Andreu’s blog

Churchill’s library

Not long ago I read a review of yet another Churchill biography. What caught my attention was the comment about Churchill’s library and the books that most influenced him. I thought that was smart.

If you want to know how a subject thought, is it better to read his biography or his library? Let’s say that you want to learn about how a particular individual came to achieve certain feats. Most often than not, we consider intellectual achievements, like creating a thriving business, being an influential politician, leading a successful military campaign and so on. A biography may tell you something about the circumstances of those achievements, but if your objective is to be able to learn something about how to perform like those individuals, I doubt that you can learn much from a biography. Maybe the only exception would be athletes.

Imagine that you want to excel at math and do research at the highest level. It is unlikely that you will gain much by reading Terence Tao’s biography. Maybe you learn something about his work ethic, but you don’t need to read many biographies to understand that every single person that has achieved something remarkable worked a lot to do it. It may well be interesting reading, but it will do nothing to improve your math skills. On the other hand, reading what he read, the papers that he built upon to develop his work may be a more fruitful avenue.

Last updated: 2021-12-05