Book-learning often has a bad press. Mere book-learning, they spit out between pursed lips…
But it’s worth asking exactly what one does get from books…
The short answer might be that it depends what you do with the words you ingest.
The longer answer is, perhaps, that it all depends on what is happening to you when you are reading; depends on what habits you have built up when engaging in a reading event…
It’s worth thinking about how precisely you read: what’s the process? How do you take stuff on board? Because stuff there certainly is—in abundance.
It’s also important to recognise that the way you read is without doubt going to be different from the way somebody else reads. It’s worth finding out how they do it; it will increase your own repertoire of possibilities.
Do you engage with a book or does it just sit there on the coffee table begging to be lapped up? Is there active engagement or passive imbibing?
So, here’s a book full of pages of print concocted in another person’s mind; laboriously drawn out over days, months, years maybe. The print represents the ins and outs of another’s thinking with which presumably you are intended to engage in order to get the same out of the book that they imagine that they have taken the trouble to put into it. Or at least maybe that’s what the writer hopes for—the transferring of the ideas behind what they’ve written from their mind into yours.
I hope you are following this rigmarole…
Perhaps you just pass your eyes along the endless streams of text, allowing the words themselves briefly to penetrate the something-or-other that passes for a brain to rumble through all the intricate bits thereof—along the miles-long neuronal pathways, for example, before they go zipping out the other side. Or in one eye and out the other…
Or you may linger and ponder all the possible implications of words as you lift them carefully off the pages to make them into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, noticing all their intimate relationships with other phrases, sentences, paragraphs, where hitherto they have been carved in print by the kind publisher.
It’s possible that you read words aloud to yourself as though to an interested audience of a thousand. How does that sound to you? What would its effect be on the way you learn from books?
Or perhaps you just set out to learn the words by rote in order to be able to repeat them in the manner of a Caucasian parrot on some occasion you might deem to be appropriate.
Or you can determine, on a grey misty morning when you know that soon you are in for a drenching of the first water, so to speak, to sit inside your summerhouse at the bottom of the garden and do something with the words that otherwise would simply caress your eyeballs.
We may choose either to make responses to everything depend upon some pre-existing framework of ‘automatic reflection’ or to take everything as though we are seeing for the very first time—with Beginner’s Mind—and take determined steps on the way to vivification.
on the edge of the Gobi desert
where I had recovered my health
after stray bullet number two—
the most fertile of all places
on the surface of our earth
where the air—second being food—
is truly purgatorially cleansing—
on the one side a soil
which almost literally pours
(as from a cornucopia)
all kinds of earthly flora fauna
and phoscalia; on the other side
many thousands of square kilometres
where not only nothing crops up
but anything originating elsewhere
that happens to get there
is destroyed in a very short time
leaving no trace—
on the edge of this singular piece
of the hard surface of our Earth
where the air is transformed
between the forces of paradise & hell
there flashed upon me an idea
which appeared to me then
entirely absurd: it was night
and the full moon was out—
thinking along paths
of current associations
unnoticeably my thoughts
passed again to the question
which had been finally transformed
into the idée fixe of my inner world;
under the influence from one side
of a distant hollow hum
from sounds of milliards of lives
of all possible outer forms
and from the other side
of an awesome silence
there gradually arose in me
a critical faculty of unprecedented strength:
on the one side my blunders
and imperfection of method;
on the other side a clarity
about how I ought to have acted
I remember how my strength waned
with such tense thoughts;
I do not know what would have happened
to me had not the three camels
nearest to me sat down at that moment
Sheltering from the rain in my summerhouse, I read Gurdjieff’s words in Life is Real Only When I AM, lifted them off the page and lived his potent metaphor for the Law of Three, Triamazikamno; his effort to ‘reach a state where the functioning of my psyche in my usual waking state would flow in accordance with the previous instructions of my active consciousness…’
The phrase ‘on the edge of the Gobi desert’ becomes a profound ‘reminding factor’ for the pendulum balance between muddle & blunder and clarity & fertility; knowing, as we do that we constantly swing between these oppositions, the pendulum becomes an anchor for the whole process. It is a ‘never-sleeping regulating factor’, a prompt to achieve an impossible congruence between omnipresent dichotomies in life.
By taking Gurdjieff’s words out from the covers of the book Life is Real Only When I AM and making them my own by re-casting them into the form of a poem, the inert words on the page become my own (see ANWhitehead), strangely more profoundly so by acknowledgement of the source, it seems to me; there comes into being a kind of bond between me and the writer as I become thoroughly aware of his powerful metaphor; it is as though I were constructing the metaphor with him by means of the pendulum and rediscovering his way of coming to his own conclusion that ‘I am the God of my inner world’—Meta-I in my own relatively barren terminology. I stand with him on the edge of the Gobi desert between ‘distant hollow hum’ and ‘awesome silence’ and approach in a new way his ‘one unconquerable desire to investigate from all sides and to understand the exact significance and purpose of the life of humankind…’
It’s the same drive which led him to desire to ‘discover at all costs some manner or means of destroying in people the predilection for suggestibility which causes them to fall easily under the influence of mass hypnosis…’
had been brought to such a level
that with only a few hours of self-preparation
I could from a distance of tens of miles
kill a yak or in twenty-four hours
accumulate life-forces of such compactness
that I could in five minutes put an elephant to sleep
but I could not succeed
in remembering myself
sufficiently to hinder the flow
of automatic associations
caused by certain undesirable
hereditary factors in my nature
What’s required to change the world is for thought & will & feeling to become so strong that we are able to kill a yak at thirty miles (just a figure of speech—the metaphor could equally well be shift the Olympic stadium from East London to the Antarctic). But what chance is there of that when we cannot even maintain the deceptively simple idea within our Being— ‘This is me here now being me here now’— which is self-remembering. We need to get that sorted first.
Also from book-learning, I long ago acquired the concept of the Pendulum. It was in Maurice Nicoll’s Commentaries. I was reading a description of how all life consists of opposites: light/dark, summer/winter, loud/soft, mess/order, highs/lows… and I found myself swaying slightly to the rhythm of his words. This kinaesthetic involvement with the reading process gave me the idea for an exercise I’ve often used with groups to help them to come closer to the idea that the task is to live with seeming contradictions and reconcile apparent opposites. For me, the pendulum has become what Gurdjieff calls a ‘reminding factor’—in NLP it would be called an anchor—for a valuable thinking process.
Otherwise reading is just a hobby or pastime…
See: colinblundell.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/the-law-of-the-pendulum/ and other posts