Life as a Romance with Books, Writers, Stories and Ideas

Reading is an act of resistance

I’ve come to realize that I’m one of those relatively rare individuals today who experiences life as “a romance with books, writers, stories and ideas.” The discovery of books and reading when I was still in my late adolescence and early adulthood (studying religion, philosophy, history and literature in college) has been a liberation from the narrow and  parochial world into which I was born. I love books of all kinds! I find bookstores to be irresistible places to hang out. When I visit friends one of the first things I do is to browse through their library. You can learn a lot about someone by the books they collect and read. I’m grateful for websites like Goodreads. I enjoy going to Amazon Books to follow my reader’s instinct as I leap-frog from one book to another reading summaries and reviews.

I love books like David Mikics new book, “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.” I’m a sucker for books with such titles as “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction,” by Alan Jacobs; “Reading Life: Books for the Ages,” by Sven Birkerts; The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics, by W. John Campbell; “The Literary 100,” by Daniel Burt; “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” and also “Genius: a Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds,” (and much more) by Harold Bloom; “Backgrounds of American Literary Thought,” by Rod Horton and Herbert Edwards; “Twenty Books that Shaped America,” by Thomas C. Foster; “The Best American Essays, edited by Robert Atwan, as well as books of quotes and aphorisms by writers with titles like “The Quotable Book Lover” and “Book Love.” And of course I can’t resist books with delicious titles like “The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books,” or its sequel, “Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre,” both by the marvelous Canadian writer of novels, Robertson Davies.

Most of my reading has been in the “liberal domains” of philosophy, religion, literature and (increasingly) science, and the kinds of relationships that are possible between these domains. The linguistic discourses of abstract ideas, transcendental symbols, literary narratives and empirical discoveries each have something vital to offer us. I assume that these liberal domains are distinct yet overlapping, and so I disagree with Stephen Jay Gould who believed they were entirely non-overlapping. In the places where they are overlapping the real debate is to whether their relationship is complementary, competitive, dialectical, paradoxical, or simply incommensurable.

Those who is fluent and masterful in one (and only one) domain, whether in any of the humanities or any of the sciences, would like to get others to converse on their terms, that is,  to speak the “language” in which they themselves are most comfortable and fluent. Scientists and philosophers in dialogue will often attempt to trump each other in different ways. Scientists “pull rank” by dismissing philosophy as merely abstract speculation, and philosophers will ridicule scientists for being mere “tinkerers” who have never examined their own assumptions through exploring the philosophy of science.

Material scientists tend to believe that if you have explained “how things work…scientifically” — whether by the deterministic and probabilistic properties, laws, dynamics, processes, mechanisms and algorithms of mathematics, physics, chemistry, neurology, biology, zoology, anthropology, psychology, sociology or economics, you have explained it adequately, rendering further philosophical questions obscurantist and irrelevant.

Most philosophers believe that philosophy has other important questions to ask that are simply beyond the domain boundaries and competence of science alone. These questions are ontological, epistemological, linguistic, aesthetic, ethical, and political. Of course theologians, historians, mythologists, novelists, short story writers, poets, essayists, aphorists, musicians and artists would make similar claims for their fields of expression and inquiry.

I reject the ideological agenda of “reductive scientism” that would reduce the domains, insights, illuminations and methods philosophy, religion, literature and the arts to mere entertainments without any ontological or epistemology value. Instead, I prefer the alternative idea that knowledge has two complementary polarities with a continuum that runs between them. Paul Hildreth and Chris Kimble have set forth this idea in an article on the web entitled “The Duality of Knowledge. The writings of the philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi are central to their scholarly work. Their thesis is that knowledge is both tacit and explicit, internal and external, soft and hard, autopoietic and representational, participatory and reifying, and that we negotiate this binary relationship through “communities of practice.”

This model offers a “third culture” between C.P. Snow’s dichotomy of the “two cultures,” the humanities and the sciences, and it protects the humanities and the arts from being marginalized and subordinated to science and technology. A key concept for me has been the insight that “The map is not the territory,” first articulated by the Polish American philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski.

I find those thinkers and writers who are more or less equally schooled in philosophy and science far more interesting, tempered, nuanced and complex than those who have lived almost their entire intellectual lives within either philosophy or science alone without any critically reflective and constructive dialogue with other domains. It is even better to discover those rare polymaths and Renaissance men (and women too!) throughout history whose love of learning has expanded from one field to a comprehensive romance with all the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience — including philosophy, religion, history, literature, arts and sciences, as well as with medicine, law, governance, economics and ecology. To become a true polymath is to welcome the unique contributions of many perspectives. It is to remember that “the map is not the territory,” and at the same time to endeavor to see life entire and whole.

I regard those who are fluent in only one intellectual discipline but largely ignorant, misinformed and prejudiced about everything else as suffering from a kind of “tone-deafness” and “color-blindness.” Or it’s like being “mono-lingual,” unable to understand and speak in other languages that have words, phrases, ideas and idioms that are uniquely their own. It is a “disease” to which those who are over-specialized in one exclusive  discipline (about which they become arrogantly and irrationally partisan) are particularly vulnerable. There’s a lot of that “intellectual’s disease” going around, persons who are highly knowledgable in one field but arrogantly ignorant and insufferably condescending about nearly everything else.

In all likelihood those with a boundless passion for books, reading, stories and ideas probably also share a passion for music and the arts. I’m no exception, but I would rather listen to great music and view great works of art than read about it. Nevertheless, I have not been able to resist the temptation to collect and read many rewarding books about the great musicians and artists.

What I have been describing here is for some not merely a casual hobby for our spare time but a consciously committed way of life. It is true that for some people the pleasures of books and reading, along with the attendant pleasures of writing and stimulating conversation about our common reading, would be missed if they were to be taken away, but they would fill the void, if it were possible, with noisy distractions and superficial entertainments as many do. However, for some of us that is not possible. “The reading life,” and by this I mean “slow reading” with thoughtful reflection and creative response, provides something that cannot be supplied in any other way. The radio and TV are not adequate substitutes. Certainly Face Book and Twitter are not!

For some the reading life is about nothing less than “the care of the soul.” Reading and reflection become as essential to the life of the mind as breathing, eating and exercising are to the life of the body. In our “Brave New World” of 27/7 news, perpetual noise, shallow amusements and vacuous distractions, one can cultivate a life of greater depth and wider perspective. For those who can detach themselves from the anxious hurry and compulsive busyness of a superficial and distracted society, life can be a “romance” with books, writers, stories and ideas. The pleasures of “serious” and “playful” reading, along with the joys of music and the arts, offer an inwardly soulful and spirited way of life that spans all the vital domains of human knowledge and creative experience, expanding the horizons in which we live.






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