April 20, 2020

There is a further problem, though, with inputs, and that is that you do not and really cannot control inputs either.

You set out to read a book. But you don’t determine its contents, nor do you know them in any real sense. If you knew what the book contained beforehand, you would learn nothing from reading it. Yet you must somehow have learned that it contained something of interest… Which leads to the question of how you learned that.

This is Meno’s paradox. If you already know what you’re looking for, you don’t need to look. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how can you hope to find it? Plato decides that you must just be remembering things, the doctrine of recollection or anamnesis, which doesn’t feel right. Certain lessons learned can feel like long-forgotten memories, but most (to me) do not.

You must know something of the book you intend to read, assuming it is not chosen entirely at random. But you probably have little more than a vague sense of its emotional valence, or a handful of details which have made it through someone else’s relevance filter. People can take extremely different details from identical scenes, in literature and life.

If the book is worth reading (for you), then it must contain things you don’t know, things which aren’t contained in whatever summary you received as recommendation.

If the book is worth reading (in general), then it’s a fair bet that it cannot justly be summarised at all. There are works good enough that nothing could be justly cut without something worthwhile being lost, so to summarise them is to do them a sort of violence. Then again, as my friend is fond of saying, there are books that would better have been blog posts; a summary would have been an improvement.

If you can’t know in advance, but it matters what you read, how do you decide which parts of infinite knowledge to ingest? And can you at least control what you say?

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.