Just over the transom an e-mail from someone who wants me to review Nassim Taleb's latest book. So I asked Mr. Google to tell me who this Taleb fellow is and he referred me to Nassim Taleb's Super-Simple Argument for Banning Semi-Automatic Weapons. After reading this incoherent Facebook posting of his, I decided that time spent reading anything further by Taleb would probably be wasted.
Beware of wasting time on the latest stuff. What is hot now will be forgotten tomorrow. Here is some good advice from Leo Strauss on reading and writing.
UPDATE (1/2): This parody further dissuades me from reading Taleb. There is a strong temptation to want to be be up on all the latest stuff. But isn't it foolish to succumb to this temptation if there are great books you have never cracked? Life is short. Spend it well.
Timmy the Cat sez: "I fear the man of one book." I would add that it does not matter what that one book is, whether Aristotle's Metaphysics or Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats or the Bible. Study everything. Join nothing. Image credit: Laura Gibbs via Seldom Seen Slim.
My library extends through each room of my house, except the bathrooms. (I suspect that in the average household, where the only purpose of reading could be to inspire excretion, it is the other way around.) If I weren’t pro-Israel I would say that my library commits territorial aggression against my wife’s ‘Palestinian’ books; her few shelves are either occupied territories or under threat of occupation. My bibliomaniacal blogger-buddies would turn green with envy if ever they laid eyes on my library. So I shall have to protect them from descent into this, arguably the deadliest, of the seven deadly sins.
Many of my books were acquired on the cheap from used bookstores in college towns such as Boston-Cambridge and Bloomington, Indiana. I used to really clean up when disgruntled graduate students packed it in, dumping costly libraries purchased with daddy’s money into the used book dens.
Among the used books I scored were plenty of copies of philosophical classics used in undergraduate courses. I always used to get a kick out of the marginalia, if you want to call them that. Mostly it was the absence of marginalia that caught my eye, an absence corresponding to the paucity of thought with which the reading was done. The rare marginalium was usually pathetic. Here is a passage from Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794):
Revelation is a communication of something which the person to whom that thing is revealed did not know before. For if I have done a thing or seen it done, it needs no revelation to tell me I have done it or seen it, nor to enable me to tell it or to write it. (LLA, p. 13)
That’s not the best writing in the world, but the thought is clear enough. Our brilliant student’s comment? "Word Play!" ‘Word Play!’ is ever on the lips of boneheads who cannot or will not comprehend any piece of well-constructed prose. The litany of the blockhead: Word Play! Semantics! Hairsplitting!
One good thing about student marginalia was that it never extended very far since the reading never extended very far: the obscene magic marker underlining typically ceased three or four pages into the text.
One of the many drawbacks of teaching is that one could never get the little effers to do the reading especially if one used primary sources, refusing to dumb things down with comic books, audiovisual 'aids,' etc.: once they saw that genuine effort was demanded, they wimped out. All my preaching about being athletes of the mind availed nothing, falling on dead ears, like pearls before swine. Or am I being too harsh?
Harsh or not, it is blissful to repose in my Bradleyan reclusivity, far from the unreality of the classroom.
What is the use of having countless books and libraries, whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed, but burdened by the mass of them, and it is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many.
Well said. But Seneca continues with something that strikes some as dubious:
Forty thousand books were burned at Alexandria; let someone else praise this library as the most noble monument to the wealth of kings, as did Titus Livius, who says that it was the most distinguished achievement of the good taste and solicitude of kings. There was no "good taste" or "solicitude" about it, but only learned luxury -- nay, not even "learned," since they had collected the books, not for the sake of learning, but to make a show, just as many who lack even a child's knowledge of letters use books, not as the tools of learning, but as decorations for the dining room.
It was only for learned luxury? The books were collected non in studium sed in spectaculum? And only forty thousand were burned? See here. Excerpt:
The actual number of books destroyed that Seneca gives is matter of some controversy that we will need to briefly address. In ancient manuscripts it is common for large numbers to be expressed as a dot placed above the numeral for each power of ten. Clearly in copying it is easy to make a mistake with the number of dots and errors by a factor of ten are frequent. That may have happened in the case of On the Tranquillity of the Mind. The manuscript from Monte Cassino actually reads 40,000 books but this is usually corrected to 400,000 by editors as other sources such as Orosius give this figure for the number of scrolls destroyed. I have not seen the manuscript, of course, so do not know if this way the number is expressed. However, even if it was given in words the difference between 40,000 and 400,000 is also pretty small. I propose therefore that the number given by Seneca, and indeed all other ancient sources, should be ruled as inadmissible as evidence because we cannot be sure of what it was originally.
The very best books, or so it seems, are usually the ones that get withdrawn from circulation in local public libraries, while the trash remains on the shelves. The librarians' bad judgement, however, redounds to my benefit as I am able to purchase fine books for fifty cents a pop. A while back, the literary luminaries at the Apache Junction Public Library saw fit to remove Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (Norton, 1991) from the shelves.
Why, I have no idea. (It wasn't a second copy.) But I snatched it up. A find to rejoice over. A beautifully produced first edition of over 400 pages, the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America wanted $25 for it. I shall set it on the Beat shelf next to Kerouac's Dharma Bums wherein Rexroth figures as Reinhold Cacoethes. I hope the two volumes refrain from breaking each other's spines.
Moral: Always search diligently through biblic crap piles, remainder bins and the like. It is amazing what treasure lies among the trash.
Originally published in 1896 by Gelett Burgess in The Lark, the following curiosity I found on the inside front cover of Albert Parry, Garretts and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America, 1933, rev. 1960 with a new chapter "Enter Beatniks" by Henry T. Moore (New York: Dover Publications). The Book Gallery on Mesa Arizona's 1950s-reminiscent Main Street wanted ten dollars for this 50 year old paperback, but I gladly paid it particularly because of the 'new' chapter. I was disappointed, however,by the exiguous coverage of Joe Gould on pp. 148 and 346.
It is not unusual for a non-bookman, upon entering the book-lined domicile of a bookman, to crack, "Have you read them all?" The quip smacks of a veiled accusation of hypocrisy, the suggestion being that the bookman is making a false show of an erudition and well-readedness the likes of which he does not possess. I invariably reply, "This is no show library, this is a working library." That tends to shut 'em up.
A nephew gave me a coffee cup inscribed thusly: "A room without books is like a body without a soul." The attribution was to Cicero, but one learns to take such attributions cum grano salis. Whatever the quotation's source, it sums up the matter well.
There is serious reading and there is bed reading. Serious reading is for stretching the mind and improving the soul. It cannot be well done in bed but requires the alertness and seriousness provide by desk, hard chair, note-taking and coffee-drinking. It is a pleasure, but one stiffened with an alloy of discipline. Bed reading, however, is pure unalloyed pleasure. The mind is neither taxed nor stretched or improved, but entertained.
I came across Heidenry's Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease (St. Martin's 2009) by chance at a local library. I would never buy a book like this because at best it is worth reading only once. But its skillful noir recounting of a 1953 kidnapping and murder most definitely held my interest over the few days it took me to read it in those delicious intervals lying abed before nod-off. But I have to wonder about books that anatomize depravity while eschewing all moral judgment. A large topic this, one that I will get around to eventually.
Your last post puts me in mind of the hoary old story of the timid student hovering outside his tutor’s door not knowing whether to knock and disturb the great man. At that moment one of the college servants walks past: “Oh, it’s all right dear, you can go in. The professor’s not doing anything, he’s only reading”.
Ambivalence towards reading and other activities in the life of the mind reflects the fact that we are embodied spirits. As spirits, we dream and imagine, think and question, doubt and despair. We ask what is real and what is not. It is no surprise, then, that we question the reality and importance of reading and writing and study when these activities are not geared to what is immediate and utilitarian such as the earning of money. Our doubts are fueled in no small measure by the lethargy and hebetude of the body with its oppressive presence and incessant demands. The spectator of all time and existence, to borrow a beautiful phrase from Plato's Republic, should fully expect to be deemed one who is 'not really doing anything' by the denizens of the Cave.
The bias against the spirit is reflected in the phrase 'gainful employment.' What is intended is pecuniary gain, as if there is no other kind. The bias, however, is not without its justification, as we are embodied beings subject to all the vicissitudes and debilities of material beings generally.
I am as confirmed a bibliophile as I am a scribbler. But books and bookishness can appear in an unfavorable light. I may call myself a bibliophile, but others will say 'bookworm.' My mother, seeing me reading, more than once recommended that I go outside and do something. What the old lady didn't appreciate was that mine was a higher doing, and that I was preparing myself to live by my wits and avoid grunt jobs, which is what I succeeded in doing.
All things human are ambiguous and so it is with books and bookishness by which I mean their reading, writing, buying, selling, trading, admiring, collecting, cataloging, treasuring, fingering, storing, and protecting. Verbiage, endless verbiage! Dusty tomes and dry paper from floor to ceiling! Whether written or spoken, words appear at one or more removes from reality, assuming one knows what that is.
But what exactly is it, and where is it to be found? In raw sensation? In thoughtless action? In contemplative inaction? In amoral animal vitality? In the fool's paradise of travel? In the diaspora of entertainment and amusement? In the piling up of consumer goods? In finite competitive selfhood? In the quest for name and fame? Is it to be found at all, or rather made? Is it to be discovered or decided?
It appears that we are back to our 'unreal' questions about reality and the real, questions that are asked and answered at the level of thought and written about in books, books, and more books . . . .
Holbrook Jackson would find this development, a bookless library, nauseating. (Via Joel Hunter) It is foolish for a school to discard its books in order to go entirely digital given the fragility of electronic media. More here.
The Denver Bibliophile e-mailed me today asking me what I think of his blog. I would have to read more to have a firm opinion, but it looks promising. Pay him a visit.
Mirabile dictu, my visit to The Book Gallery in Mesa this morning issued in no purchases, but I did drop a few bucks at Bookman's also in Mesa. Laziness militates against the listing of my acquisitions.
One of the pleasures of the bookish life is the 'find,' the occasion on which, whilst browsing through a well-stocked used book store, one lights upon a volume which one would never discover in a commercial emporium devoted to the purveyance of contemporary schlock. One day, after a leisurely lunch, I walked into a book store on Mesa, Arizona's Main Street and stumbled upon Holbrook Jackson, The Anatomy of Bibliomania, a 1978 Octagon Books reprint of the 1950 original. There is something of Jungian synchronicity in this, as I had recently made the acquaintance of Mr. Jackson at Michael Gilleland's erudite salon. The author describes his purpose thusly:
Thanks to open library stacks, I stumbled across the epigrams of Martial a while back. (Therein lies an argument for open stacks.) Marcus Valerius Martialis was so-named because he was born on March 1. He first saw the light of day circa A.D. 40 at Bilbilis in Hispania Tarraconensis. So far to me he seems a scribbler of no great importance, though he is entertaining, and, like Samuel Pepys, another scribbler of no great importance, he affords an insight into the times in which he lived and into the invariability of human folly. If I knew more of Martial, and more of Truman Capote, perhaps I would compare them: superficial, sycophantic, but prodigious in their quill-driving. In any case, here for leisurely consumption is one of Martial's more substantial epigrams, addressed to another Martial, his old friend Iulius Martialis:
Have you noticed that the same people who are morally obtuse enough to underline and annotate public library books tend to be the same people who are too intellectually obtuse to make good comments? If they are going to deface public property, they should at least have the decency to stun us with the brilliance of their commentary, the magnificence of their marginalia, the glory of their glosses. I don't believe I have ever read a good marginalium in a public library book.
And why do the cretins return the volumes? Having littered the margins with their precious observations, they would have some reason to keep the books.
Some punk having badly defaced a book I was about to check out, I had the librarian make a note to that effect lest I be accused of the barbarism. I mentioned to the librarian that the widespread disrespect shown to public property is an argument against socialism. He responded that it is an argument against open stacks. He had a point, but on the other side of the question:
Open library stacks allow for browsing and finding books that otherwise might have gone undetected. I was on the prowl in the BDs a while back looking for BonJour's In Defense of Pure Reason and Searle's Mind: A Brief Introduction. Searle's book hangs out at BD 418.3.S4. Nearby, at BD 418.3.S78, I spied Leopold Stubenberg, Consciousness and Qualia (1998). Though published by an obscure press, and obviously a reworking of the author's dissertation, it is turning out to be an outstanding resource. I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad I found it. But I might not have, had the stacks been closed.
On the other hand, open stacks allow any Tom, Dick, or Mary to cause mischief by stealing, defacing, hiding and otherwise mishandling books. A common problem is the removal of a volume and its return to the wrong position. Such a book is as as good as lost. A librarian acquaintance tells me that the problem is worse than one might think.
No doubt there are other considerations relevant to the open/closed question. But for the moment, I'm for open stacks. In a society as tolerant of bad behavior as ours is, however, one wonders how long libraries can remain unprotected.
A book is a man at his best. Who knows what Plato was like in the flesh? Maybe he suffered from halitosis. Perhaps he was unbearably domineering. But in his books I have him at my beck and call, for instruction, uplift, or just to keep the pre-Socratics from improperly fraternizing with Aristotle.
Each book on my shelves is a window, a window opening out upon a world. From Aristotle to Zubiri, window after window, world upon world . . .