Posts tagged philosophy
Posts tagged philosophy
That got your attention.
This past weekend, I attended the Antiquarian Book Conference in Pasadena. I love old books, so for me, strolling that room was like exploring the Cave of Wonders.
I saw the hand-written manuscript of Vladimir Nabokov’s last and unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. I saw Divina Proportione by Luca Pacioli. This is essentially the book that invented modern typography and stereometry (I’m looking at you, Andrew), and the diagrams were drawn by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
I also got to hold this.
That’s a first-edition copy of Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, known to American college students everywhere by its English name, A Critique of Pure Reason. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the book Skeeter is explaining in the episode of Doug where they realize Skeeter is a genius.
For me, the experience of holding a first-edition copy Immanuel Kant’s magnum opus, the most important philosophy book in the last 300 years, was visceral. When I handed the book back, I was actually shaking.
And that’s why a friend accused me of being a book fetishist.
My snarky pal had a point. Leaving the saucier connotations aside, fetishism is when you assign something value that is in excess of what most people believes that thing to be worth. Theoretically, one could give disproportionate value to books, especially old and rare books. Speculation is a constant fear in the antiques market, and anyway, the value of a book is supposed to be based primarily on the information it stores, not the book itself.
Even so, I disagree with my friend’s assessment for three reasons.
1. The book is the single most important invention in the history of human civilization.
That was a big claim, I know, so you probably want a minute to process it. Take your time. I’ll wait.
Finished? OK. So, there are any number of lenses through which one can interpret history. Being a theoretical and wonky kind of guy, I tend to favor the belief that ideas are very powerful, and that the most powerful ideas have changed history. To some extent, you already agree with me. Concepts like “equality” and “freedom,” which all of us value, didn’t just pop out of the ground one day. They came into being as ideas in human minds, and those ideas could only really spread with the help of written language. For thousands of years, books have provided a way to categorize, systematize, and preserve those ideas. Learning, culture, and the civilization that follows from them would all be much harder to sustain and improve without books.
2. Old books prevent history from becoming one long game of Telephone.
You remember Telephone, right? Everyone sits in a circle. One person comes up with a sentence and whispers it into the ear of the person next to her. That person passes along the sentence – or the sentence they think they heard – to the person next to them. The process continues until it returns to the originator of the sentence, she recites both versions, and everyone has a good laugh at how badly the sentence was mutilated in the process.
Now imagine a game of Telephone that lasts for thousands of years.
My snarky pal was predominantly bemused by my so-called fetish for old books, and it’s important I address old books in particular. Old books are important, especially first editions, because they are often the best source we have for an author’s original intent. In the game of Telephone that is history, we often want to know what the author really wanted to say.
Take, for instance, the Bible. If you believe that the Bible was divinely inspired, you’d want as accurate a paper trail of the Telephone game as possible, since the first person in the circle was, well, God.
Even if you don’t believe God had anything to do with the Bible, old books are still incredibly important. The process of copying books is infamously error-prone, and even without translation, books can change dramatically over time. Imagine how important it is to retain the original language of things like laws.
3. Our definition of treasure is our definition of value.
For most of the history of books, they were extremely rare, expensive, and valuable. True, this had more to do with how hard they were to make than anything else, but even after printing presses came into being, no great home was considered complete without a library. The idea that books are not valuable is a relatively new and controversial stance, so if anything, the burden of proof rests with those who think books aren’t treasure.
With the advent of the internet, information is more freely accessible, and more quickly generated, than ever before. And yet, no part of the world has become truly paperless. Phones need batteries, computers come with power cords, and so far, no one has invented a technology that matches books for longevity in preserving information. We don’t know how or even if the Internet will exist 1,000 years from now. But we still have the Book of Kells.
So, do I have a fetish for books? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think I just know the power and importance that bound parchment has had in the story of our world. In the context of that incredible tale, when I hold a 230-year-old book whose turning pages also turned the course of history, maybe the right reaction is to tremble.
On Wednesday, Brittany pointed out (fairly) that I can get a wee bit cranky sometimes. This post is all about my best efforts at thwarting that tendency.
High on the list of tragedies of modern life is our excessive apathy. The monotony of life dulls our consciousness to the miracle of existence, and we lose our ability to feel wonder. It’s important, I think, to remind ourselves every now and again of the simple and yet incredible fact that we exist, and that we can see the world with fresh eyes. Much of this happens by destroying the illusions our limited perceptions create for us. Here are some of my favorite mind games to play. The names are my own, but the ideas are all stolen from others:
1. Destroy the Sky
On a clear, starry night, go outside into an open field. If there’s not much ambient light in your neighborhood, a lawn or flat rooftop will work as well.
Lie down and stare up into the stars. Focus on the idea that you are lying on a giant ball called the earth. Think of the ground below you not as a floor, but as a wall. Imagine yourself stuck to that wall, and that the stars are not above you, but in front of you.
Here’s the really freaky part: it’s not a trick. You weren’t really looking “up” in the first place. That’s just a word we use to form a frame of reference for our world. It’s just as accurate to think of it as looking out.
2. Destroy the Codex
This trick helps us think about words more thoughtfully. It works for all languages, but we’re communicating in English right now, so we’ll stick with that.
This game comes in two parts. First, pick a mundane word you use every day, like “tree.” Say it over, and over, and over again. Tree, Tree, Tree, Tree, Tree…
After a while, the word ceases to feel like it has any meaning. It’s just a sound. Second, visualize an actual tree, and call it a nonsense word, like Snift. Create examples for yourself. “I sat under the snift. Later, I picked some apples off the apple snift and brought them home.”
You can almost feel the word “snift” coming to mean “tree” in your brain. All language is a human construct. That means every word we’ve ever said was invented by someone, and we have the power to invent new ones.
3. Destroy Indestructibility
Sometimes it’s good to remember that life and health are gifts. Go outside, take a deep breath, and run in a straight line, at full speed, while holding your breath. Note how quickly you run out of oxygen and your whole body begins to scream for air. That’s how easy it is to break the container for everything that you are. I really think if everyone had to do that once a day, then cigarette sales would crater.
4. Destroy the Ego
Lastly, and most relevantly to today’s topic, the Halo Effect is my preferred method of self-induced civility.
Begin by thinking about your soul. I don’t really care if you believe in God or an afterlife. Just focus on whatever you think makes you an intrinsically valuable being.
Imagine that your soul manifests itself by surrounding you in a blue glow. It’s very important to associate this glow with the fact that you have a soul. Tie the two ideas together in your mind.
Now, walk through a crowded area, such as your school, your office, or, if you live in a big city, just down the street. Imagine each person you pass is surrounded with a blue glow, just like yours.
Using this trick, I’ve tried to teach myself that other people are every bit as real as I am. They think and feel in the same way I do. Maybe it will work for you, too.
And if not, try lying down. Maybe the jerks will go flying off into space.