13 November 2012

Less is More

Unlimited data. All-you-can-eat buffets. Endless credit. Unlimited streaming. Hundreds of channels. Bottomless pasta bowls. We hear a seemingly endless litany of 'no limits' every day (if only health insurance companies would join the chorus!). It seems that the principle of boundlessness is now being practiced by many public libraries, which continue to enforce increasingly generous item limits. I am sure it is a boon to the amateur armchair scholar with no access to a university library, but I am not sure how one manages to enjoy 21 CDs or 10 books at a time. 

I used to be rather Spartan-esque in my commitment to reading only one book at any given time, imagining that my reading life could practically exist in a vacuum, unlike my day-to-day adventures. I have relaxed a bit since then, letting the various chunks of story and ideas freely fertilize one another. But I have also long since observed a limit of not reading more than two or three books at a time (exceptions always for articles and letters, of course). This also applies to buying books, which has, needless to say, saved me a countless amount of money. There is something tremendously liberating about focusing on just a couple texts at a time. For a time, even if just a few moments, one is free from the frenetic cadence of micro-consumption that dominates many of our reading lives (just about everyone reads everyday, but it usually consists more of status updates, tweets, and headlines than multi-stanza poems, encyclicals, and novels). Instead of skipping across the water, one is allowed to relax and swim around. 

I still have not mastered the practice of carrying only one book in my handbag at all times, and I likely never will. But observing these limits has often saved me from the easy trap of endless meta-experience, in which I see that something is happening, but don't give half a moment's thought to what I am seeing or what it means. Trapped in meta-experience, our thoughts and consciousness resemble the input/output of computational machines more than those of a personal being capable of practical reasoning. Meta-experience not only allows one to observe a phenomenon from the outside, but this is only something that we can do outside of our individuality. I have always had a special admiration and appreciation for authors and thinkers who have treated literature and philosophy as a marriage of disciplines, rather than two separate subjects. The reason for this is that ideas cannot exist practically without their arena. Plato did not write treatises-instead he composed dialogues, in which philosophy was being worked out in the 'atmosphere' so to speak. Reading remains a barren and de-personalized experience when circumstances turn it into mere consumption. 'Reading' is distinct from consumption and computation precisely because it involves our personal relation to the text. If we wish to remain a culture of readers, we must ensure that we abide by limits that keep our humanity incheck.


  1. Great post! I believe that this will be the primary thing that I will need to impart to my children.

    I am notorious for purchasing books when I still have many in my possession waiting to be read. I have good months and then months of binging. I only console myself by thinking that at least (to me it seems) this is better than excessive purchasing of things like tobacco, alcohol, or even excessive clothing.

    At least the good books become available to others around me, especially my children, that might lead them to grow in wisdom (so I hope).

    I have much room for improvement in the virtue of temperance. :)

  2. Oh, how very many times I have attempted to read just one or two books at a time. I continually slide away from that good intention and then have to haul myself back into compliance. I become something like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower instead of settling down for a good meal. :-)