Asynchronous Book Club: Reflections on my Lunchtime Conversation
September 4, 2019
Author: Bianca Yang
A coworker today was talking about his latest book find: “The Road to Wigan Pier”, a nonfiction account of Orwell’s time among working class North Englishmen. Eventually, I was asked about my latest readings, which was “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, by Michael Young. We chatted a bit about the Rise of the Meritocracy and then I was asked what I was reading next… which led to this conversation. At some point, my lunch group started talking about Ruth Ginsburg. I have a feeling that my manager heavily leans towards bringing up female leaders and female empowerment things around me. I’m the only female engineer on the team…and I just joined…a month ago. There’s nothing wrong with his behavior, but I’m negatively invested in the feminist movement. Honestly, I’m trying to dedupe on the feminist movement and thus am very aloof and distant around these topics. Back to the point. We start talking about Ruth and how she wrote an autobiography and how it’s unclear whether these books are any good or whether they just get a bunch of attention because someone famous wrote them. Ahem Michelle Obama’s book (which I haven’t read so don’t chew me out for it).
The next author of attack on this popular author but mediocre writer is Malcolm Gladwell, whom I hate for his wishy-washy nice journalism but heavy confirmation bias and hand waviness that should only be reserved for math proofs and textbooks where the author says repeatedly that the proof is trivial or practically falls right off the page or that the exercise is left for the reader. Talking about Malcolm Gladwell reminded me of my favorite, data-heavy book: Why We Sleep. There is a newer “Why We Sleep”, but it’s utter garbage and Malcolm Gladwell-Michael Lewis style wishy washiness. The old “Why We Sleep” basically summarizes a bunch of research studies on sleep and its effects on body temperature, cognitive performance, weight of rats and humans. It’s a dense book, but it’s so satisfying to read because you know you’re getting the real stuff, straight from the source. My main takeaways from that book:
- Your cognitive performance deteriorates after 1 night w/o sleep.
- Your body doesn’t really need sleep. Your brain does.
- You can safely and permanently reduce your sleep hours to 6 - 7 hours (I need to check those numbers but that’s pretty much the range for average people. Also, I safely and permanently, not painlessly).
- Your body temperature decreases as you become more sleep deprived.
- People tend to eat a lot more when sleep deprived but not gain weight. Anyway, I highly recommend the real OG “Why We Sleep”. Get it from your local library.
Back to the point. My coworker who’s reading Orwell said he once read a book as part of a book club that was utter garbage but was written by some celebrity prof or who know what. Yadda yadda, my thinking was immediately drawn towards the idea of a book club. I did book clubs in school, but those were easy because everybody had to show up and do the work to get the credit. We were also heavily supervised. I’m now super disinclined to join book clubs because of the social coordination costs and because I’m increasingly misanthropic and picky about the kind of intellectual environment I want to immerse myself into (cue Peter Thiel and Eric Weistein and Alexey Guzey and Devon Zuegel as prime examples of people I want to be more like). Anyway, the social costs of a book club:
- Bad book selection
- Slow reading pace. I think most book clubs read a book every 2 wks to 1 month? Of course, people are busy and have jobs and have kids and spend too much time on their phones to read. But a book a week is 52 books a year, which is potentially an exponential increase in knowledge gained and mental scaffolding built over reading at half to 1/4 the pace.
- People have to show up and organize and bring food and drinks and play nice with each other. Too much effort.
- Discussion is likely nonsense. I don’t really appreciate discussions (I went to a high school that encouraged discussion by putting us around this idiotic table called a Harkness table. I am a shy person, which doesn’t help, but the discussions were, as expected, dominated by the same five people every class and often weren’t very illuminating in the way that I want to become). The principle I’m pulling upon here is: don’t call a meeting unless you have to; only call the minimum number of people. Sure, it’s good to be social, but I don’t have the patience for social drivel and cocktail banter any more.
So, my solution to the social costs of a book club is: make it asynchronous. Simply, this means that things don’t happen in real time. They don’t happen simultaneously. They happen when people get to them. They don’t happen when people don’t get to them, and that’s fine. How do you implement an asynchronous book club? I think that’s what everybody smart is doing on the Internet: share a book list on their personal website. This basically means, I endorse these books. It might be too strong to assume these people intimately know the contents of each book they recommend, but they probably are familiar enough with each book to be able to carry on a smart conversation about it. So, if you also like that book and have questions you want to ask the person who is sharing that book their site, you can send them an email. They may or may not respond, but if you do get a response, you’ve now begun a meaningful discussion about “Snow White”, for example.
So, perhaps this post is banal. Perhaps it echoes words that were more eloquently pieced together about networking on the Internet, for example. Perhaps I’m a late, declining adopter of a strategy that people have been using for centuries (pen pals, anyone?). Regardless, I hope you found a couple of good books in this post that we can chat about (through email, please) next time.