Posts Tagged ‘books’

Nearly all my books (and I have quite a collection now) came from second-hand bookshops.  Why pay £20 for a volume of wise words when £1 will be enough?  Besides, there is something heart-warming about reading the very ink and turning the very pages that another has enjoyed ; something unifying about reading the margin-notes of others and maybe adding one’s two pennyworth to them.  And I draw  a comfort in knowing that a previous reader had been as equally puzzled by some of the author’s ideas as I am.  Concerned readers have always made their mark on a book, right from the earliest times, and for those reasons.  And, of course, one has the pleasure of passing the book on for others to impress a little of their spirit on to it.

One such book is a little paperback collection of essays by that great physicist and philosopher A N Whitehead.  It is titled Adventures of Ideas, and was published in 1932 if memory serves.  In many places it’s a rather heavy book, since Whitehead writes in that terse style so common in the period ; every sentence is loaded with meaning ; every word has a distinct and carefully calculated value.  A paragraph in such a book would warrant a chapter in any other place.  Reading such a book is like reading poetry ; indeed, the book shines with poetic diction.  It is a book to be savoured a page at a time at most.  But I mention this book because it happened to come to mind ; there are many, many more which can be easily got.

So, in my view, a book is not a thing merely to be read by its current owner but a joy to be participated by many.  And nor is a book a thing to be used only as a weapon.  There is no more ghastly a reader than the perpetual college student, who amasses books for the sole purpose of diving into for ‘references’ with which to smite his own readers and listeners ; the kind who imagines that all that he reads must be consciously remembered or, at least, stored on ice and kept hard and sharp and ready for battle.  For me the pleasure of reading lies in allowing the words to wash through my mind like a warm summer shower of ideas.  For me ideas are like those atoms of Leucippus, Democritus, et al ; their little hooks will cling to whatever they find congenial to my own ideas consciously held, modifying them as they accumulate.  Those that do not cling will drop gently into my unconscious, there to find homes if they can ; else they may perish without regret or rancour, or perhaps live in suspension, enjoying a ghostly existence free from all responsibilities.


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I remember being indoctrinated at school.  “There’s knowledge in books,” they said.  “Lies,” I thought, “There’s only paper and ink.”  And all that paper and ink in the book is meaningless ; knowledge exists only in minds.

I tested my hypothesis by consulting a book written in Greek ; it conveyed nothing intelligible to me at all.  I then consulted a book written in English ; it conveyed a wonderful story to me.  Is it something about Greek ink that causes this strange difference?  or Greek paper?  At any rate, I concluded that the experiment supported my hypothesis : there is no knowledge in books.

But was I right in my thinking?  Wouldn’t it be truer to say that there is knowledge in books for those with eyes to see and a mind to understand?  If this is so, then there has to be more to a book than mere paper and ink.  What is that ‘something more’?  And where does it come from?  It cannot be a material thing, for nothing material is added to  the paper and ink.

Dare one say that, if knowledge (or wisdom) is not a material thing, then it must be spiritual.  Knowledge is not a quantity but a quality.  And if it comes from somewhere, then surely it has to come from either the writer or from the reader ; or from both.  Or does it come from language itself?  Does the writer merely re-arrange the knowledge inherent in the words? So the words are the material symbols which represent (and are connected to) the spiritual knowledge.  And is the reader’s mind stimulated by the sight of the material symbols, so as to awaken his own spiritual knowledge to the new arrangement of words?

I have no doubt that some of the very finest of minds have unravelled this mystery.  I shall be content to wonder at the hidden power of words.

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How often have I heard somebody say, “There’s wisdom in that book?”  We take it as a truth that a book by a learned author contains wisdom.  But is that true?

What is a book?  A physicist, speaking the language of physics, would have to say that it is but a collection of sheets of paper which have ink marks on them.  A chemist, speaking as a chemist, could analyse the paper and the ink, and tell us their compositions exactly.  But neither the physicist or the chemist would find the slightest trace of wisdom.  Wisdom is not a property of material things like books.  So, where is the wisdom?  Where, indeed, is the meaning?

We can only answer these questions by thinking.  As we survey a page of the book, we recognise the ink marks as symbols – but we can only do that if we already know of symbols.  Next, we might recognise the symbols as belonging to the Roman alphabet.  So far, we have detected little meaning and almost no wisdom.  But, if we recognise the symbols as being arranged in patterns we call words, and if we recognise the words, then we are nearer to where we want to be.  And recognition is a kind of thinking.

So meaning and wisdom are not strictly properties of the book or, indeed, of the material world.  They are properties of the mind ; of the human mind.  They are derived, not from the ink marks on the paper, but from our interpretation of them.  So a book, as a book, does not have an independent existence ; its life and light depend on its association with a human mind.

So, is it at all possible to say that a book contains meaning and wisdom?  Yes, I think it is, but only if we accept that it is we who invest the book with those qualities.  In effect, we introject the ink marks into our minds and then project their meanings back into the book.

Does all this matter?  Yes, it does.  For example, in some parts of the world, you might well be punished,  executed even, for defacing a holy book, a book of meaning and wisdom.  And that poses a nice philosophical problem.

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