A Retrospective on Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

Nassim Taleb’s seminal exploration of randomness and unknown-unknowns has continued to be relevant ten years after its debut. An absolute classic within the food for thought genre of nonfiction, The Black Swan dips into philosophy, economics, finance, epistemology, and empiricism. Written in an intellectual style with frequent references to other thinkers and artists, Taleb frequently regales the reader with his sharp wit and excerpts from his experiences on Wall St. If you fancy yourself as a thinker who likes to be challenged by counterintuitive ideas, The Black Swan is the right book to pick up.

Within The Black Swan, Taleb’s primary task is to explain what he calls “black swans,” which can be described briefly as unforeseen events which cause extreme behaviors in their native context. Taleb explains how the Great Financial Crisis was a result of a complex of black swan events and lays the groundwork for his strategy to mitigate their effects.

In the course of discussing how to mitigate the damage caused by financial and economic Black Swans, Taleb teaches the reader about a variety of logical fallacies. Of particular interest is the narrative fallacy, which Taleb claims is a natural human mechanism for creating links between data points and extrapolating trend lines incorrectly. The core message of The Black Swan is outlined as “past behavior does not predict future events.”

Much of Taleb’s writing demands that the reader engages in critical thinking. While an excellent book, The Black Swan is not a technical paper and economists, scientists, or finance professionals who seek a mathematical investigation into Taleb’s ideas will be disappointed. Thankfully, Taleb’s academic publishing bibliography is quite extensive, so curious readers can follow up with the empirical evidence which informs his views if they so desire.

Perhaps the most impactful nonfiction book of the 2000s, The Black Swan is a critical read for those seeking to extend their library of thoughtware. By introducing some different cognitive and financial ideas and explaining them fully, Taleb imbues the reader with a different perspective on events. If just a taste of Taleb’s philosophy isn’t enough, readers can follow up with subsequent books within his Incerto series to learn more.


How To Read A Book is a Must Read

“How To Read A Book” sounds like it’s a book intended for elementary school students, but that couldn’t’ be farther from the truth. Mortimer Adler’s 1940 nonfiction lesson on how to read effectively should be read by everyone before they pick up another book. Using beautifully concise yet characteristically 1940s-era language, Adler’s book is a primer about how to absorb written information. If you’re interested in growing smarter by reading a book, look no further.

As Adler says early on, “Books are the way that we learn from absent teachers.” For How to Read a Book, the reader quickly understands that the teacher is Adler, and the book itself is, in fact, more of a class than a simple library of facts to plow through. Adler’s professorial tone guides the reader through an exploration of what he calls the “levels of reading”—basic semantic understanding, basic interpretation, and finally, critical thinking. During his discussion of each of the levels of reading, Adler explains how to identify opportunities for the reader to improve their skills at that level.

By reading through How to Read a Book, the reader will pick up good reading habits and boost their critical thinking. Asking questions of your reading material like “what is the author trying to accomplish with this piece?” and “does the author succeed in what they were trying to do?” becomes second nature. As an bonus, Adler provides a bibliography of challenging books to read to improve each level of reading at the end of How to Read a Book. Though all of the books that are mentioned are from earlier than 1940, the breadth and sophistication of Adler’s reading list is quite impressive and contains books that will challenge the reader no matter how competent they are at reading.

You may want to go back to your collection and re-read some of your favorites after you’re equipped with new reading skills. With How to Read a Book behind you, it’s likely that you’ll find new perspectives on your favorites, as well as points of improvement. Once you’ve learned how to read a book, your skill will only increase with time.