Overvalued Books, Undervalued Experience

Today, I must critique one of those sacred cows of learning that causes the average intellectual to cringe; that is, of course, reading. Before I begin I must say that books are a good thing in the world, because they allow easy disemination of knowledge and stories that could otherwise be lost to time. My chief issue with reading is really the same issue as with videogames, television, and other forms of media.

“… In Real Life.”

Consider for a moment how many times you have heard or spoke a sentence that ended in “… in real life.” That phrase has always struck me as a little peculiar, even when I myself said it, because it seems to imply some other “life,” perhaps a “fake life” or “makebelieve life.” The fact that we must transparently distinguish between these different “lives” signals something strange in the modern mind, a division that is not truly real without engrossing media or overindulgence in the imagination. Why should we ever pick “fake life” over “real life?”

The answer to that particular question is not as profound as it seems to suggest itself. People have boring real lives. When one’s life is mostly sleep, eat, and work, reading some McDonald’s quality novel sounds pretty enticing. The same can be said of other media consumption. Now, I am not suggesting that these people are somehow victims of boredom; these types have chosen passivity instead of activity, knowingly or not. Fundamentally, in the case of entertainment, we are speaking of idle escapism; in the case of education, we are speaking of theory at best and idle fancy at worst.

What Use is Fake Life Then?

Leaving behind the entertainment factor, we now approach the issue with education from books and other sources. As many books as I have had to read and I bet you have had to read, we should be supremely educated and well-equipped for all things “in real life.” But somehow, that notion does not seem to square with reality. I have many books that promise to teach me skills like gardening, or carpentry yet until I begin actually doing those things, I realize just how little those books truly taught me. It is not the author’s fault, I am sure they did their best, but the nature of learning things for “real life” seems only to occur “in real life,” and not “fake life.” You learn more making “real life” errors than anything else.

To answer this header’s question, the purpose of so-called “fake life” is to guide the “real life.” There are some things that we simply are not going to figure out without some mental theory. In a recent personal example, I have been studying the production of biodiesel from soybean oil. While I have not yet made it (I’ll definitely report back on this), I never would have happened upon the idea out in my little workshop. Such an idea requires theory before practice, a little knowledge in chemistry; interestingly, this is the absolute opposite of an activity like music where the theory springs forth from the practice, that is, J.S. Bach did not write music based on music theory, but music theory became based upon the harmony of J.S. Bach.

We can now distinguish between theory then practice, and practice then theory. So what good are books? Books that give us the theory needed for the practice are the best books; books that try to tell us about the theory behind something that can only truly be learned in practice are not very useful. Books must guide the “real life” instead of indulge the “fake life” in idle fancies, or worse, do such a poor job in explaining that it frightens the reader away from the activity.

It is here my critique of books becomes clear: very few skill-related books succeed in what they set out to do, not because of the author’s proficiency in explanation or lack thereof, but because the nature of most activities is more practice then theory than theory then practice. You do not need a book to learn how to garden for example; you do need a book to help explain chemistry. Now, even in the activities where theory follows practice, like gardening, a book can help with details that you may not come across on your own like how to mix a safe but powerful insecticide.

What About Books Unrelated to Skill?

Not counting useless books like our McDonald’s novel, one might say the subject of philosophy is not skill-related and I would whole-heartedly disagree, particularly in the case of the ancients. Philosophy, though using lofty and high-minded language that seems unrelated to “real life,” is really trying to guide the lives of people in a good direction in the mental and emotional affairs of human life. The same can be said about Scripture, though it additionally prophecys about what is to come and reveals Truth that could not be found outside of Divine Revelation. “Philosophy”, such as most of that from the 18th century forward, is mental masturbation and completely worthless.

The Great Gap

So far, I have written mostly on the place of books, that they should serve experience rather than serve as an experience. When, for example, I changed my truck’s old clutch out, my shop manual and videos helped as guidelines for how to do it, but they did not teach me how to truly do it as actually doing it did; I can probably list every single nut and bolt that needs to be loosened; such almost unconscious knowledge would be impossibly tedious to read, and would not impart any understanding in the reader. I now understand not only how to change a clutch, but also how it works in the vehicle which written language would be a poor medium to use to explain the process which is why I will not explain it here. There is truly no surrogate for experience no matter how great the writer or teacher; they are simply guides, steering us toward good practices and away from common and uncommon pitfalls of the task at hand. In another personal example, my piano teachers taught me things that I would have never figured out on my own, but it was the experience of playing for an audience or congregation often that truly taught me how to play proficiently.

Continuing with the musical example, I can confidently say that I teach piano students, but I certainly do not “learn them their notes”. It is quite impossible that I can implant some of my skill into another; the best I can do is engender an environment for developing good technique, but it ultimately depends upon their own diligent practice. This very simple confusion is surprisingly prolific in many minds: how many students going to a particular school thought that they would “learn” the skills for life, but ended up be “taught” instead? I know I left school with little understanding of several subjects. The gap between teaching and understanding is much wider than it at first seems.

To really and truly learn anything, it needs to be brought into activity, not passivity. Even if I memorized word-for-word a book on carpentry, I still would not understand how to build a house (but I would at least have a set of guiding principles). This is not a call to jump blindly into a complex activity like furniture building with no mental maps, but it is a call to understand that the mental map is not the same as the acquired skill much like a cartographer’s map is not the same as the territory. Reading Stoic philosophy, forming that mental map, is one thing, living it is another, and it is that which grants understanding of the topic.