How not to think
Against Alan Jacobs' How to Think
Few if any books ever published can have promised the reader as much as How to Think, by Professor Alan Jacobs.
I hope I am not giving too much away if I say at the outset that it does not entirely succeed in its purpose. It did succeed, however, in inducing this reviewer to consider at some length the relative merits of being literate versus the serenity that would come with finding oneself suddenly incapable of reading even one more paragraph regurgitating the contents of a dated pop science article.
How to Think reads like nothing so much as a commonplace book of jottings from airport nonfiction, heavyweight Atlantic cover stories, tweets, and a typical high-school freshman English syllabus. There are summaries here of essays by David Foster Wallace and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leah Libresco; novels and short stories by Lois Lowry and Aldous Huxley and Ursula K. LeGuin; the autobiography of John Stuart Mill; and Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?. There is an NPR-like recap of the South Sea Bubble. There are pointless allusions to Kant, Solzhenitsyn, "the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes" (a.k.a. "Thomas Hobbes, the great 17th-century political philosopher") and bizarre ones to "the famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain," the last by way — naturally — of a Malcolm Gladwell podcast.
Never, I think, in the history of lower-upper-middlebrow nonfiction has a book been so heavily weighted down with the affectless cargo of "System 1," "System 2," "RCO," "the rider," "the elephant," "moral matrices," "Inner Rings," "Terministic Screens," "in-other-wordsing," "method acting," "dual booting," "Long Now debates," "Refutation Mode," "Instant Taxonomy," "the Democratic Spirit," "the Truth Path," "lumpers," "splitters," "ick factors," "relational goods," "halo effects," and goodness knows how many other clichés, buzzwords, neologisms, and clumsily appropriated technical terms. Awkward constructions and twee formulations rush and collapse into one another like crowded passengers fleeing the Titanic of Jacobs' rapidly sinking conceptual scheme. The cumulative effect of flipping through these 160-some pages is like listening to 19 TED Talks simultaneously while binge-reading six months' worth of Tom Friedman columns. It is very likely the first book-length mixed metaphor ever attempted in our language.
How to Think begins with a thought experiment about buying a car that reads as if it were written by an extraterrestrial ("You know that there are many factors to keep in mind, and you try to remember what they all are — gas mileage, reliability, comfort, storage space, seating, sound system") and ends with a summary of the first season of "that masterpiece of television Breaking Bad" that suddenly metamorphoses in the space of a paragraph into a recommendation of "Atul Gawande's wonderful book The Checklist Manifesto." In between we are treated to précis, of varying length and perspicuity, of virtually everything and anything that it occurs to Jacobs to mention. The chapters, all of which have titles like "Attractions" and "The Age of Lumping," might have been arranged in any order without meaningfully affecting the presentation of his book's thesis.
Which is what, exactly? As far as I can gather, it is that the rest of us would be much better off if we could only develop something like Jacobs' own "reputation," as he unabashedly puts it, "for calm good sense." This, he says, is within our grasp if only we can avoid being members of what he calls an "Inner Ring," as opposed to a "community," while simultaneously recognizing when it is and isn't appropriate to engage in various practices such as "lumping," i.e., saying that some things are the same as or otherwise connected with other things. Even more important is maintaining constant vigilance against the dangers posed by "Refutation Mode," i.e., deciding that someone or something is wrong and unworthy of your time or mental effort.
For most of us, living in a world of ceaseless and omnidirectional inducements to an infinite variety of worthless activities, Refutation Mode is a kind of useful default setting; for Jacobs, however, "to say, in effect, that you've already done all the thinking you need to do, that no further information or reflection is required" is an ill-advised response to such incidents as hearing a boring talk at a professional conference. (By paraphrasing above I have just engaged in what the professor calls "in-other-wordsing," which he thinks is a disastrous consequence of Refutation Mode but which will strike many readers as a painful brief on behalf of not calling out serial bullshitters by using plain language.)
The very last thing here is an afterword entitled "Thinking Person's Checklist," a groan-inducing 12-part itemization of rules for sensible people. I can think of no more concise illustration of this book's method, tone, agenda, and overall success, than pointing out that at least one of these rules is broken on every page, not least of all in the very sentence ("Beware of metaphors that do too much cognitive heavy lifting") meant to articulate it.
I would not like to give the impression that there is no potential audience for How to Think. If watching Jacobs summarize what Antonio Damascio "explains in his powerful book Descartes' Error" as illustrated by an article by Rachel Feltman in The Washington Post about "a woman called SM" who exemplifies a rare psychological condition that involves lacking "What Daniel Kaheman calls System 1 (Jonathan Haidit's ‘elephant')" is your idea of lucid, cognition-enhancing prose, you will not be disappointed. Certainly one can imagine David Brooks and Paul Krugman and David Frum and Jonathan Chait turning these pages in awe at the unmitigated thinkpiece-begetting genius, the sheer Hudson Booksellers-level éclat of it all.
The rest of us, however, will find ourselves struggling with the idea that a writer whose idea of clear and effective reasoning involves explaining that remembering to swallow some of the ideas we let inside our symbolic mouths because to do so means standing firm on the abstract ground we've fought so hard to defend is good so long as we acknowledge the sunk costs that imaginary poker players are so good at recognizing — phew — has any business telling the rest of us how to think.