Byrne Hobart
8 min readJan 10, 2020

You will not learn anything of lasting importance from TV, movies, podcasts, or that execrable Existential Comics thing. Even at 3x speed, they’re junk food. The way serious people learn is by reading. The way they share important information is by writing it down. Read, read, read. Rich people read a lot — Forbes asked a while ago, and the modal answer was two hours per day. (The national average is about twenty minutes.)One respondent claimed eight plus.

Text benefits from two economic coincidences: it has a low marginal cost today, but it used to have a very high one. So older writing is more likely to contain information that smart people with cash on hand thought was absolutely essential, while newer writing is cheaper to produce and easier to search than other kinds of content, so if there’s one specific piece of information you need, you’re more likely to find it in text than anywhere else.

Text is a Better Medium

Text literally changes your brain. Anthropologists checked: there used to be itinerant bards living in the Balkans who got paid to know all the classic stories. In the early 20th century, some of them learned to read — and forgot how the old stories went! (This is the main piece of evidence for the claim that The Odyssey could have been a story a single person memorized from start to finish. Maybe Homer really was blind, which protected him from the risk of literacy.)

Spoken text has some useful affordances for memorization. The ancient bards had to use phrases like the “wine-dark sea” or “bright-eyed Athena.” This is a formalized version of something we see in unstructured language, especially when you’re visiting in-laws during the holidays: “My cousin so-and-so, you know, the one who shot me in the toe with a BB gun when we were six.” These are the spoken equivalent of a table of consistent formatting, and they keep the speaker on track.

But what’s better than this is actual consistent formatting, especially if you can ctrl-F it.

We live at a convenient time in human history: for the last millennium or so, people have been writing stuff down, but only copying or preserving it if it was really useful. This means that pretty much any book that was in print for a long time in the distant past has useful, hard-won knowledge. Even the mistakes are helpful. Adam Smith and Karl Marx got a lot wrong, but they were both smart guys, so their misconceptions are a good guide to what smart people might get wrong today.

Byrne Hobart

I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: