Book Brigades

Here’s an idea I’ve wanted to try for a while and thought of it again in the context of group goals:

A book brigade is a very small group of very like-minded people collaborating on getting a book read and understood by taking turns reading sections of it and recapping for the others. I expect it to be powerful because (a) you can get a book loaded into your head from only reading a fraction of it, and (b) the part where you have to explain it to others [UPDATE: that’s now a link to the blog post that this forum thread inspired] gets it cemented in your own head much better than reading it alone.

Here’s a sampling of non-fiction books I’ve been wanting to read, in case anyone wants to join a book brigade for one of these (or propose your own!):

  1. The Precipice, by Toby Ord (I’m already beeminding reading this on my own but if anyone wanted to catch up and join me, by all means)
  2. How To Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
  3. REWORK, by Jason Fried and DHH
  4. Situational Awareness, by Leopold Aschenbrenner
  5. The Information, by James Gleick
  6. Thinking in Bets, by Annie Duke
  7. The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch
  8. Land is a Big Deal, by Lars Doucet
  9. How Not to Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg

Some of those I’m not sure if they’re too outdated, already in the water supply, so to speak, or are still must-reads.

(More ideas in an old thread from Adam.)


Interested in giving this a shot with 2 and 9, unless European time and what you’re observing makes it too difficult :innocent:

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I’d be interested in joining in with 2, 3, or 4.

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I would be interested in 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 (although it may be to dense for this format).

How exactly would a group goal work for the book club? If I don’t read my pages somebody else has to catch up for me?

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I’m thinking the group would rule out picking up each other’s slack. We probably want to the trust to be a complete graph and for everyone to care about each other enough that they’re willing to put up real stakes on everyone getting through the book together.

My idea in the the other thread about group goals with internet friends was that when it’s your turn to read a chapter or section, it’s also your responsibility to tell Beeminder the page number you’re on if it’s a beemergency. If you don’t, everyone will be charged! You’re also expected to take notes up to that page. When your section is done, you clean up and send those notes to the other groupies. Or, depending on preferences, liveblogging to each other as you read. (Random example, here’s Sarah Constantin liveblogging her reading of Situational Awareness:

Question from offline: Why would one want to do this? Why would you not want to read the whole book?

One reason is that there are some classics (like How To Win Friends and Influence People) that I suspect might already be so thoroughly in the water supply by now that there’s little point actually reading it. But I’m uncertain and kind of want to read it just in case. If n of us can read 1/n of the book and tell each other things like “so this part was just obvious stuff about being a good listener and not just using the time the other person is talking to formulate what you want to say next” then, wonderful, we’ve all saved a ton of time.

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I actually already read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” once, but a while ago, and it’s a book that bears re-reading. In the water supply—sure, to some extent, but as always, you need to actually do the stuff not just read a book about it, and re-reading the book is a way to give yourself a kick in the seat of the pants as a reminder to keep it top of mind.

In fact, come to think of it, HTWFAIP is probably a uniquely bad book to read in a book brigade, because it’s mostly not procedural knowledge even though it comes in that form. What the book really does is drive home the “no, really, actually do this”. It does this by telling anecdote after anecdote, in a way which makes you see how that works, why that’s obviously the way to do it.

If you’re going to sum up chapters into things like “be a good listener”, etc, then just read the table of contents (well, no, it’s got terribly uninformative chapter names, but I’m sure there is some online summary somewhere that does the equivalent.) Nevertheless, I feel the book was worth reading, and indeed is worth re-reading, because a dry list of rules like “be a good listener” is one thing, but at that level alone it is hard to internalize. By reading Dale Carnegie’s rendition in a conversational style of endless anecdotes to drive it home, it at least feels like you can actually grok it. Rather than a list of abstract rules, you get some human context that grounds them.

To show what I mean, here’s an excerpt of the start of the chapter about being a good listener:

Some time ago, I attended a bridge party. I don’t play bridge—and there was a woman there who didn’t play bridge either. She had discovered that I had once been Lowell Thomas’ manager before he went on the radio and that I had traveled in Europe a great deal while helping him prepare the illustrated travel talks he was then delivering. So she said: “Oh, Mr. Carnegie, I do want you to tell me about all the wonderful places you have visited and the sights you have seen.”

As we sat down on the sofa, she remarked that she and her husband had recently returned from a trip to Africa. “Africa!” I exclaimed. “How interesting! I’ve always wanted to see Africa, but I never got there except for a twenty-four-hour stay once in Algiers. Tell me, did you visit the big-game country? Yes? How fortunate. I envy you. Do tell me about Africa.”

That kept her talking for forty-five minutes. She never again asked me where I had been or what I had seen. She didn’t want to hear me talk about my travels. All she wanted was an interested listener, so she could expand her ego and tell about where she had been.

Was she unusual? No. Many people are like that.

For example, I met a distinguished botanist at a dinner party given by a New York book publisher. I had never talked with a botanist before, and I found him fascinating. I literally sat on the edge of my chair and listened while he spoke of exotic plants and experiments in developing new forms of plant life and indoor gardens (and even told me astonishing facts about the humble potato). I had a small indoor garden of my own—and he was good enough to tell me how to solve some of my problems.

As I said, we were at a dinner party. There must have been a dozen other guests, but I violated all the canons of courtesy, ignored everyone else, and talked for hours to the botanist.

Midnight came. I said good night to everyone and departed. The botanist then turned to our host and paid me several flattering compliments. I was “most stimulating.” I was this and I was that, and he ended by saying I was a “most interesting conversationalist.”

An interesting conversationalist? Why, I had said hardly anything at all. I couldn’t have said anything if I had wanted to without changing the subject, for I didn’t know any more about botany than I knew about the anatomy of a penguin. But I had done this: I had listened intently. I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it. Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone. “Few human beings,” wrote Jack Woodford in Strangers in Love, “few human beings are proof against the implied flattery of rapt attention.” I went even further than giving him rapt attention. I was “hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.”

I told him that I had been immensely entertained and instructed—and I had. I told him I wished I had his knowledge—and I did. I told him that I should love to wander the fields with him—and I have. I told him I must see him again—and I did.

And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and had encouraged him to talk.

That’s almost 600 words out of an over 3000 word chapter, so imagine a total of five times this amount of anecdote all to the same point. It is a bit verbose, indeed, on a fairly simple topic that can be summed up in a sentence—but that’s a large part of the point of the book. It’s not, I think, mostly a matter of being in the water supply. Some of it is, but much of it is an intentional effort to “show, don’t tell” these principles. As a list of preachy rules, it’s not going to be any good—so instead he tells anecdotes which drive the point home.

He’ll then sum up at the end of the chapter, as gathered from the anecdotes. In this case:

So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.

Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems. A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a million people. A boil on one’s neck interests one more than forty earthquakes in Africa. Think of that the next time you start a conversation.

That’s well and good as a summary, but the book would lose a lot if it were just a list of such summaries.

For better or for worse—I can certainly see the point of view which gets fed up of endless anecdotes about the same “obvious” subject. Still, though you could compress the book into a listicle by cutting out only these chapter summaries, you’d lose the main thing the book has to give, reducing it to yet another social skills listicle that doesn’t stick in your brain beyond the moment you close the browser tab.


Dang, that’s a compelling case! Or… what if we incorporate that wisdom into the book-brigading protocol? If you’ve recognized that the value of your assigned chapter is in reading the anecdotes and making them vivid, then go ahead and quote them at length, like you’ve done above. Or give renditions of them in your own words.

PS: Now a major motion blog post: The Power of Rearticulating Insights in Your Own Words.


That’s a good general takeaway, but I want to emphasize that HTWFAIP is 100% vivid anecdotes, beginning to end. The genre is that of the motivational speaker (though in writing), inspiring more than teaching. It’s pretty good at that! But this makes it less than ideal for a book brigade, probably.

Actually, I think that the thing that makes me the most excited about the book brigade format is how it pushes the participants to articulate what they read to the others. For the reasons you describe in that madhack, that’s valuable. It also can take a lot of effort, so committing to reading and rearticulating an entire book would be a lot—but taking turns at reading and resting, rerendering a chapter in your own words and reading other people’s rerenderings, may be a reasonable compromise.

That surely works for some sorts of books more than others, and I’m increasingly convinced that with HTWFAIP it would be completely missing the point. But I’m actually rather excited to try that with one of the other two books I’ve registered interest in—both seem the type which could benefit from this sort of shared reading.


You’ve convinced me that we should pick something else. (You’ve also inadvertently convinced me to turn that madhack about re-articulating insights in your own words into a blog post!)

And last call for others to get in on this. We’ve got a group of 8 amazing people so far!


Most interested in 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, but yeah, I’ll participate regardless!

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The private Book Brigade group is off and running. Stay tuned for how that goes!

@zzq convinced me to deem How To Win Friends and Influence People not ideal for book-brigading but @bee and I decided to try a book brigade for that one just the two of us, just as an additional experiment.