Textbooks can go to the devil. No book written by the third-rate mind about a first-rate mind has ever done more good than harm.

—John C. Wright


  1. Eddie Howell says

    I have nothing particularly compelling to add to John’s comment. I just wanted to say that it’s good to see a post from you.

    God bless you and yours.

  2. I would demur in the case of textbooks in mathematics and the hard sciences. When well done, they are invaluable.

    But yes, textbooks in the humanities are often thoroughly embarrassing.

    • Indeed.

      Unfortunately, as recently popped up on Wright’s blog, the Left is indeed coming for the hard sciences and mathematics.

      Besides the amusing fact that many modern textbooks are overpriced and under-informationed (I found an 80s textbook on Dynamics to be much better than my modern one, which seemed to pull the trick of “easy concept worked out so you can understand it but much harder concept left as an exercise for the student.”)

    • I’ll generally agree with you about those.


      I learned more physics from George Gamow’s books for laymen than from all my textbooks combined. And Euclid is still the best teacher of Euclidean geometry – though I do not recommend trying to learn it without diagrams. His books were meant to be read with a slate and chalk, or a sand table, at one’s elbow, so one could see what the propositions were about.

      The first-rate minds are often surprisingly pellucid.

      • How far did you go in physics? I’ve read Gamow, but he can only take you so far.

        Perhaps math and science textbooks are immune to Mr. Wright’s dictum in any case, as they are not (or at least shouldn’t be) about anyone’s mind.

        And I do agree with LugNuts22 that the quality of textbooks has been steadily declining as college education is increasingly dumbed down. The textbooks used by the students I tutor are worse than the ones I used in the 80’s and early 90’s – and those are by-and-large worse than my father’s textbooks.

        But even today’s textbooks would do students good if they would actually read them. :p “Have you been reading the textbook?” “No. I don’t understand it.” “Then why did you buy it?” “To get the homework problems.”

        A lot of the time, I have to teach kids how to study profitably alongside the actual class they’re learning. Thereby putting myself out of a job. 🙂 Oh well.

        • When a college kid needs to brush up on algebra or the like, I always advise them to find the oldest textbook in the library they can find – before 1950 at the very least, before 1930 by preference.

          This always astonishes them. I tell them that earlier books tell it like it is in economical and incisively clear language, making no attempt to entertain the reader. The signal-to-noise ratio is much higher.

          The only disadvantage the old books have is that they won’t reflect more recent developments… But in college algebra, there *are* no recent developments. (The same is nearly true of Newtonian physics, save for the change to MKS units, which can admittedly be a bit jarring.)

          • I still have some of my father’s math textbooks from the 1940s. They are, of course, hopelessly outdated, because they are not printed in pretty colours; which of course is Important, because Reasons.

            In other words, based on my limited experience, I agree with you.

        • First-year college physics only, I admit. It was at that point that my formal education was firmly derailed, and it was twenty years before the next train came along on that track. I might have managed more on my own if there had been more writers like Gamow, though.

    • Myself, I have yet to meet a textbooks that elucidates Euclid’s ELEMENTS better than Euclid. Likewise when reading Newton’s PRINCIPIA. There are, I admit, some scientists who write their results in crabby and convoluted text, whom a popularizer might aid in explaining rarified ideas in clear terms: but rare indeed is the textbook free from the textbook-writer’s attempt at interpretation.

      It is my particular experience that modern Darwinists seem to have little or no idea what Darwin actually wrote in his DESCENT OF MAN, likewise for Freudians and Freud.

      • Garth says

        Euclid is missing quite a few implicit axioms. Modern Euclidean geometry requires 21 axioms.

        There is no denying, of course, that Euclid was a genius of the first water for accomplishing what he did. Nevertheless, he does occasionally stumble.

Speak Your Mind