Extending books: Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen on Timeful Texts

Picking up Tuesday’s post about transactional reading and contemplation, here’s something interesting that goes a little further in thinking about how we might immerse ourselves in books or other texts.

Today’s gem comes from Andy Matuschak (former leader of the R&D group at Khan Academy and all-round interesting fellow), who’s working on developing more effective tools for thought and learning.

In the introduction to this short essay he sets up the premise and driving question of his work on “timeful texts.” I’m sure he won’t object to me quoting a few paragraphs in the interest of exciting your curiosity and sending you to one of his websites to find out more for yourself…

The most powerful books reach beyond their pages—beyond those few hours in which they’re read—and indelibly transform how serious readers see the world. Few books achieve such transcendent impact, yet given their physical constraints, it’s remarkable that any do. As a medium, books have no direct means of communicating with readers over time. The physical text is stuck on the page, generally read linearly and continuously in a few sittings.


To be transformed by a book, readers must do more than absorb information: they must bathe in the book’s ideas, relate those ideas to experiences in their lives over weeks and months, try on the book’s mental models like a new hat. Unfortunately, readers must drive that process for themselves. Authors can’t easily guide this ongoing sense-making: their words are stuck on pages which have already been read. How might one create a medium which does the job of a book, but which escapes a book’s shackled sense of time? How might one create timeful texts—texts with affordances extending the authored experience over weeks and months, texts which continue the conversation with the reader as they slowly integrate those ideas into their lives?



Readers must carry … [a] book’s ideas into their daily interactions … watching for moments which relate to the exercises or which give meaning to the authors’ advice. This model of change is brittle: the right situation must arise while the book is still fresh in readers’ minds; they must notice the relevance of the situation; they must remember the book’s details; they must reflect on their experience and how it relates to the book’s ideas; and so on.


As we consider alternative approaches, we can find inspiration in the world’s most transformative books. Consider texts like the Bible and the Analects of Confucius. People integrate ideas from those books into their lives over time—but not because authors designed them that way. Those books work because they’re surrounded by rich cultural activity. Weekly sermons and communities of practice keep ideas fresh in readers’ minds and facilitate ongoing connections to lived experiences. This is a powerful approach for powerful texts, requiring extensive investment from readers and organizers.


We can’t build cathedrals for every book. Sophisticated readers adopt similar methods to study less exalted texts, but most people lack the necessary skills, drive, and cultural contexts. How might we design texts to more widely enable such practices?

Andy Matuschak and Michael NielsenTimeful Texts

More on Reading

Deep Literacy: what it takes
Kevin Kelly on deep literacy
Tyler Cowen on reading
Neil Gaiman on reading fiction, empathy and changing the world
Misreading the mind: Ezra Klein and Nicholas Carr on transactional reading and contemplation
Books as network opportunities
Broker Books
Folk art and reading as rivals
Podcast recommendation: Econtalk – Andy Matuschak on Why Books Don’t Work

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