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
10 thoughts on “What is book-learning? (R8)”
Perhaps book learning is like beauty – or someone gazing upon a work of art – in the eye of the beholder. It all depends what you mean by “learning”.
“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”.
As someone who is currently almost fully absorbed in attempting to do exactly what you say here –
If I were a pessimist I might suppose that the whole attempt is futile since persons will make of it what they will from their own perspective – they can’t by defnition share mine, because they are not me.
But because I am an optimist – (generally speaking) I think that the object of the exercise is not to impose my “will” or my ideas onto another – (are ideas ever original?) but rather to attempt to influence people toward opening their mind, eyes and awareness to the fact that there are different possibilities.
To go with the swing of the pendulum from right brain first drawing their attention to what is relevant or important to them, then over to the left brain to familiarise it and again back and forth so that at some point when coming to balance they will create their own way of using whatever information might be conveyed.
However in any event just reading another’s words changes a person in some way, just because they are another persons words,whether that is learning or not I don’t know. If a person does something differently, whether it is thinking or acting differently then I think it can be said that learning has taken place.
Given that there are now so many other possibilites for and methods of gleaning information I have been deliberate in explaining why my chosen method of communication is a book – it goes like this
“And incidentally the reason this book is a BOOK, is so that you can revel in the sight, sound, feel and experience of reading and become absorbed in something that has the potential to positively affect you and those you love for the rest of your life and theirs. I hope you treasure it as much as I have poured into writing it; carefully measuring the ingredients, a little of that, not too much of this, and plenty of what will make a difference. Mixing them all together so that they combine in something new and inviting to taste”.
I even have the temerity to tell them how to get the best from the book –
“Just as there is a slow food movement, where people are encouraged to fully experience and celebrate the complexity depth and intensity of flavour of the food they are eating and to take their time over eating in order to savour and appreciate the care and skill that has gone into producing the final dish; so this book is then a S L O W read so that you begin to appreciate your own complexity, depth and intensity and go forward taking the same care, skill and time in celebration and appreciation of yourself.
Even so, I recognise that, having experienced some of the mistakes and potentially a lot of the pain around food, you may be impatient for change; you can of course go straight to which ever part of this book interests you the most, but it’s a kind of hare and tortoise thing – you may not get to where you want, expect, or need to get as fast as you think you will; the biggest benefit will be yours if you travel the road slowly and take in the scenery, smell the flowers, feel the breeze and hear the birds sing along the way. Being fully present with your reading and absorbing deeply the knowledge that will enable change to occur on many levels; on a conscious level and on an other than conscious level on an internal and external level.
The purpose of the book then is not to deliver a quick fix, but to open and begin to develop your self-awareness and your awareness of the subtle nuances around you and in you and to encourage you to think a little differently and to explore a little more deeply than you might have ever done before. Many self-awareness opportunities occur throughout the book and you may, no I go so far as to say you will, miss out if you skip read or dip and dash. However, the choice is of course entirely yours. Shall I just say that it’s simply the difference between a snack and a gourmet feast”.
It isn’t that I’m arrogant – but for me the purpose behind writing any book is so that people can learn something from it and that it will be useful to them.
I believe that books are unique in this way. Having a physical object to hold acts as an anchor to enter to state required for engaging with what is written within. It is an associated kineasthetic state and progress through the material is marked by the turning of the page . The act of reading seeing with your eyes, possibly hearing the words in your head as you read and the physicality of holding the book and turning the page all help to create different neural pathways required for learning.
I find it difficult to think of other ways that this might happen – it is the physical turning of the page which tells the reader they are progressing through the material and serves as a diect indicator of how far they have come from the beginning.
But then I am kineasthetically biased, and I am the daughter of someone who was involved in books all his life. Thanks for the article Colin.
Thanks for your great reply Pat!
‘…to attempt to influence people toward opening their mind, eyes and awareness to the fact that there are different possibilities… just reading another’s words changes a person in some way, just because they are another persons words,whether that is learning or not I don’t know. If a person does something differently, whether it is thinking or acting differently then I think it can be said that learning has taken place…’
I think I stick to the definition of learning that says that it is a more or less permanent change in behaviour (inner/outer) that indicates that ‘learning’ has taken place. So I completely agree with what you say here.
Sartre (1947) suggests that when twenty people read a book it will be the case that there turn out to be twenty different books. I love this idea.
And on a different tack, I go along with this:-
‘…I believe that books are unique in this way. Having a physical object to hold acts as an anchor to enter to state required for engaging with what is written within. It is an associated kinesthetic state and progress through the material is marked by the turning of the page…’
This is absolutely different from reading one of these e-things where what you’ve read just disappears into no-no land at the top of the screen and you never get the sense of the difference between the number of pages you’ve turned and the number that is still to be turned. The horrific lurch to e-things will change the way the brain works forever.
Books as anchors – I look around my large library with great sadness as I think of the future!
I too have great feeling for books as physical entities. What accessing mode would people who have these e-things lean towards? Purely visual, maybe?
Thanks Colin – call me Polyanna if you will, but I think there are enough of us to mean that there will always be books – I think the pendulum that is swung slightly in the direction of ebooks will swing back full force – I wonder what’s in the inbetween space? As for accessing modes – I think visually oriented yes – speed and usually looking up at the screen? By the way entity when applied to books is a much better word than object – thank you.
Wow! There is so much here, Colin, as always. Depth is your hallmark.
In brief: Essentially, this piece reminds me of Meister Echhart’s admonistion to “go into your own ground” … I write to experience life more hugely, to find out what I think and to give voice and direction to my emotions. I read because that activity is a lever to open my mind … Both activities awaken one to a greater depth of self-awareness. Both activities feed mind and soul.
There is a tactile pleasure in reading a “real” book as opposed to eBook. When I read a worthy book I live in it, swim in it, become it for a day or a week and when I’m done … I’m not. It has set a never-ending wave in motion. I’m am now re-birthed, someone who has never lived before.
Again, Eckhart: “A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. we know so many things, but we don’t ourselves. Whey, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, over the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.” Books are a means to go into my own ground and learn to know myself in a new way … and when that happens I know my people and my world in a new way as well, with new insights and new appreciation for both good and ill.
A note on eBooks ~ they facilitate reading at that stage of life when it becomes physically challanging to see and to hold heavy objects. You can make the print any size and the weight is negligible. It has its place. I think for those of us who grew up on hard-copy books, there will never be a replacement, but they may well become to new generations what scrolls are to us. The next generations will learn to print only and probably not use script anymore ~ just as we no longer use cuniform. Things change. Perhaps the issue is more that we grow and live hugely through our reading. The vehicle for the reading may be less important. Just a thought.
How strange! I was quoting Meister Eckhart to somebody else at more or less the same time as you wrote this! On becoming as No-thing. Going into your own ground is lovely. As is the idea of swimming in books & writing to find out what’s what. ‘How do you know what you think till you see what you write?’ Variously attributed (EMForster/Aldous Huxley – great minds think alike…)
Ah yes, I can understand that about e-books but my sadness is connected with the idea that the impressionable young are being sucked into e-things so easily. Maybe I’m just getting old…
Words move off the page, some of these words begin to stimulate our brains. The words are objects, the reader is the subject, a bond is created, and the strength of this bond depends on the subject’s attention and focus. If the object is of little interest the subject might turn away, or might turn up his or her own attention. If along the way we have learned to be active readers then a critical eye stands between the object and the subject. This critical “I” opens a gap in time. When I listen closely to others who have read the same book as me, and have discovered things that I’ve missed or wasn’t able to grasp “I” sit up and take notice. This process has real value, and with serious literature a humbling posture can take us to new insights. So a critical “I” is an open I.
This seems like a rudimentary intellectual process and it can sit there in the head I suppose, until we enter the world of a Master. A Master is an artist of such depth (Melville, Yeats, Charlie Parker, yes, music is a language) that they are able to pull the subject in and carry them into the unknown, that is, their art transcends what we may think of as knowing. This type of joyful experience is powerful, it has power; the power to change us. How can I be so certain about this? As Jung said about God, I just know, meaning down in the darkness, past the darkness into the place where form is formless and ordinary words don’t exist, the artist conjures magic. Does this feel dramatic, emotionally charged, too much – good! Where is the critical “I” now? It’s right here whenever I need it, it’s just a book or a poem, I’m not that gone yet. The beginners mind is fertile, strong, malleable, child-like, it rolls across the lawn, down the hill, and into the water, it feels the river’s current between its toes.
In some way I’m always learning how to read. The pragmatic and astute metaphors of application intrinsic to working things out at the end of this essay remind me of sculpture, or working with clay; playful in mode and experiment, the metaphysical becomes the physical and so the subject’s hands and mind are connected. I think something takes place here when this is done, something extraordinary. The ordinary process of reading has now become muscle, and the soul aches. The poem and the pendulum shake the critical eye open far enough, and then maybe it becomes an impression that sits well in the belly of the whale.
That’s lovely, Patrick! ‘The Poem and the Pendulum’ sounds like the title of a short story… But I think it’s been done before! 🙂
I suppose books are one aspect of book learning. College students these days pressed for success tend to go for screens ; screens with the same shape, same lighting, same font, very soon there will be no books in the classroom. It won’t be called book learning and we will be long gone from this ghost world.
I’m struck by your distinction between reading from within one’s “pre-existing framework of automatic reflection” and reading with “Beginner’s Mind – as though we are seeing for the very first time”. I suppose we can’t help but bring our pre-existing ideas to any book we read – I know I can’t avoid this – but perhaps we can practice noticing how those pre-existing ideas are coming in to play as we read, and thereby afford the author a better chance to penetrate beyond the walls of our pre-determined notions. Much the way, in sitting meditation, we practice observing our thoughts without getting hooked by them, so too perhaps in sitting down with a book we should practice observing how we are responding to what we are reading without getting hooked by those very responses.
Much to ponder here, Colin …. thanks!
Ah yes! Thanks Tom. That’s quite right: first of all it’s important to take a step back and make a study of how we do read (or do anything else come to that…) from within our own frame of reference and then set about ‘…observing our thoughts without getting hooked by them, so too perhaps in sitting down with a book we should practice observing how we are responding to what we are reading without getting hooked by those very responses…’ Non-identification!