The buzz on the next big thing: products and services that claim to make you smarter. Forbes says it is the next trillion-dollar industry. Get-smart video games are hitting the markets. Websites and apps that promise fast results are booming.
I’m a skeptic of the tools being promoted these days, but not of the overall idea. It makes complete sense. Maybe you can’t do anything about the core capacity you were born with, but you can surely improve the efficiency and functioning of the equipment you have.
Heaven knows we think enough about getting our bodies in shape. Maniacal energy goes into pumping up our bodies, losing weight, flattening our bellies and bulking up our chests and arms. Health clubs have remained a boom-time industry, and there’s no end to the diet books, strategies, theories and ambitions.
It’s all terribly superficial compared with a much more important matter of finding ways to strengthen our capacity to think. But as with health clubs and exercise machines for our bodies, we will quickly discover that there are no shortcuts for… hard work.
Why so little attention to the mind? We can easily fool ourselves into thinking we are intellectually fit. It’s hard to admit it to ourselves that we aren’t thinking very well, that we are relying too much on our biases, that we aren’t challenging ourselves, that we have a reduced capacity for creativity and absorbing new information.
Step one: Admit there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
To shape up the body, and overcome our natural tendency to cut ourselves too much slack, people have various strategies. They hire personal trainers to push them further than they think they can go. They go to class so that they can exercise alongside others. They go to month-long camps that monitor eating and compel all-day exercise.
None of this works with intellectual life. It is just you and your brain, and if you lack the discipline to undertake the challenge, improvement is not going to happen. You need some framework to help, like the virtual path on a treadmill or stationary bike, something that keeps you on track and discourages you from cutting corners.
The best method I know is something taken from the world of digital journalism. When people attend live events like concerts or conferences, they tweet or blog the event as it happens. You see this during political debates, too. The journalist listens, reports and responds in real time.
It makes for exciting reading, and it is also a very challenging way to write. You have to pay careful attention and stay constantly engaged. You can’t suddenly flake out and skip some of the action. It is a challenge to extract information from the external world and convey its meaning in prose. It is also an excellent way to remember and learn from any event.
What if we treat a book like an event? It is an event, really. A great book can be just as interesting and invigorating — and even more evocative — than a live event in reality. This is obviously true of fiction, but it is also true of nonfiction, provided the book is well written and deals provocatively with a topic you find intriguing.
This task takes us away from our default use of our intellectual talents. Hey, I’m not putting down the tweet, the Facebook update, the email or the video game. All of these activities are better than what consumed the brains of several generations from the 1950s onward, namely sitting in a puffy chair and watching people on a screen talk to you.
But live blogging a book is far better still because of the sustained focus on one single subject that it requires. It is a seriously difficult task, one that requires a stream of daily concentration, creativity and a willingness to stick it out until the end. The results will be obvious to you at the end of the long road. You will have experienced an upgrade in your capacity to think, write, read and process ideas.
Live blogging a book is different from reviewing a book or writing a book report. The point is to process information and react to it as it comes to you in real time. The live blog doesn’t merely relate the contents. It reacts to the contents of the book and how it interacts with your own prior existing ideas and how it may or may not have changed your understanding.
If while you are reading you finding yourself reflecting on an example or remembering some debate you had with someone on the topic, this is perfect live blog fodder. Put it in there. The point is to make a literary chronicle of how some book has affected your thinking chapter by chapter, and to do so in the most intellectually honest way you can.
In other words, if you are buying what the author is selling, say so. If the author illuminates an experience or thought you already had, say that too. If the author has contradicted himself and you take note of that, put that in too. There’s no reason to try to anticipate what is in the next chapter. Write only what you have learned so far as the literary event proceeds.
Part of the challenge here is to make your own writing compelling, even apart from what you are reading. You will notice that you will probably start writing a bit like the prose in the book you are live blogging. That’s very good, because imitation of this sort is an important part of learning, too.
I would suggest a word goal for each live blog, perhaps 750 words per chapter. If the book is 20 chapters (never skip), you will end up with a pretty sizeable monograph on your hands. This is extremely satisfying!
Put a title on it and go back through it. You might be surprised at what you wrote at the outset. Then you will be in a position to see whether and what extent this book actually changed the way you think.
This much is for sure: Your capacity to recall the contents and use them in later conversations and thinking will be greatly enhanced. It teaches you to be thorough and not selective in your reading. Not only that, you will experience an upgrade in your capacity to notice things and ideas, think about them, process them and roll them into your existing thinking.
It’s like an intellectual boot camp that you initiate and manage entirely on your own.
It is not as hard as it may first appear. And the use of the live-blog model provides the disciplined framework that inspires you to push through all the way to the end.
What books? I might suggest the four that are part of the Economics in One Library. Start with Hazlitt’s own book on economics. Move to Hayek’s book. Cover Bastiat’s The Law next. End with Garrett’s A Bubble that Broke the World. These are all great choices, but there are millions more. The important thing is to choose great books that interest you.
One of the hopes I have for the Spy Briefing Club is that we can use the forums as a place to post these live blogs. It requires a certain humility to publicly post these things, but that is also a virtue that I hope the collegial atmosphere of the club can cultivate.
We can also learn from watching others learn. Mostly, we learn from possessing teachable spirits. The smartest people I’ve ever known are also the first people to admit that they do not know something.
Regardless, whether in the club or out, the live blogging is an effective literary tool that will do more than all the gizmos you might have over the next decade to enhance your ability to think and process information. It is something we should all require of ourselves just to try it out and see the results.
It is also a great activity for young students. It’s true that the spread of this approach will contribute nothing to the trillion-dollar industry, and certainly not give us an abdominal six-pack, but it could make a mighty contribution to making us all think more clearly.