"Absolutely splendid . . . essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now." —David Brooks, New York Times
How to Think is a contrarian treatise on why we’re not as good at thinking as we assume—but how recovering this lost art can rescue our inner lives from the chaos of modern life.
As a celebrated cultural critic and a writer for national publications like The Atlantic and Harper’s, Alan Jacobs has spent his adult life belonging to communities that often clash in America’s culture wars. And in his years of confronting the big issues that divide us—political, social, religious—Jacobs has learned that many of our fiercest disputes occur not because we’re doomed to be divided, but because the people involved simply aren’t thinking.
Most of us don’t want to think. Thinking is trouble. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits, and it can complicate our relationships with like-minded friends. Finally, thinking is slow, and that’s a problem when our habits of consuming information (mostly online) leave us lost in the spin cycle of social media, partisan bickering, and confirmation bias.
In this smart, endlessly entertaining book, Jacobs diagnoses the many forces that act on us to prevent thinking—forces that have only worsened in the age of Twitter, “alternative facts,” and information overload—and he also dispels the many myths we hold about what it means to think well. (For example: It’s impossible to “think for yourself.”)
Drawing on sources as far-flung as novelist Marilynne Robinson, basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, Jacobs digs into the nuts and bolts of the cognitive process, offering hope that each of us can reclaim our mental lives from the impediments that plague us all. Because if we can learn to think together, maybe we can learn to live together, too.
"Absolutely splendid . . . Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now . . . Back when they wrote the book of Proverbs it was said, 'By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.' These days, a soft tongue doesn’t get you very far, but someday it might again.”
—David Brooks, New York Times
“Wise and delightful . . . In seven brief chapters, Mr. Jacobs suggests methods by which readers may cultivate habits that encourage the charitable and clear expression of thought . . . The reasons educated and otherwise well-functioning Americans have fallen into habits of name calling and gross intellectual dishonesty, he argues, can’t be boiled down to philosophical disagreements or some atavistic cultural neurosis. It’s the result of laziness. Mr. Jacobs insists we must try harder.”
—Wall Street Journal
"This may not be the most uncivil political era of all time, Jacobs argues, but there’s something about it that is distinctively terrible . . . How to Think is part essay, part lament, part how-to guide for processing the world more generously."
“Refreshing and hopeful, even as it points out some of our worst habits of ‘not thinking’—our tendency toward snap judgment, for instance, or our creation of and animosity toward ‘Repugnant Cultural Others.’ . . . Whatever your positions, this book is a guide in how you should hold those positions, and how you should regard and interact with those of a fundamentally different mind."
—The Paris Review (Staff Pick)
"Witty, engaging, and ultimately hopeful, Jacobs’s guide is sorely needed in a society where partisanship too often trumps the pursuit of knowledge."
“Wonderful . . . a lively antidote to magical thinking.”
“Just when it feels like we've all lost our minds, here comes Alan Jacobs’s How to Think, a book infused with the thoughtfulness, generosity, and humor of a lifelong teacher. Do what I did: Sign off social media, find a cozy spot to read, and get your mind back again. A mindful book for our mindless times.”
—Austin Kleon, bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist
“As much as this book is a manual, it's also a self-portrait of a particular mind, whose style and skills are ballast against the cognitive turbulence of our time. Reading How to Think feels like riding in a small but sturdy boat, Alan Jacobs your pilot through turbulent waters -- and if you're eager to get where he's taking you, you're also grateful for the chance to simply watch him do his thing.”
—Robin Sloan, bestselling author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
"Engrossing and hopeful . . . The compelling beauty of Jacobs’s account of a life lived well and thoughtfully shines through best in his descriptions of the ideal thinker as generous, imaginative, and caring. Unlike the virtues of intellectual self-reliance celebrated by Descartes and Kant, the virtues Jacobs extols are well suited to a world that is beautiful precisely because no one account or model or theory is ever fully adequate to it."
—The Weekly Standard
"I disagree passionately with Alan Jacobs about a number of very important things, but this indispensable book shows me how to take him by the hand while we argue, rather than the throat. In troublingly stupid times, it offers a toolbox for the restoration of nuance, self-knowledge and cognitive generosity."
—Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill and Unapologetic
“Jacobs’s book is both timely and encouraging. Timely, because we’re currently swimming in a sea of punditry, post-truth, partisanship, and perpetual news, which seems to be making engaged thoughtfulness harder and harder. Encouraging, because in spite of all this, Jacobs is optimistic about the possibility of thinking.”
—The Gospel Coalition
“We tend to regard thinking as an exclusively individual experience that operates at the intersection of neural activity and personal consciousness. But we miss the ways our thinking is shaped by the social environment we live in. In this slim and beautifully written volume, Alan Jacobs provides a courageous, erudite and deeply humane corrective.”
—James Davison Hunter, professor at University of Virginia, author of Culture Wars and To Change the World
About the Author:
Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University. Before that, he taught for many years at Wheaton College in Illinois. He writes for publications like The Atlantic, Harper’s, First Things, Books & Culture, the Christian Century, and the Wall Street Journal, and maintains a blog at the New Atlantis.