Learning From Books

Andy Matuschak writing in his blog:

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this-one you’d read-come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences?

The post offers an insightful overview of why books are a less-than-ideal means for learning new things. (It explicitly covers non-fiction and acknowledges there are other reasons to read besides learning.)

Reading this post reminded me of what has turned out to be one of the most powerful (and consequential) learning experiences of my life — and which was centered on a book. Two books, actually: Getting Started With Color BASIC and Getting Started With Extended Color BASIC, manuals that came bundled with Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Color Computer (1980). It is through these books that I acquired a superpower: programming computers.

Early personal computers couldn’t do much out of the box. When you turned one on, you were greeted by a blinking cursor. You were expected to load software to do anything useful with the device. You did this using cartridges (much like game consoles), cassette tape drives, floppy disks (which at the time were prohibitively expensive, and thus rare), or — most commonly — by typing it in yourself. (It was common at the time to see software code in computer magazines and books.)

As a result, “learning computers” meant learning to program them (mostly in BASIC, an early computer programming language.) Every popular personal computer of the time booted to a BASIC interpreter by default. Each manufacturer implemented their own dialect(s) of the language, so you needed to learn the language anew for each model.

The two Getting Started manuals taught the dialect used by the Color Computer; the first computer I ever owned. They assumed the reader was encountering BASIC for the first time — a safe assumption during the early 1980s — so they started from the very beginning, and eventually moved to the things that were specific to the CoCo platform.

This pair of books is one of the best examples I’ve encountered of how to teach a complex subject clearly, simply, and inexpensively​. Even a committed 10-year-old kid could develop some degree of mastery using only the texts (there was no internet at the time, of course); I emerged from their pages with the ability to write primitive video games.

How did they do this? Through a combination of sound structure, clear writing, and frequent and relevant interactive exercises (to the point of Mr. Matuschak’s post.) But the “committed” part is not to be underestimated: they also worked because the learner was excited by the subject and committed to learning. I devoured the Getting Started books, and revisited them often. I suspect the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of book-based learning has much to do with the degree of interest of the learner in the subject.

Why books don’t work | Andy Matuschak