Introduction to our discussion of “Less Than Words Can Say”

When you're a member of a book club, and it's your turn to pick a book, you are given the power to decide what other people are going to read. Of course, there are reasonable limits to this power. No one is going to read Finnegan's Wake or Infinite Jest just because you recommended it. But if your choice is not grossly unreasonable, then several people are going to read whatever book you choose. I take this responsibility very seriously, and I try to do as much good as I can, whenever I am given this opportunity.

There are lots of books out there that contain useful knowledge, but they only impart as much knowledge as they contain, and I can do better than that. It's like that proverb that says, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats until he has depleted the fish from the local ecosystem”. No wait, that didn't come out right. I think it goes like this: “Build a man a fire, and he's warm for a day; set a man on fire, and he's warm for the rest of his life”. No, that isn't quite what I wanted to say either. Let me get back to you on that.

The point is that far more beneficial than any particular bookful of knowledge, are the metacognitive abilities that make you able to know when you have knowledge and when you have not. Less Than Words Can Say will help anyone who reads it, for the rest of his or her life, to distinguish between wisdom and inanity, and that is hugely important, because life is very long, and there is a huge amount of wisdom and inanity out there, that we need to distinguish. I wish that everyone in the world would read this book. If I still had graduate students, I would assign it to every one I had.

It is not hyperbole to say that there are few things as important as the acquisition of these metacognitive skills. They make the difference, literally, between life and death, and between freedom and slavery. There are horrors that are possible only because we do not notice that our rulers are speaking nonsense. Just listen to your president the next time he opens his mouth, or your governor, or your mayor, or your alderman. That politicians can, for example, speak of a “war on terror” or a “war on drugs” or a “war on poverty” and are not laughed out of office at the next election, is no idle matter, because it leads inevitably to a president who claims a non-justiciable right to drop a bomb on an American citizen living abroad, who has neither been convicted of, nor charged with, a crime. Things like this can happen only in a nation that does not notice when language is being misused, and they do not happen among people who insist that words have meanings.

(If you haven't read the book yet, there is still time to do so; the entire book is available on-line at )

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