Why you should read

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.
⏤Ludwig Wittgenstein

We use language to refer to and describe our experience. In addition to allowing us to talk about our experience, it allows us to access more of our senses and perceive aspects of our experience.

The word “blue” allows us to reference the visual sensation blue. If it did not exist, could we talk about blue? African tribesman do not perceive the color blue, for they do not have a need for it. It is invisible to them. You cannot see what you cannot perceive, and words allow us to anchor our senses to perceptions within our experience. You can look at a painting a thousand times and not see a deer nestled in the woods. Only when someone mentions the deer do you perceive it. We perceive what we are primed and looking for, and if we don’t know what we’re looking for, it’s difficult to perceive it in our everyday experience. We are blind to it. In the same way, a person hears only what they understand.

The more expansive our vocabulary, the more expansive our perceived reality. If we lack a word for something, we cannot reference it, so we cannot talk about it. How do we talk about something we don’t have a word for? Each book we read contains language that allows us to access a reality beyond ourself.

Each book and the domain it refers to is unique. Psychology books use a specific language, as do physics, and sociology, and any other specific to a domain.

Language springs from a community of people referencing their shared experience. Language evolves with the experiences of the people, but it is directly limited to the world in which the people act and live. It does not go beyond.

People living in the arctic tundra don’t have a word for a desert. People living in a desert don’t have a word for snow. You cannot talk about what you cannot reference.

Only until you have a word for it can you imagine and entertain the idea of its existence, and even then, if you don’t have the experience, you’re left to use only your imagination. What does it feel like to experience space? To experience the moon’s gravity?

Books provide portals into experiences currently inaccessible to us.

Each book possesses a unique perspective and language to refer to the experience, and this allows us to use our imagination and conceive a reality beyond our self, beyond the limited experiences and language borne out of it.

I believe we should familiarize ourselves with every subject and every domain and every culture and every genre possible. In this way we will develop our vocabulary in a way that allows us to access the understanding of the most people possible, by traversing as many language boundaries as possible.

When people think of language, they typically think simplistically about it, like the English language, and Spanish, Chinese, French, Swahili, Farsi, Ordu, Romanian, Swedish, etc.

But within each of these “tongues” are vocabularies used by specific communities, particular vernaculars and patois.

Coal miners use one vocabulary, computer scientists use another, engineers have their own, biologists have their own, etc. The words they use are unique to the subject they are studying and the people they engage the study with. If you were to sit in on a group of physicist discussing quantum entanglement, you probably wouldn’t understand much. And if you were a farmer, and wanted to engage them, you probably wouldn’t have much to say to one another besides the colloquial pleasantries of every day speak.

Despite sharing the english language, the communities in which you reside, and the language you use to reference the world you engage with are vastly different. However, by reading, you can access these realities and arm yourself with language that allows you to communicate and understand and adapt to every community and environment where those people reside.

This selective attention test illustrates the power of being unable to perceive things even though we clearly can see them.

Reading for Growth

I don’t think the modernity of a book is a good judge of its value and wisdom. Wisdom is timeless, and fashionable trends fade with the fickle tastes of the times.

Below is a small list of the most inspiring and life changing books and essays I’ve had the fortune of reading:

1) As a Man Thinketh, by James Allen
2) Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
3) How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
4) Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill
5) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
6) Five Major Puzzle Pieces of the Life Puzzle, by Jim Rohn
7) Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

The ones above have had the greatest impact on my life. I can remember reading each of these books and the various moments when they provided me with life changing epiphanies. They’re all relatively short, but contain profound, timeless wisdom. They are cited as some of the most widely influential books and read by some of the greatest leaders in recent history.

The following books refined my perspective on life and myself, but require a good deal of intellectual energy to read and digest:

The Will to Believe, by William James
The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker
The Genealogy of Morals, by Nietzsche
The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen

And aphorisms, reflections, and thoughts by a few of the greatest minds:

Ideas and Opinions, by Albert Einstein
Pensees, by Pascal
Maxims and Reflection, by J.W. Goethe

And lastly: why do you want to read? What do you think it’s gonna do for you?

The reason I ask is that if you don’t know “why” you’re reading or learning something, it won’t change you. It will simply leave superficial impressions on your memory, and not lasting changes on your character. And the “why” must be powerful enough to drive you towards growth, it needs to contain enough emotion and enough reason so that what you read sticks in your mind and literally attaches itself to your character and aids in the construction of your worldview. That way it’ll never leave you and you’ll be more of a person.

It doesn’t matter what we know. It matters who we are, because ultimately who we are dictates what we do with what we know, and that makes all the difference.

So I ask, if you’re trying to develop yourself into someone better, into your full potential, allow yourself to change. Suspend judgement. Admit that you don’t know anything. Allow yourself to be wrong. Only then will you able to gain wisdom and grow and achieve destined greatness.

If you happen to take me up on my suggestions and read these books, read them with an open mind. Spend time with them. Meditate and reflect on the implication of their message on your life. Be curious and passionate, and they will teach you.

 

Raten: Intellectual Fodder

So every once in a while I buy more books for my library and indulge in a fervent reading craze. Over the past few years the desire to improve my intellect has grown, causing me to read and consume books that most would consider odd, or at least deem a strange way to spend my free time. My first serious purchase was Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica, considered the greatest treatise on mathematical logic– and some say philosophy– in history. This is not to be confused with Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica which is widely regarded as the most important work in the history of science. At any rate, logic has been a passionate past-time of mine and I continue to study it when I can.

More recently I’ve developed a growing interest in physics which has consequently nurtured a fascination for geometry which, after all, serves as its foundation. As a result of this interest I purchased two of the seminal works in the discipline, specifically Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. According to historians, Euclid’s Elements is one of the most widely published books in all of history with over 2000 editions, second to only the Bible. It was so well know that references to I.47 were automatically attributed as the 47th proposition of the first book of Euclid’s Elements, much in the same way we assume that 1 Kings 2:11 refers to the Bible.

At any rate, here is a list of my new reading material:

  • Euclid’s Elements Translated by Sir Thomas Little Heath
  • Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Newton
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. I: The New Millennium Edition: Mainly Mechanics, Radiation, and Heat by Richard Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands
  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
  • Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path by Richard Feynman
  • Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
  • What is Life?: with “Mind and Matter” and “Autobiographical Sketches” by Erwin Schrodinger
  • One Two Three…Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science  by George Gomow
  • Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
  • Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics by William Dunham
  • Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms by D. Borror
  • The Evolution of Physics by Albert Einstein & Leopold Infeld
  • Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead
  • An Essay on the Principle of Population by T.R. Malthus

All of these should make for amazing reads. I hope to study Euclid’s Elements in depth for many, many months before getting into Newton’s Principia. Eventually I’ll make my way to Feynman’s famed lectures on Physics. In the meantime I’ll need to devote serious time studying these works in depth, working them out on paper, and reflecting about them in my journals before I gain any appreciable proficiency with which to call myself a master of the subject.

But you may ask, why on earth should I ever take up such a task? Why read such obscure books on such abstruse domains of knowledge?

To that I have two responses. The first is that I am not so concerned with acquiring the knowledge of these books as much as I am concerned with learning the process of acquiring. I recognize that mastery of these subjects offers little direct relevancy to my life at the moment, but I’m preoccupied with the ancillary benefits of undertaking such difficult pursuits. To read and understand these subjects requires the utmost of mental discipline, the highest exercise of intellect that very few people throughout history have attempted to undertake, save only the greatest. But those who did endure the crucible of this study were prepared to become the greatest, most powerful and influential minds this world has seen.

Regarding the study of Euclid’s geometry, aside from his obvious influence on scientists such as Newton and Leibniz or philosophers such as Spinoza and Cicero, the Elements influenced even mighty political figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. It was said by Lincoln’s biographer, Carl Sandberg, that as a young lawyer Lincoln bought the Elements and carried the twenty-three hundred year old book in his carpet bag as he went out on the circuit. At night he would study Euclid by candlelight long after others dropped off to sleep. Many have noted that while Lincoln’s prose was influenced and enriched by the study of Shakespeare, his cogent and sound political arguments derived their character from the logical development of Euclid’s proposition.

Studying this material is good and well if you are interested in physics and engineering and anything requiring an entrenched understanding of analytic reasoning, that much is true. But I must believe, as many others did before me, that there is no greater exercise in intellect than to study the most logical of disciplines no matter what your domain of specialty. Even the earliest thinkers acknowledged the role of this training as a requisite for critical thinking. According to legend, etched across the archway to Plato’s renowned Academy read the words “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here”. Powerful.  There is a balance to be achieved as well, but I confess that for all my knowledge and experience I am lacking most proportionally in this type of training. And this is despite the years of educational training in mathematics and the rigorous application I encounter throughout my studies in economics and finance.

The additional advantage of studying this type of material is precisely the content, but not simply the content. I believe that metaphor is probably one of the greatest vehicles of semantics, of meaning. Metaphors allow us to transpose relations from disparate domains and uncover otherwise hidden relationships among a webs of facts. Despite their lack of linguistic flexibility and variegation, I believe that this holds true even for the rational disciplines such as mathematics, geometry and physics.

In sum, I’m excited to make these books apart of my past time studies the next few years.

Thoughts and Books

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” -Buddah

Although it’s been coined in different ways by different people throughout the ages, the message is the same. We are what we think. We become what we think. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. A man is what he thinks about all day long.

The first step I took in personal development was fully recognizing the significance of these aforementioned words. It’s not enough to read them or understand the base meaning of them. You need to get meta. Their power is contained in reflection. ‘We are what we think’ implies that you have a degree of control over what you think about, and how you think about things. You must look at your thoughts as if they are not you. They have been following you your whole life, attached to the proper name that you are: Michael. All those thoughts that follow you are not you.

You can change what you think about by changing your actions. We are a product of our environment. This means our thoughts are influenced by the things we are surrounded with, be it the geography, the people, the culture, the religion, the media, the education, etc.

Changing your thoughts means exposing yourself to new knowledge, new experience, new environments. One of the first and best ways I came across for exposing myself to this knowledge was through books. Books offer insights that men took a lifetime to glean from their life experiences. In many cases, the collective lifetimes of several men. They contain gems of knowledge.

I recently took to reading some of the best Literature and Philosophy that has ever been written. These books have inspired genius, started cultural revolutions, and elevated the consciousness of men since their inception. Here are some works that immediately come to mind:

Literature

  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • Nausea
  • East of Eden
  • Brave New World
  • 1984
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • The Fall
  • Walking on Water

Philosophy

  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • Genealogy of Morals
  • The Will to Believe
  • Nichomachean Ethics
  • Self Reliance
  • Civilization and It’s Discontents
  • Plato’s Five Dialogues
  • Meditations on First Philosophy
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  • An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
  • Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense
  • The Gay Science
  • Candide
  • Philosophical Investigations
  • The Social Contract
  • In Defense of Anarchism
  • On Liberty
  • Man’s Search for Meaning
Books. Yum.

I admit, I feel a bit of shame for not including more. This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. I’ll have to supplement, revise and refine this list later.