Last night I finished How to Think by Alan Jacobs. Not being very long it didn’t take long to read, but I was only reading it in small chunks at bedtime. It’s very good and I’ll surely re-read it at least once. If I had read it forty years ago I’d probably be shouting its praises from the hilltops and pressing it on friends. But as with his earlier book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I find myself in the odd position of not being in his intended audience, but rather the product of the process/attitude he argues for.
It’s a great book for someone who isn’t a certain kind of person and through reading it discovers that, yes, this is how a person should be. But since I consider myself to be the sort of thinking person that Jacobs celebrates, it’s a little awkward: Am I just flattering myself? Should I put my self under the microscope one more time and look for signs of self-deception? Does it sound too haughty to say that I endorse Jacobs’s conclusions about thinking and have found over the years that they’ve served me well?
Maybe I’ll just say: it’s short, it’s good, if it doesn’t describe you then you should read it and if it does describe you then you’d enjoy reading it but won’t suffer from giving it a pass. And beyond that, just a couple of comments.
First, I much prefer the cover of the British edition (above left) over the American edition (above right), precisely because the latter caters to Americans in a way the book itself doesn’t. A survival guide? Not really, if that means to you a collection of skills for approaching a fraught situation. Jacobs would agree that you need certain skills, but the more important message of his book is that you need to be a certain kind of person to successfully negotiate “a world at odds”, and he spends less time on the skills and more on what it means to be such a person, and to commit to becoming more and better of one.
No surprise that he says it much better:
I want to emphasize, here at the end, that you won’t profit from this book if you treat it as offering only a set of techniques. You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you; the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.
Anyone who has endured my endless nattering about the importance of character can see why I give the book a hearty endorsement.
Second, I’ve poked around and not seen this pointed out anywhere else, so here is my gift to the internet:
Separated at birth? (Alan Jacobs at left, Brian Eno at right)