5 Reasons Why You Should Read History More Than News

The single most important ingredient of effectiveness is clarity, and the only way to increase clarity is by minimizing noise. That actually is the reason why you should read history more than news: history has much less noise than news. By reading history, you will consume a much more noise-free information compared to reading news. This, unfortunately, is not the norm. Most people read news much more than history. This won’t help you increase your personal effectiveness since news is the among the most noisy kind of information you can possibly get.

Now I’d like to expand that one reason of why you should read history more than news to five more specific reasons. Here they are:

1. You won’t get lost in details

Reading news is like reading a book word by word, without first previewing the book (i.e. without looking at its table of contents, reading its back flap, etc). You simply read it from the first word in the front cover to the last word in the back cover. Unfortunately, by reading a book this way you will very possibly miss its main messages because you look too close to the details.

Similarly, by reading news you may get lost in details without ever knowing what the main messages of what’s going on around you are.
Reading history, on the other hand, is like previewing a book before reading it. You can then read only the important parts and capture its main messages.

2. You will clearly see the contexts of events

Reading news is not just like reading a book word by word. It’s like reading a book without table of contents nor chapter titles. You will see only the details without knowing what the context of anything is.

For example, many of us may read hundreds of pages of news on outsourcing and the development of the Internet. But very few of us could see the patterns outlined in Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat (by the way, it’s no coincidence that the book’s subtitle is A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century).

Since history talks about something which has happened, you can see the context of everything which happened there. A 100-year period of events may be given a simple title which describes what it’s all about.

3. You will read only what are truly important

99% of what you read in the news today won’t make it to the history 100 years from now, let alone 1000 years from now. They are simply not important enough to pay attention to. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time on those 99% unimportant stuff.

History has filtered all those unimportant stuff and gives you only the important. In history, you will get only what have passed 100 or 1000 years of filtering.

4. You won’t reinvent the wheel

One of the biggest time wasters is repeating others’ mistakes. Why should you fall into the same hole when someone else had fallen into it and give you a warning sign? Unfortunately, we are often too busy to even read the warning sign! The history provides you with thousands of years of collective wisdom and experience to learn from.

5. You will recognize patterns in what’s going on around you

It is said that “there is nothing new under the sun”. The patterns in what is going on right now should have occurred somewhere in the past. By learning the patterns of the events in the history, you can recognize the patterns in what is going on around you and then take the appropriate actions.

Our attitude toward global warming for example, may resemble those of the Easter Island people in the past who cut all trees in the island that eventually caused them to extinct. They were committing unconscious suicide by exhausting the island’s natural capacity.

Recognizing patterns like this can help you avoid pitfalls and see opportunities.

12 Comments

  1. Another advantage of reading history over news is that you’re able to get a detached view of the facts and analyze them better, since you’re not “living” them.
    It’s also more reliable reading, since there are less external forces trying to manipulate the facts.

    Donald, I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time and find it really great – keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Donald!

    My father is a huge history buff, and you’ve got to admire that 🙂 I personally – other than the occasional History channel or Discover haven’t really been able to sink my teeth into “past events.”

    However, you’ve actually helped me see it in a different sort of light. Yes, we can learn from mistakes in the past (one of the reasons given for studying history so hopefully we don’t repeat it), and as you put it why not prosper from the insight of those failures.

    For example, the statement of Edison and how many times he failed. And his view that he did not, only discovered X number of ways not to do something 🙂

    And, yes, even on the ‘net things go in cycles. Funny enough 10 years ago a simplistic way of “advertising” was called “start pages.” Cycle forward and it’s the same ‘ol same ‘ol with a grander name “traffic generators.”

    Thanks for the post!

  3. I agree completely, particularly with #5. It is impossible to properly analyze current events simply from reading the news with absolutely no context whatsoever. Commentary pages are full of observations that are void of historical context.

  4. Alexandra Edwards
    Alexandra Edwards

    First of all I want to say that I thoroughly agree with almost everything you wrote and I think its great you are promoting all these ideals. However, as someone who lives in Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and knows its history well, I’d like to clear up a very common misconception about the island’s deforestation process. While its true that the ancient Rapanui cut down trees for transporting statues, to build canoes and houses, for firewood (cooking), to make clothes (from bark cloth), to make tools, to make ropes, etc,… recent evidence indicates that the Polynesian rat, which the original settlers brought with them, played a very important role in the disappearance of the Rapanui palm which was endemic to Easter island and is now extinct. In the past, this palm was the most present form of vegetation on the island and being very similar to the Jubea Chilensis (the Chilean palm) it took very long to reproduce (about 100 years). Rat teeth marks can be observed in almost all the nuts found preserved in caves or excavated in different sites of the island indicating that the Polynesian rat ate the nuts of these palms therefore impeding their reproduction. For more information read Tony Hunt’s work; he has estimates of the rat population and the damage they caused based on years of archaeological fieldwork. Rapa Nui’s first visitors all reported seeing bushes and trees (however scarce) and the island came closest to deforestation in the mid-1800’s after missionaries and foreign settlers introduced goats and sheep. The native population at the time of European discovery was in the thousands and reached its nadir in the late 1890’s with less than 140 after foreign diseases were introduced in the 1800. I can see why we want to have an example of our past environmental mistakes, especially if that is to keep us from making further mistakes in the present and in the future, but I also think it is unfair to change historical fact to make Easter Island our example. The first Europeans who arrived in Rapanui thought they were witnessing the destruction of the island’s culture through deforestation and overpopulation, but has anyone asked themselves what effect these outsiders (explorers, whalers, slavers, missionaries) and the animals and diseases they introduced had on the island and its people. Sure the island’s native population was struggling before the arrival of outsiders, there were tribal wars to prove it, however there’s more than one culprit here. Let’s put responsability where responsability is due–there’s more than one lesson to learn from Easter Island’s history.

  5. Luciano:
    Thanks for your encouraging words, Luciano! Also thanks for the additional reasons you gave. I agree with both of them, and they motivate me even more to read history.

    Theresa:
    The fact that things go in cycle is a strong reason to learn from history, and you gave a great example on it. And you’re right Theresa, history teaches not just what to do, but also what not to do.

    Eric:
    That’s exactly what most people (me included) often do. They try to analyze current events without paying attention to the context, and as a result, it’s unlikely that they will be able to take the appropriate actions. While the actions may seem appropriate at a glance, they might be not when seen from the historical perspectives.

    Alexandra:
    Thanks for your great explanation, Alexandra! My example on Easter Island is actually based on the book Collapse by Jared Diamond. I didn’t know any more details about Easter Island’s deforestation process other than what I read in the book, so my apologize for missing the details you gave. It’s great to get a comprehensive explanation of what was actually happening.

  6. That’s right, bro…

    Sejarah itu lebih insightful dan membuka pengertian kita tentang apa yang sebenarnya kenapa ada terjadi hal – hal yang ada di dunia ini.

    Buku sejarah yang saya sukai The Story of a Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon (betul gak tuh ya penulisnya). Dia menulis buku ini seperti bacaan novel, very cool !

    PS : I’m a bad this blog’s commentator, just comment in Bahasa 🙁 Hehe…

  7. Welcome back, Tammy! I agree completely with your opinion. The history can give us the insights we need to live an effective life. By the way, I’ve never known the book you mentioned. I’ll check it out.

    Note: Some parts of Tammy’s comment are in Indonesian. Here is the translation:

    That’s right, bro…

    History is more insightful and opens our understanding about why the events in this world happen.

    The history book I like is The Story of a Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon (I’m not sure about the writer’s name). He wrote the book like a novel, very cool!

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  10. […] is to make you realize how good your life is so that you can be grateful for it. But there are other reasons to learn history. Learning history helps you see current and future events from a rich perspective. It helps you […]

  11. I was really looking forward to both reading–& sharing this article.

    However, I found myself astonished at all the typos and grammatical errors! What a shame. By not proofreading your work, you’ve ruined it for the educated reader.

    Now I cannot share this as I was planning, simply because I have no time to edit.

    In the very first paragraph, you lost us with, ‘you look to close to the details. ‘

    If the writer cannot be bothered to look **too close** to the details, why should we…?

  12. I had never thought about reading history as a way of reading filtered news that has already happened. After reading this, I can see why reading about the past could help instruct us on how to have a better future. My cousin is taking a history class in college and doesn’t like it so much. I’ll have to point this different perspective out to him.

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