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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Reading Good Books


How many books have you read in the last twelve months?

By “books” I am primarily thinking of serious books, whether serious non-fiction or fiction on a literary level.  There is nothing wrong with reading for pure entertainment (although I rarely do any more!).  But my focus is on books that teach us, make us think.  Good literature can certainly do this, but good non-fiction is designed to inform us and make us think.

As I wrote in my last post, one of the greatest challenges we all face in this life is the sheer  extent of our own  ignorance.  We may be very knowledgeable about our chosen field – engineering, statistics, music, physics, medicine, automotive mechanics, computer design, or whatever.  But that type of highly specialized knowledge and technical expertise in a single field can actually make us more provincial, not more broadminded.  No matter how much we may know about designing buildings and bridges, how much can this teach us about understanding life in general?  How much does it make one wiser

Wisdom, for me, is the effective application of knowledge to fundamental problems of real life.  It is effectively the same as “good judgment.”  It is not merely the same as having common sense.  To grow in wisdom requires growth in understanding, and understanding requires knowledge.  Wisdom is certainly not the same as knowledge, because it is quite possible to be knowledgeable about many things and lack wisdom.  Yet one cannot truly be wise without knowledge. Gaining knowledge and understanding are important prerequisites to the acquisition of wisdom. 

My religion teaches about the sacredness of such things.  I won’t go into any theological analysis here, but let me just recite a few verses from the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. (93:36)

It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance. (131:6)

It is my will that you should . . . obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man. (93:53)

Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people. (90:15)

Teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (88:118)

Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; of things both in the heaven and in the earth, and under the earth, things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.

The most remarkable thing for me about these verses is that they clearly teach the importance not only of learning spiritual truths, but also of learning things like languages, history, politics, law, geology, etc.  The most remarkable line, I think, is to “become acquainted with all good books”!  What a challenge!  The number of worthwhile books is huge – no one can literally become acquainted with all of them in this life, although  we can certainly make a serious attempt at it.

Indulging your patience, let me make the (perhaps obvious) argument of why serious reading is such an important activity.  It goes back, once again, to our ignorance.  So much of the time we make (important) decisions based on highly faulty – or at least highly limited – information.  As I’ve acknowledged before, we can never acquire all the necessary information to make truly informed decisions.  We must rely, in the final analysis, on our intuition.  But it should be an informed intuition, and the only way to become informed is, well, to read books. 

What!?  you gasp.  What a ridiculous statement!  One can become informed by all sorts of means apart from books.  There are good magazines, newspapers, websites.  There are personal experts that can be directly consulted.  All of this is true, yes -  but books are still our best source for expert, thorough, in-depth understanding of most subjects.

Why my emphasis on books?  Books are simply the best resource we have when it comes to understanding subjects in sufficient depth, in great part because of the effort involved in getting a book published.  It takes many months – or more likely many years – to write a book, and getting a manuscript approved for publication is not easy.  In the huge majority of cases an author must have established at least a degree of expertise in the subject matter, and there is a complex editorial process before a manuscript sees the light of day.  This process contrasts dramatically with (to take a purely random example!) publishing a blog.  None of this process guarantees that everything you read in a book is necessarily true, let alone free from bias.  But it does provide a reasonable degree of assurance that the author basically knows what he or she is talking about.

To be quite clear – not all books are worthwhile; indeed, some are chock full of nonsense and absurdities.  But if it’s at all a serious book, one has at least some assurance that the author made a considerable effort to acquire and distil a certain amount of knowledge and has made considerable effort to get it into the light of day.  Beyond that, the reader must summon up her own knowledge, understanding and wisdom to decide whether the book is worth her time or not – indeed, whether it is even worth finishing.

What I am really arguing, of course, is the importance of education.  And not just random education, but a sustained, lifelong effort to acquire knowledge.  And my main motive for arguing this is not merely because education is self-rewarding, although it is.  I argue instead for the welfare our nation.

It is well known that the Founding Fathers greatly favored education as a mainstay of freedom and good government.  Benjamin Franklin, when asked after the Constitutional Convention what sort of government the delegates had created, famously replied, “A republic – if you can keep it.”

Consider in addition the following quotations:

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power
(Thomas Jefferson)

"If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved.  This will be their great security.” (Samuel Adams)


"Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people.  They throw that light over the public mind whcih is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty." (James Madison

"I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the latter.  Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate."  (John Jay)

"Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge.  Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal."  (Benjamin Rush)

Note especially the following declaration by Alexander Hamilton:

"Men give me credit for some genius.  All the genius I have lies in this, when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly.  Day and night it is before me.  My mind becomes pervaded with it.  Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought."

They were fully aware of how self-awareness of one’s own ignorance could drive the passion for self-education (i.e., reading books!)

John Adams:

"I read my eyes out and can't read half enough either.  The more one reads the more one sees we have to read."

Jefferson:

"The wise know their weakness too well to assume infallibility; and he who knows most, knows best how little he knows.

We need to read a lot and read widely in order to escape our own narrowmindedness and ignorance.  Many of our assumptions are false, or perhaps merely misleading, and will lead us astray in our reasoning.  As I discussed last time, it is entirely plausible to conclude that all swans are white . . . because the overwhelming majority of swans in the world are white!   But nonetheless, such a conclusion is false, and it only requires a small effort on our part for us to realize our error.

Not all problems resulting from ignorance are that easily solved.  But the more knowledge we have, the easier it becomes to acquire new knowledge, and to learn to judge more quickly, for example, whether the opinion piece we just read on the internet really makes sense or is a boatload of nonsense.

I have argued before that our ignorance should lead us to be modest. It should also make us curious, indeed, more than curious.  It should cause us to crave knowledge.  As I age (gracefully, I hope), I am increasingly aware of truly how little I know in comparison with the amount of knowledge “out there,” as well as how little time remains to me in this life to try to remedy my ignorance. Accordingly, I increasingly crave knowledge and understanding and consciously hoard my free time available for reading. 

Just ask yourself – how would my life be different if I read one good book a month?

(P.S. A  suggestion:  Perhaps your immediate reaction is, Great idea!  But what do I read?  There are tons of books out there.  Where should I start?  The best answer to that question is to start with what ever your own curiosity prompts you to read.  Curiosity is an essential element of any program of study.  But I do have one suggestion:   Why not start reading a series of biographies of the American Presidents (or other statesmen if you are not American)?  That is a goal of mine, though I am far from accomplishing it, and I have many other goals as well, and other priorities.  But it seems to me that studying the lives of past presidents (virtues, warts, and all!) will help us acquire a degree of wisdom in general, but especially regarding qualities of leadership, which should help us decide wisely how to vote in future elections.)




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