Tyler Cowen’s latest blog post gives advice for learning about modern China. He says that “books about sequences of dynasties are mind-numbing and not readily absorbed” and recommends finding other entry points before reading about dynasties.
Find an “entry point” into China of independent intrinsic interest to you, be it basketball, artificial intelligence, Chinese opera, whatever.
In a podcast interview—sorry, I no longer remember which one—Cowen talked more generally about finding entry points or onramps for learning big topics. The blog post mentioned above applies this specifically to China, but he gave other examples of coming to a subject through a side door rather than the front entrance. If I remember correctly, he mentioned learning the politics or economics of a region by first studying its architecture or food.
I’ve stumbled upon a number of intellectual onramps through my career, but I haven’t been as deliberate as Cowen in seeking them out. I had no interest in medicine before I ended up working for the world’s largest cancer center. I learned a bit about cancer and genetics from working at MD Anderson and I’ve since learned a little about other areas of medicine working with various clients. Right now I’m working on projects in nephrology and neurology.
Applied math is my onramp to lots of things I might not pursue otherwise. As John Tukey said, you get to play in everyone else’s backyard.
There are many things I’ve tried and failed to learn via a frontal assault. For example, I’ve tried several times to learn algebraic geometry by simply reading a book on the subject. But I find all the abstract machinery mind-numbing and difficult to absorb, just as Cowen described his first exposure to Chinese history. If I’m ever to learn much algebraic geometry, it will start with an indirect entry point, such as a concrete problem I need to solve.