Published in German, 2019, in English, 2020, by Sceptre.
This is a short book on an idea that seems counter-intuitive. But I love counter-intuitive ideas, those that challenge my provisional conclusions about the world, especially if a book on such an idea can make its point succinctly without demanding too much of my time. If I’m wrong about something, I want to know. This one fits: it’s 160 pages of 35 short chapters with blank pages in between them.
I encountered Dobelli a couple years ago, when I learned he’d written a book called THE ART OF THINKING CLEARLY (2013), that explores many of the now-familiar cognitive biases that all humans are subject to. That book was a bestseller in Europe, where he lives and writes, though apparently he’s not well-known in the US. I’ve been fascinated by the theme of cognitive biases for 20 years now, and so I bought the book, to see what new angle or insights Dobelli might have. I glanced through it, and my take is that he describes many every-day situations in which we might reach a wrong conclusion, and then explains why we do so, in terms of the biases. Not, in contrast to many other books, by framing the narrative by the biases, and then showing examples; he shows examples first. I might read through the rest of the book, or maybe not. Too many books.
He also wrote, in a very similar structure, THE ART OF THE GOOD LIFE (2017), with 52 chapters across 210 pages. I’ve barely glanced through this, but will look at it again more closely.
His third book (which Amazon alerted me to since I’d bought the others) was STOP READING THE NEWS, subtitled “A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life,” published in 2019 and 2020, as indicated above. Really? I thought. Why?
It’s a smaller book than his first two. 35 chapters over 146 pages, not counting appendix and notes.
- He decided about a decade ago that following the news – which he did obsessively as a young man – is a waste of time, and so he went cold turkey and gave it all up, and recommends that you do too.
- Why? Because virtually all news in the papers, and on TV, and on the internet, is irrelevant to your everyday life. At worst, it’s bothersome, and distracts you, and makes you upset. At best, it’s merely entertainment.
- What about keeping up with important events in the world? He counts on his friends and associates to mention such things.
- He advocates, instead, reading long-form essays, and books. He also cultivates fellow professionals with whom he can have lunch, during which he can learn much through serious conversations about things that matter.
- I agree that much of the news, in print or on TV or on the internet, is trivial. I’ve written before about needing to exercise “news hygiene,” and not let purveyors of conspiracy theories infect your mind. Or be distracted by local news about traffic accidents. It’s like avoiding junk food.
- At the same time, I can’t agree that one shouldn’t keep up on the news in order to be a responsible member of society. To know what’s going on; to know which politicians are trying to change your life; to be aware of history in progress.
- I admire his idealistic vision of a culture of professionals meeting for lunch to discuss wise things. But that’s his culture – he’s an intellectual and businessman, in Europe, flying around among European cities, where he might always find someone suitable to hook up for lunch with, to talk about meaningful things. (He even imagines a “salon” culture growing in all the major cities.) But that’s not true for the vast majority of the population, of us. He’s extrapolating from his privileged position.
Other particular points from his book:
- He mentions that if you must read news to keep up on what’s “important,” then skim media that summarizes, e.g. Economist and Week (presumably he means The Week, which is indeed currently my favorite magazine). When you read books, set them aside, or read them twice, right away (he makes this point in his second book too). Judicious using of Google is allowed.
- Try reading magazines or newspapers a month or year old, to see how most of what they published has become irrelevant.
- He notes how newspapers and magazines are always about the same size, regardless of how much “important” news there might be. (The same is true, I’d say, about TV news. But most people realize this, I think; thus the phrase “it’s a slow news day.”)
- The relevant news is anything that enables you to make better decisions, or helps you to understand the world better. At the same time, stay within your circle of competence, which may change over time. You don’t need to become an expert on everything. If that makes you a nerd in your specialty, so be it.
- He notes how news tends towards the sensational; people are easily bored. And yet sensational stories are anecdotes; underlying systemic problems are seldom addressed (except in those long-form articles, and books). And beware cognitive errors, especially confirmation bias, and the way big problems tend to be blamed on just a couple causes (in order to make a good story), when reality is so much more complex.
- When deciding how to vote, he suggests, just research the candidates about what they promised, and what they’ve accomplished.
- His predictions: the amount of news will increase; it will surround us everywhere; algorithms are getting better at targeting us; news is drifting further and further from the truth. Who would disseminate fake news? Anyone trying to manipulate your opinions for their gain.
I’ll follow up some time about my own news reading habits, and how they’ve changed over time. (I already discussed Watching the News, on 28 February.)
We both know we ain’t kids no more. This has been my earworm for the past couple days.