know this? What if it turns out that, upon reading these works, you actually don’t like them and find yourself to have been misled by experts’ characterization of their merit.

  • ” I always think “BULLSHIT” when i head “read a classic” ”

    Shows how clueless you are. Classics have withstood the test of time, while current stuff is unsorted. Thus, to dig up a given amount of insight, you will have to toil less in the unguarded jeweler’s shop, where it’s already there for the taking, than in the mines.

  • tom

    1967 Lennon: “I am the walrus”

    2010 Hanson: “I am a donut”

    • Alan

      Let’s not forget:

      1963 JFK: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (transl. I’m a jelly doughnut)

  • “Read classic books and articles, textbooks, review articles.”

    I’m skeptical about the value of reading classics. The thing about classics is a lot of the shit can be wrong. I recommend reading the best textbook, references, and articles on topics published as close as 2010 as possible. When going deep with a topic, and seeking new alternative ideas and models not being considered in the present, classic literature (also just old literature) on the topic might be a good source.

  • Shane

    I’m tempted by this line of thinking in the same way I’m tempted by pizza (which is more troublesome for me than donuts.) I’m the sort who always wants to start with the fundamentals and then move forward, but this is recursive and infinite, for all practical purposes: you take a few steps back to get to a ‘classic’, then realize that, to fully appreciate that classic, you need to go even further back, to get something that was classic when the classic thing you’re trying to read was written. And so on.

    The combinatorial explosion means we don’t have the luxury of reading all the classics that deserve to be read. It’s an optimization problem, really: what’s the minimum amount of background to maximally appreciate the contemporary? That’s how I think of it; and my best answer is pretty close to Hopefully Anonymous: look for the best review articles as close to 2010 as possible. Serves me pretty well in neuroscience and psychology. Suspect it might work less well in other fields.

    • Shane,
      Great improvement on my post. I hope you are blogging, including anonymously.

  • Contrast with Why read old thinkers.

    • well done, TGGP.

    • Jess Riedel

      These posts are perfectly consistent. Robin Hanson doesn’t mean “classic” in the sense of preferring original works over modern treatments; he just means you should read all the foundational work necessary for understanding current research.

  • Calling for people to read classic texts instead of your blog posts?

    I’m guessing you are one of the academically accepted contrarians.

  • Philo

    Is composing your blog *work*, or *leisure*?

  • LonelyLibertarian

    One of my favorite philosophers – Paula Dean had this to say about a balanced diet….

    “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand!”

    So I guess we could extend Robin’s initial thought to a “donut in each hand”

    And thinking about how this might work in the blog world I would never think of spending time on Robin’s blog – without doing a bit of exploring on places like CD, MR and CH – and even the dreaded Krugman…

    I learn best by having my conventional wisdom tested and challenged. Robin plays a very important role in my blog portfolio…

  • LonelyLibertarian

    And if it had not been for the blog world I would probably not have been inspired to read the classics – Nash on game theory, Bastiat’s wonderful “Candlemaker’s Petition”. And actually reading Wealth of Nations and many many more…

  • Chris Lankford

    Classic literature aside, I just recently (well, a few months ago) had the pleasure of reading a translation of Euler’s original Bridges at Koenigsberg paper. Quite fun, actually. Reads better than Euclid’s Elements, but doesn’t have quite the historical significance.

  • Riley Jones

    As a regular reader of OB, I’ve noticed a strong bias in my own thinking that tends towards unconventionality, expert-shunning, and counterintuitiveness. This unhealthy gravitation towards “sexy” subjects makes me less of a good thinker than I could be.

  • John Maxwell IV

    The social science topics you blog about are more horizontal than vertical, meaning there is not much prerequisite knowledge for understanding any given post.

    Additionally, most popular nonfiction books I’ve read had a ton of filler. Blog authors are incentivized to produce posts that people will share and comment on. But in addition to these incentives, book authors are incentivized to produce a thick tome that will have a greater perceived value on the bookstore shelf and therefore command a greater price. Blog writers have a better set of incentives and on average the best blogs tend to be better than the best books.

    Plus, a “diet” is totally the wrong metaphor for consuming information from a given field. The obviously right question to ask is what info source in the field will give me the most value for a marginal hour of reading.

    If you’re worried about folks’ attention span decreasing as a result of reading a lot of blog posts–yes, it is plausible. But the brain is plastic. You can train yourself to focus on books again. It’s an uphill struggle, but it’s possible. However, you wouldn’t want to do this for social science anyway (see paragraph 2). Books are probably best for math, physics, and econ, but your blog isn’t about econ. (Or at least it’s not making use of any econ prerequisite concepts like fixed and variable costs, second degree price discrimination, elasticity, etc. BTW can anyone recommend a good book for solidifying my understanding of these topics?)

    This blog post by Eric K. Drexler is relevant:

  • Katrinanine

    Which is the more serious and important read, signaling aside: Crime and Punisment or Madame Bovary? Or are they equally sublime?

  • Whilst I agree with your advice on reading, I absolutely, utterly beseech you to ditch the donuts.

    How can you eat them? Don’t they leave a sludge in your mouth that BP would be proud of? How do they even qualify as food? They’re UFOs (unidentified FRIED objects)!

    They’re even shaped like a UFO.


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