The Value of Books

Why books retain importance amongst learning media

It is amazing how many sources of information we have available to us today, solely because of the internet. Many professions and industries now have rich online communities, but given the expertise of software developers it is probably the case that the online software community is bigger and richer, since there is less barrier to entry to developers getting online. The online global community of software developers and its strong spirit of knowledge-sharing is one of the most attractive draws to the industry for new people.

It is great that we are in such a position technologically that there exist really easy ways of making a website — tools such as Wordpress and Squarespace for example, so that anybody with no technical knowledge can make an online presence and start giving things to the world. You can be your own publisher. An optimist will see the great educational and economic value. Like Javascript, it is all about avoiding the bad parts and using the good parts of the internet.

When we want to learn something new, we have many great choices of medium:

  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Conversations
  • Web articles & tutorials
  • Podcasts
  • Videos
  • Talks & conferences
  • (Soon?) virtual reality

Everybody has their own best method for learning. And this can vary depending on what is being learned. The value of this much choice is the freedom of the individual to choose their most efficient way to learn.

Of all the media types, books for me still remain the most thorough, self-contained way to learn a specific subject in detail. This is what they excel at. Several hundred pages to talk about a subject means that the subject can be introduced carefully to lay the context, which I believe is very important in learning. Knowledge can then be gradually built up, building on previous steps, where nothing within reason is left unexplained. I believe this is key to learning a subject well. A quote from Elon Musk:

"One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to."

This aspect of knowledge-building available in books adds a lot of efficiency to learning that makes up for the length of a book. With a good grounding in the important axioms and principles of a subject, you can start to guess things ahead of time, which is very rewarding when you are shown to be correct. When I am reading a technical book, my rate of progress usually increases as I go through it.

One more nice thing with books is because they are so long, it leaves room for the author to inject occasional anecdotes and personal thoughts. A well-written book comes across like a good friend, and feels like a conversation, which all builds engagement. This sort of thing is the value of *conversation* to me — relating knowledge to personal experiences.

Magazines and articles and shorter forms all have their place, because we are not always alert or available enough to read through a book. These media can help to fill gaps in the day usefully. Podcasts are fantastic for this — listening to podcasts whilst driving, or doing things around the house for example, is an excellent use of that time. I am often listening to This Week in Startups whilst driving or in the kitchen.

With YouTube anybody can watch top-class university lectures on subjects. MIT OpenCourseWare is one of the great educational resources I've discovered so far. It is a curious person's paradise. Combined with how easy it is to buy any textbook online, the value of going to university is questionable. Given the crippling costs of university, I think society should absolutely be moving in this direction — towards democratisation and de-centralisation of learning.

The takeaway is that all the available media for free learning resources are now very rich and valuable, but new forms are not replacing the old forms yet, in my opinion. I believe they all have a place in efficient and thorough learning. At least until brain-machine interfaces become possible.