On Having Too Many Books

The yelling echoed throughout my skull. I’ve bought too many books. I won’t read them, they’ll lie around collecting dust. I’ve wasted money and space, as well as abused my health.

No one was there, but the three books were bought from Half Price with that nagging guilt. They could join a pile lying around in my apartment unread. Volumes of poetry, academic essays, a few art history studies with “plates” (I know. It sounds fancy!), graphic novels, excerpts from an older critic’s diary. Not to mention the virtual pile on my hard drive. Quite a lot on there. Heck, Stumbleupon got me in the habit of bookmarking everything. How many essays and articles have I left unread, or read once with the stated intent of scouring again?

It is tempting to imagine a simpler mode of learning. Milton may very well have read all the books at the library in 17th century England. Plato frequently brings up parts of Homer and Herodotus. Did he only know a few books well, and make the most out of those? If so, could the nice people on reddit be justified in thinking they can find deep philosophical insight by thinking really hard while reading next to nothing?

It’s difficult to know what thinking well is. It certainly isn’t owning lots of books one hasn’t read. But it does entail a comprehensiveness that is like owning a lot of books. It’s a familiarity with a range of experiences, theories, opinions. It’s an ability to navigate the human things.

It struck me earlier how badly we’ve failed those who want knowledge to translate into a better experience for themselves and others. They think they espouse a certain maturity as they enforce rules, conforming and demanding conformity to certain standards. Our young intellectuals are the most pressing problem. For years now I’ve watched talented university students be the worst offenders in promulgating and abusing unwritten rules for the sake of keeping others out. I thought they were the exception, as a lot of things happen that are far from acceptable in small, cloistered circles, tucked away from scrutiny or reality. Now I’m thinking this is more than likely happening at every school across America, public or private, large or small, religious or secular. The issue is how we relate to rules generally. The response of our most talented is to worship them, because knowledge directly applied to one’s everyday life creates the markers of status that set one apart. The vicious cliques we bemoan in grade school and high school are ignorant, but not in the way we think. They’re nerds too, just nerds about other things. In their own way, they’re in love with school.

They want knowledge to be effective, to be practical. All of us want this, and it might be the worst of all temptations, precisely because knowledge has to be effective and practical at some point. Knowledge, or whatever part of it we have, turns into rules, into laws. In a similar vein, one might say justice is relative; the worst injustices come from those who have some part of the truth and a disproportionate, unrelenting need to believe in that part.

We don’t know everything. A corollary of this is that we’re always learning what it means to be moral. There are lots of books that promise knowledge, but I can’t really say I collect those. Mostly, I’m searching for the books that remind me of what I don’t know. The ones that demonstrate the pain of ignorance, as well as the honesty, the experience, of finding an answer that matters.