Why I write criticisms of books

When I started law school, I’d read the majority judgement in a case and find that I completely agreed with it. Satisfied that I “understood” the matter, I’d go on to read the dissenting judgement. To my surprise, I frequently found that to be utterly convincing as well!

I was not alone in this — many of my friends went through a similar experience. It took us a while to get past agreeing with every plausible-sounding argument we read and start thinking more critically about what we read.

Sometimes when I’m reading, I feel like I’m back in my first year of law school. The best writers can make their arguments sound incredibly compelling, even when they’re incredibly wrong. We all default to believing things we read, especially about topics we’re not experts on. And when I’m reading late at night and starting to nod off, dodgy arguments sound more persuasive than usual. (Often I don’t spot inconsistencies and errors until later, when I’m writing up my summaries.)

Why write criticism posts at all?

Wrong arguments can sound very persuasive because of what people don’t tell you. Naturally we all focus on what others say, yet what they don’t tell you is often just as important — or moreso — than what they do.

For this reason, adversarial law systems usually require judges to listen to both sides before making their decisions. Each side is expected identify and rectify some of the omissions made by the opposing side. The idea is that the truth will emerge from the rigorous contest between the opposing parties. Only in exceptional circumstances will a judge make a decision without hearing the other party. Even then, the judgment will probably be a temporary that the absent party can apply to overturn later.

I hope that my criticism posts can help both you and me get closer to forming true beliefs. My posts can provide you with an alternative viewpoint to the book or summary you just read. In turn, the process of publishing criticism posts will force me to be more careful and disciplined with my critiques. And when a reader explains why my criticisms are unfounded, I might be able to learn something there, too.

Now this is worth criticising

What makes me decide to write a criticism post for a particular book? Does the fact that I’ve written a criticism post for one book but not for another suggest that I think the latter is better?

Elliot Aronson tells a story of how he once handed in a term paper for Leon Festinger’s course. (Aronson and Festinger are both giants in the field of social psychology.) Initially, Festinger didn’t even bother to grade it. He simply hands Aronson’s paper back to him after reading it, holding it between his thumb and forefinger, away from his body as if the paper disgusted him.

Aronson went home and thoroughly reworked that paper before handing it in again. After Festinger looked at it again, he said:

Now this is worth criticising!

In some ways, a criticism post is a compliment. It takes considerable effort to go through a book, work out why I think it’s wrong, occasionally conduct research to back up my criticisms, and write it all up. If a book is merely repetitive or the writing style is terrible, I’ll just note that in my summary. And if a book is truly terrible, I won’t write a summary, let alone a criticism post.

I’ll usually write up a criticism post if I think at least one claim is questionable and reasonably important. For example, I didn’t feel comfortable publishing a summary of Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics – The User’s Guide without front-footing some of its flaws. Similarly, I found Malcolm Gladwell’s treatment of the Brock Turner rape case in Talking To Strangers extremely troubling.

I may also write up a criticism post if I find I’m putting many rebuttals in square brackets when writing my summary. Problems with Atomic Habits and Criticisms of So Good They Can’t Ignore You are some examples of this. Though nothing may be seriously wrong with these books, I’ll still write a separate post so that my asides aren’t too distracting. An entire post to point out minor inaccuracies may seem nitpicky, but such inaccuracies still undermine an author’s general credibility. If I can find multiple errors in just a few hours, it doesn’t give me much confidence in the rigour of the author’s research or analysis.

My posts won’t be perfect

I mean, nobody’s perfect, but my criticism posts will be particularly limited in at least two ways:

  • I won’t identify all the flaws.
  • My research will be relatively cursory — no more than a couple of hours, at most.

You’ll often see me hedge my criticisms with phrases like “I’m not sure this is correct” or “some experts disagree with this, see [blah blah blah]”. I’m far more likely to cast doubt on what an author is saying, than assert that they are definitely wrong or try to prove that the opposite is correct.

Admittedly, it seems somewhat hypocritical to hold the authors I criticise to a higher standard than I hold myself. But they’re meant to be the expert — they’re literally writing the books! So it’s fair to expect authors to bear the burden of providing enough arguments and evidence to support their claims.

What I don’t want my criticism posts to do

While I hope my posts might make you rethink some things you read, I certainly don’t want my criticisms to “ruin” your enjoyment of a book. A flawed book can nevertheless contain tons of useful advice. If a suggestion in a book works for you, who cares if the evidence or theory behind it is lacking?

Nor do I wish to offend any authors that may come across my criticism posts. I may not have found your arguments persuasive, but you may still be right. You may have simplified for good reasons. You may have had other constraints I did not appreciate — it’s not like I’ve written a book myself. Even if my exasperation seeps through at times, I hope you’ll find my criticisms to be fair and constructive on the whole. (In other words, please don’t sue me for defamation.)

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