August 18, 2007

"Is this the best possible book I can be reading right now, of all the books in the world?"

That's Tyler Cowen's question about reading any given book, which he poses in his new book "Discover Your Inner Economist." (Is that the best book?) He seems to be saying you should toss the book aside if the answer is no. I'm afraid that's a formula for never finishing a book. Isn't there something to be said for maintaining your focus and following through lest you approach reading -- and presumably everything else about life -- with a growing case of attention deficit disorder? Take it from me. I read virtually the same advice written by Doris Lessing in the introduction to "The Golden Notebook," which became the first book I tossed aside following the principle. That was about 30 years ago. Since then, I've started a lot of books, and I would have cast them all aside -- save one or two -- had I not forced myself through some of them. But the vast majority of the books I've started lo these 30 years, I haven't finished, and the crazy thing is that I maintain the belief that I'm still reading a book for many years as the pile of books I believe I'm reading piles up. One thing about reading on line -- especially reading to blog -- is that what you don't finish evanesces. Once the day has passed, you feel utterly absolved of any obligation to go back to anything. The text flows on and you grab what you want and feel no pangs about what goes by unread. The question is what's new? I mean, what was I saying about a growing case of attention deficit disorder?


tjl said...

"Is this the best possible book I can be reading right now?"

Yes, if you happen to be reading Voltaire's "Candide." Dr. Pangloss will assure you that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Wurly said...

Why limit it to books? But continually asking yourself "Is this the best possible use of my time?" Would make life, itself, impossible.

By the way, the answer to the best possible book question is always "Pale Fire".

Ann Althouse said...

Apply it to your family, your religion, yourself.

. said...

if the book you're reading is the only book you have, it just may be the best book you can be reading 'right now'

ricpic said...

Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't.

blake said...

Is there not some value in not wasting the brainpower required to constantly re-assess the question?

Isn't there also "good enough"? If not, is there no peace?

Tom T. said...

Tyler presumably channel-surfs constantly. Don't let him hold the remote.

Paddy O. said...

I prefer "How can this be the best possible book to read right now" to "Is this..."

More creative. And allows books to reach beyond my preconceptions and open up new ways of thought. The "Is this..." question seems to be entirely restrictive. And likely imply no actual enjoyment of reading at all. Reading is for such people like riding public transit. No reason to get on the bus for the scenic view. Takes too long. Get on the direct route.

Me, I see reading like driving up Highway 1. It's all about the journey and whatever happens along the way. The destination will work itself out.

How does a person ever listen if they insist on initial judgment? Or is that the point. Assert your will onto everything. I would guess that reading fiction would never be the best in that framework.

Maybe that's why my inner economist hasn't called in a very long time. My inner contemplative has been much too busy talking.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theo Boehm said...

Oddly enough, I had the same experience with The Golden Notebook at about the same time as Althouse.  My then-girlfriend was a young Assistant Professor of English, and I a callow grad student.  She was on her way to becoming a Doris Lessing expert, and I on my way to becoming her ex-boyfriend.  Before that happened, I remember a couple of conversations we had about whether Doris Lessing meant what she wrote, and whether it was worthwhile advice.  This was all spiced up with Hermann Hesse and questions about the authenticity of experience, etc.  It was the 70's, after all.

In any event, I came away from this with the idea that finishing a book was not necessary, or perhaps I could read two or three at once.  Before this it had always seemed important to plow through every book from beginning to end.  Not finishing a book, or coming back to it after a time, or reading several at once, was both a revelation and a subsequent habit.

Like Paddy, there was no inner economist calling, just the inner tourist who discovered there was no hurry to get to Santa Monica.

However, there are limits to this approach.  About a year ago I read James R. Gaines' Evening in the Palace of Reason and The Courier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart in my usual way of dipping into one and then the other, leaving them and coming back.  There were some intertwined themes of Baroque cosmology and the idea of God that made reading them in this way worthwhile.

In the end, they put me in mind to revisit Spinoza's Ethics and read it completely for myself.  I'm in the middle of that project now, and I can tell you that there is no way that the "text flows on and you grab what you want and feel no pangs about what goes by unread."  Spinoza's book is one of the most closely reasoned ever written. Everything flows, but logically, almost geometrically, and not at all like a narrative you can dip into or not as the fancy strikes you.  I've read a fair bit of technical writing in several disciplines; it's sometimes necessary to force yourself through something.  But this is of a whole different character.  There are certainly other works of philosophy and mathematics that require a similar commitment, not to mention intelligence, to begin to understand.  Spinoza, however, attempts a thing of such simple grandeur and profundity that all you can do to attempt to be worthy of it is to just keep going.

I know, I know.  There all these objections from logical positivists and analytic philosophers that Spinoza isn't real philosophy, and that there are basic errors at the heart of his system.  Be that as it may, it seems to me that the Ethics is a prime example of something that an educated person should have read, but that simply cannot be approached in the non-linear, toss-it-aside way we've discussed.

I'm sure there are examples of legal works that Althouse must know that need to be approached in a similar way, and I'm wondering about her experiences with these.  If Althouse is so impatient of reading, how is it that she has produced such an elegantly written, well-respected body of legal writing?  Or is she simply referring to books written for entertainment, while the 'serious' ones get the attention they always have deserved?

Pogo said...

As always, well said Theo.
I do cast aside books that are just plain bad, or I skim through them.

I quickly raced through The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which was marked by long stretches of reading how Taleb is the smartest guy there ever was and everyone else is an insufferable fool. In contrast, The (Mis) Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin And Reward by Benoit B. Mandelbrot (oddly, the only guy that Taleb respects) is on the same topic, fractals, risk, and economics, and was a more balanced and scholarly read. But Taleb sells better.

I like the serendipity and grace that occurs in working through certain texts. Some books are difficult, but worthwhile. Cowen's method is madness except in giving oneself permission to abandon crappy books unfinished. But when an inner boss wonders "Shouldn't you be...." instead of doing what you are, I say the hell with it. I'm on break.

Dave Schuler said...

Tyler needs to apply his inner economist. If you've chosen it, then, yes, it is the best possible book for you at that time.

paul a'barge said...

What books did you finish because you couldn't put them down?

P. Rich said...

"Live in the 'now'." is a sound philosophy advocated by Buddhists and the better grade of psychologists. Pondering what might be (for example an unread book which represents some future unknown quantity of equally unknown quality), compared to what is, introduces a kind of stress and removes one from a healthy present state. I'll refrain from labeling the exercise a useless form of mental masturbation. Oh, wait...

Blake said: Isn't there also "good enough"?

I think yes, as a practical matter. There's a saying in engineering that "better" is the enemy of "good enough". I trust no further explanation is required for the more practically challenged.

Theo Boehm said...

Thanks, Pogo.  I appreciate that.

Your statement, "But when an inner boss wonders 'Shouldn't you be....' instead of doing what you are, I say the hell with it. I'm on break," should be in the front of anyone's mind who would be educated.  Following twisting paths, the serendipity of unexpected discovery, and, yes, not being able to put a book down are all parts, or perhaps symptoms, of an organic process of growth that, when followed, leads not only to a better intellect, but a better heart.  I can read for technical training and "fathom all mysteries and all knowledge," but, to continue with St. Paul, if I "have not love, I gain nothing."

The typos in my comment above, however, are not to be loved.  That's The Courtier and the Heretic.  Duh.  I should also have said, "I know. I know.  There are all these objections...."  Hey, what's a verb between friends?

Wilberforce said...

I have the same problem. Stacks and stacks of books of which I've read about 1/8 of the way through each.

John Burgess said...

I don't think I've discarded a dozen books in my life unfinished. I try to see not only what the writer is trying to say, but the way it is being said. Few books I've come across are utterly worthless, though many disappoint.

Peter Palladas said...

G. K. Chesterton I believe it was who said "There is all the difference between a lazy mind that wants a good book to read and the active mind that wishes to read a good book."

And I fear I am so much the former person too often. Show me a hot bath and a bottle of Hock and I'll simply cruise the bookshelf until I light upon a book to suit to mood. A little light Shelley perhaps, or a couple of chapters from that nice Prof. Stone on the Balkans, or just more Nietzsche. Anything really will do.

But sit me down and sternly enquire where I should be directing my developmental thoughts at this moment, and what author's works might assist in that endeavour, and I'll simply bleat:

"Dunno. I could get on with reading some more Plato I suppose, or there's twelve volumes of Anthony Powell needing a good re-read. Information management in Toyota? Gotta have another crack sometime I guess."

"But please don't hassle me that way. I've about seventy 'must reads' I can see in the room without even moving from my chair. Gimme a break. Let me read in peace man."

PS: I shall this evening be taking my bath with Zarathustra as planned after all. Goes so well with Hock I find.

Original Mike said...

The perfect is the enemy of the good.