Summarize the Canon

Every discipline has a book that everybody references, but nobody reads.

In physics, it’s The Feynman Lectures; in philosophy, it’s Godel, Escher, Bach; in sociology, it’s Das Kapital, in English, it’s Infinite Jest; in communications, it’s Understanding Media; in biology, it’s The Origin of Species; in computer science, it’s The Art of Computer Programming; in investing, it’s The Intelligent Investor; and in economics, it’s The Wealth of Nations. 

Build an audience by summarizing these books. By doing so, you’ll do yourself and the world a favor. You’ll attract an intelligent audience by saving people time and introducing them to important ideas. And besides, a good summary is often better than the actual book because it cuts the fluff, contextualizes the ideas, and makes them relevant.

But won’t the author be upset? No. You’re advertising on their behalf. Summaries are the same reason why electronic music festivals publish sets on YouTube. Recordings give people 50% of the fun for 1% of the work. The music is free, there are no crowds, and you don’t need to travel. But festival marketing departments know that people who watch the sets are more likely to attend in the future. 

The purists in the house will hate on summaries. They’ll say you should only read first-hand sources, as if the knowledge you pick up in summaries doesn’t count. Though there’s wisdom in that perspective, they forget that summaries are an on-boarding ramp to reading the actual book, just music festival recordings. Eli Dourado’s summary of The Use of Knowledge in Society inspired me to read Hayek and I only read Seeing Like a State after Venkatesh Rao summarized it

Look for the canonical books in your field. The ones that are hard to read but filled with foundational ideas, which is why they’ve stayed popular for so long. Old books are better to summarize than new ones because they’re more likely to stand the test of time, and the longer your summary will stay relevant in the future, the more you can justify the effort. 

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