How Not To Be Wrong

By Jordan Ellenberg


To start, reading non-fiction books almost always feels like a chore despite how much I enjoy them. With the completion of this book I feel I finally know a good way of enjoying and getting more knowledge gains from non-fiction audiobooks although how much I will follow the advice I'm about to outline remains to be seen.

My main time for audiobooks is in the evening once I get home from work. During the first half of this book I generally couldn't must the mental energy at this time to visualize the projective plane or other problems that are purposed in the book at a time when my mental energies seem to be at their daily low. After having started this book over 2 months ago and not yet having finished 6 hours of it (when I have no problem finishing a 50 hour Tom Clancy in a month) I decided to take a new approach. 

When I encounter something I don't understand (such as getting stumped visualizing the protective plane) I would rewind the troubling sentence over and over again while failing to grasp what the author is intending to convey (which usually ends with me pausing the book and moving onto something else). This makes the book feel like a chore and makes me not want to pick up where I left off since I know I'm at a mental roadblock and will require a great deal of thinking when I start the book again. This is why the first half of the book took so long for me to complete. 

For the second half of the book I took a new approach of simply mentally noting what I didn't understand and moving on. I would not rewind anything until I reached the end of the chapter. At that point I would decide one of three things: that I now understood what was stumping me before, that I no longer cared about what I didn't quite grasp (perhaps it was not that integral to understanding the rest of the chapter), or that I should start the chapter over and try again. I really loathed the 3rd option because it made me feel stupid (oh look at this guy, he has to read this chapter TWICE) and it made me feel inefficient. However I managed to argue (to myself) that having a book sitting idle in the library and wasting good listening hours because I'm scared of failing at learning something isn't very efficient either. Also I went through the second half of the book in about a week despite listening to multiple chapters multiple times.

Note: Acknowledging that I don't understand an aspect of a book and deciding to move on in the interest of time or mental energy is different than the Craig approach of just straight up not listening while the audiobook plays in the background and using this as evidence that you didn't enjoy the book (see his impending review of Red Storm Rising). 

In summary I need to get better at convincing myself that just because I burn an Audible credit doesn't mean I have to understand and remember every aspect of the book. If I approach every book like this I'll burn countless hours learning everything about one book when I could have learned a less perfect % of more books.


This book is full of small consumable scenarios that showcase how using mathematical thinking can be beneficial. A few things I learned more about from this book are: p-value hacking, geometry of numbers, not all curves are lines (and other forms of non-linear thinking), and mathematical formalism (and it's relation to voting in democracy). 

I understand that the print version of the book contained multiple figures which might have helped my absorption of knowledge in the first half of the book, however there was no point in the second half of the book where I felt there was any content lacking by consuming the audiobook.

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for a good non-fiction gain-fest.

Originally posted on Facebook December 28, 2016.