Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Reading Badly; or Goodhart’s Law

Lockdown has produced in me, as it has in many people, a certain urge to Use the Time for Self-Improvement. This has, amongst other things, included a significant up-swing in the amount of reading I’ve done. I was very much a reader when I was younger, but a combination of parenting a small child, an obligation to read a lot for work, and the ease of screentime, have drastically diminished the amount I read for recreation. The conscious choice to read more has helped a lot, as has my playreading group and Philsoc, and the decision to write down what I’ve read has cemented the habit. At the end of May, I published a post on my reading for that month, and I’ll be doing the same in a couple of days for my June reading.

Rather than write it all in one go this time, I’ve been adding to my reading list as and when I finish a book. I’m including novels, plays from my playreading group, and non-fiction books. I’m on the fence as to whether to include academic articles; I’m considering starting that in July, and giving them their own separate post. The list of books has become a measure of how successful I have been at reading over the course of the month.

Naturally, therefore, I have fallen victim to Goodhart’s Law.

Goodhart’s Law, named after the economist Charles Goodhart, has been phrased by Marilyn Stathern as “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. Here, the measure (and the target) is ‘a long list of books’. And so the list wants to grow. Here are some of the ways in which I have been Goodharted:

  • An Alien Heat (which I read in May), The Hollow Lands, and The End of All Songs by Michael Moorcock are technically a trilogy, but they are usually published together under the single title Dancers at the End of Time. This is a re-read, and I have never referred to the novels individually until the point where I was listing books in May. I did so because ‘have read Alien Heat’ felt better than ‘have started Dancers at the End of Time’, and then I got two novels to list in June. But it’s one paperback, and the title on the spine is ‘Dancers at the End of Time’, so come on.

  • ‘Is this book reasonably short’ crept in as an assessment criteria for book purchases. (I delayed the purchase of a fairly chunky novel for this reason).

  • I’ve found myself speeding through sections which I found dull rather than putting the book down and starting another, because only completed books make the list. In one case the book got better; in another it kind of didn’t. In both cases I lost the plot in the middle because I wasn’t paying sufficient attention.

So I’ve artificially expanded the list by (in effect) pretending that one long novel is three novels, reading one of the shortest novels I have ever seen, and kind of failing to understand two others. Hmm.

I find, though, that I don’t entirely mind having been Goodharted.

The first of these Goodhartings is admittedly silly. The second I actually don’t wholly regret, because the tiny novel is amazing (review in a couple of days) and because I often like short books: often they pack as much story into 150 odd pages as others do into 300 or 400, and I genuinely find that quite satisfying. I also love short stories, especially Uncanny Magazine. The third… might actually be a good habit to get into.

Or if not quite a good habit, a good counterbalance.

When I was taught to read for academic purposes, it was very much drilled into me that I needed to read carefully and understand deeply. The success criterion was how much of the detail I absorbed and understood from any given piece. This was a success criterion which I have very much taken to heart. If I read a piece without developing a full understanding of it, my instinct is that I haven’t really read it at all; that I am deceiving myself and others by saying that I have. The result is that I have spent enormous amounts of time analysing quite short pieces, at the expense of reading the breadth of material that I actually need to be reading.

The best thing for my intellectual development at the moment is to be prepared to read badly. This isn’t to say that having no clue about what’s going on is an acceptable state of affairs. But it does mean prioritising quantity, and only spending further effort on pieces which warrant them; it does mean ceasing to think of time spent reading something which I didn’t get into that much or get much out of as ‘wasted time’ rather than valuable exploration, it does mean letting go of the idea that I somehow owe my attention to what I am reading, rather than requiring it to prove its worth to me.

Were I trying to measure the amount of material that I have fully understood, then counting book titles would be a terrible way to do so. By counting titles, I am forced simply to measure the number of ideas or stories I have been exposed to, regardless of whether I understood or engaged with them fully or not. I am not naturally inclined to measure things in this way, and yet doing so would be an excellent thing.

So, the question becomes: is making a pun about a good-hearted Goodharting a suitable way to end this post? I leave it to you to decide.

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