Thursday, June 9, 2011

We make our contribution and depart

"I need to read this guy's books," I thought, as I was listening to an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. "Maybe I'll pick one up after I finish reading David Copperfield. But I'm also wanting to read some China Mieville and that book on Montaigne..."

I love discovering new authors and collecting book recommendations. Ever since I began reading for pleasure I've maintained book lists with the assiduity of a fantasy football fanatic. The web has given me vast resources for indulging this habit, from Arts and Letters Daily to Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" to Bookforum - which I had to quit following because I became so overwhelmed.

And overwhelmed is what I felt as I listened to that interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. There are so many fascinating books out there - how can I ever read everything that interests me? Consider these facts from Linda Holmes' article "The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything":
Let's say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That's quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let's say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you're 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you're 80. That's 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.

Let's do you another favor: Let's further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature, of course, but we'll assume you're willing to write off thousands of years of writing in an effort to be reasonably well-read.

Of course, by the time you're 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you're dealing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You'll have to break down your 20 books each year between fiction and nonfiction – you have to cover history, philosophy, essays, diaries, science, religion, science fiction, westerns, political theory ... I hope you weren't planning to go out very much.

You can hit the highlights, and you can specialize enough to become knowledgeable in some things, but most of what's out there, you'll have to ignore.
We have two options, she says. We must cull or surrender. Culling is deciding what is worth your time. Surrender "is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time." Holmes says culling is easy because it dismisses whole swaths of culture in an act of self-defense. "It's an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we're missing less painful."
Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That's the moment you realize you're separated from so much. That's your moment of understanding that you'll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there's something being performed somewhere in the world that you're not seeing that you would love.
What makes this a fact not only sad but beautiful is the realization that humanity has produced such a vast treasure of culture that a single lifetime cannot possibly comprehend it.

So we're bound to miss almost everything. But books, music, films, etc., are one of the primary ways we encounter ideas. If we're bound to miss almost everything then we are also bound to miss some of the greatest ideas of humanity. Moreover, we're bound to miss some of the greatest counterarguments to the ideas we already hold. Only by intensive specialization can we hope to hold certain opinions with great confidence. But we can't specialize in everything. In fact, most non-academics have little time to specialize at all.

As individuals we can only access parts of humanity's vast fund of knowledge over our lifetime. In the words of Edmund Burke, the individual is foolish but the species is wise. We are limited in every way.

(By quoting Edmund Burke I am showing the conservative pedigree of this bit of wisdom. Yet it is not the exclusive property of conservatives. It has been often remarked (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) that those modern conservatives who have become cheerleaders for capitalism aren't interested in conserving much of anything. No one in today's politics talks more about limits than the eco-left. What clearer example do we have of the dangerous consequences of arrogantly remaking the world than agribusinesses seeking to maximize profit? And haven't we learned anything in the past ten years about messianic foreign policy delusions? While many conservatives have not abandoned it, the recognition of limits has increasingly become, over the past few years, a feature of the left. Nevertheless, all sides have much to learn here.)

Socrates became the gadfly of Athens by insisting to those who had a reputation for wisdom that only those who recognized their own foolishness are, in fact, wise. This is the wisdom of limits and a guard against hubris. But it is important to note that Socrates' test for wisdom was not a discovery arising wholly from his own mind. It was a response to the Oracle of Delphi, which said that Socrates was the world's wisest man. Socrates couldn't believe this, so he began searching for a wiser man. Only after finding none did he came to understand the nature of his own wisdom.

Socrates received the gift of the oracle, examined it, modified it, and passed it on to those who were willing to receive it. This is our pattern. We receive some piece from humanity's fund of knowledge, examine it, modify it, and pass it on. Our contribution may be as small as passing that piece of knowledge on to someone else (as in raising children) - but that act contributes to the expansion of the fund of knowledge.

We do not build from the ground up out of our own private resources. Very few of us are either willing or capable of building a intellectual system. Even those who do are dependent on those who came before them. I am not responsible for answering every question or acquainting myself with every fact. I take what I have been given and, in the context of my life and interests, I make my contribution. To have done this without hubris, in recognition of my limits, and in gratitude for what I have received, is to have lived well.

In A Theology of Reading, Alan Jacobs passes on this arresting image from Kenneth Burke which encapsulates what I have attempted to say here:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.