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Publisher's Summary

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, Jacobs writes. 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.

©2017 Alan Jacobs (P)2017 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Witty, engaging, and ultimately hopeful, Jacobs's guide is sorely needed in a society where partisanship too often trumps the pursuit of knowledge." ( Publishers Weekly)
"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, best-selling author of Steal Like an Artist

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"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)

What members say

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How to think is as much art as science

Alan Jacobs is one of my favorite essayists. He was a professor at Wheaton when I was there (although I never had him). He is now a professor at Baylor. I have read a number of his books, from a biography on CS Lewis, to several collections of essays, to a history of the Book of Common Prayer, my favorite book on reading , a cultural history of the concept of Original Sin, and now How to Think.

I wasn’t completely sure what I was getting into when I picked this up yesterday morning (it released yesterday). Jacobs is one of the authors I pre-order. But especially if he was writing something about how to think, I wanted to read it.

This is sort of like A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (or Letters to a Young Calvinist or one of the many other similar short books). How to Think is a book of advice written with the clear intention of helping the reader. Jacobs has taught Literature and Composition for more than 30 years. Helping people to think and write and communicate has been the job of English Professors more than professors in most other subject areas.

Jacobs starts by taking us down a peg or two. We are not as original as we think. We are not as good at evaluating ideas as we think we are. We, like everyone else, have confirmation bias and mental short cuts and sloppy habits. We also probably don’t really listen all that well.

Thinking is more art than science according to Jacobs. It is not that we cannot learn from science about how the brain works or principles of communication theory. But like many other things, thinking is something that has to be put into practice, not just studied. And to put good thinking into practice, you have to surround yourself by good thinkers and then listen to them.

Jacobs is particularly interested in helping us to think in an age where tribalism is rampant. That means breaking down some of those tribal walls and listening. He cites a debating group several times that is not trying to score points, but gain understanding. One person cannot start talking until they can summarize the previous person’s thought, in a way that the previous person agrees is accurate.

Also included are suggestions about how to avoid straw-men or 'in other words you mean' and other slopping thinking. Jacobs also advocates community building, to allow us to express and try out ideas. There is resistance to angry responses. However, most of this is also not particularly original or new. Jacobs is an engaging writer. He has lots of stories to give context. Jacobs digs at the reader, so that we can’t think that it is only ’that other person’ that doesn’t think well. He presents the ideas that we probably should have learned and put into place earlier, in a way that we can listen to now.

Like James KA Smith’s general approach to habit, we think well by making thinking something that is ritual, a habit that becomes reenforced over time.

It may stop you from reading the whole book, which I don’t want to do, but if you are thinking about the book, then pick it up at a book store, or look at the ‘look inside’ on Amazon and read the “Thinking Person’s Checklist” at the end of the book. If those 12 points make general sense to you, pick up the book and keep reading. The checklist is convicting. And if you are not convicted, you probably won’t benefit from the book.

How to Think is short, 157 pages of main material. I listened to the audiobook in a day. I will probably re-read in print again soon.

12 of 13 people found this review helpful

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Quickly and meaty

This is a helpful and thoughtful book that walks through how to think through your own beliefs and hold differing opinions than others in your world without breaking fellowship.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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How to be a civil human being in the internet age

This is quite a well thought-out recipe for civil discourse in an intemperate internet age. Highly recommended.

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Thoughtful, hopeful, useful and fair.

I have little to give but a recommendation, and an acknowledgment that this book has impacted the way I consider my position in relation to the ideals of my time. I was psychologically gearing up for war until I met this book. Now, and at least for now, I'm prepared to give this whole civil dialogue thing another shot.

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Thought-provoking, as the title would suggest

Very useful guidelines for thoughtful discourse, particularly in the new world of social media. Well worth reading!

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Somehow expected a far longer book

Beggining was good and then it went into a downfall. The ideas were solid but facts, arguments and examples were just bad - mostly from American culture and history. This book barely scratches the surface.

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Not Exactly A Self-Help Book

Not what I was hoping for.
This book is difficult to interpret. Im not the smartest but the storyteller moves quickly and the author doesn’t stop on an idea long enough to digest.
He is well spoken and has good ideas, but they won’t help you with being “not the smartest”.
It will, however, help lay out the natural flow of thought and is insightful so I recommend giving it a try if you like to be informed. But it won’t help add to your bag’o’tricks in any way.

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Droning Good Advice

The robotic droning pace of this reading caused me to have a difficult time retaining my attention. I listen to audio books while driving down long stretches of desolate western US highways. I found myself distracted by windmills, fence posts, and whether the grass in the median had been mowed. It was difficult to force myself to listen to this one.

The advice in the book is good, but nothing revolutionary. It did not change my life in any way, but reinforced some ideas I have already incorporated. For people who want a more open mind, this could be revolutionary.

I won't say I will not recommend this book to anyone, but it would be a selected individual, and I would encourage the print over the audio version.

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How to Think Makes You Think

I’ve listened all the way through twice and am starting it a third time. It’s amazing how often I filter recent conversations through some of the concepts Mr Jacobs sites. In the book he refers to the RCO (repugnant cultural other) and how we tend to shut our minds off when we meet someone we assume is too different than us.
Hopefully this book will begin to turn the cultural tide, and get us to see people as people again.

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A good first audiobook

This was my first try at an audiobook and it wasn’t bad. Lots of good insight on ways to think critically.