Might reading harm?

who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

- ee cummings


  • One might spend one's life reading about living, without actually living. (Man.) The easy response is don't tell me what living is and is not, I can decide that for myself thanks.

  • Maybe a lifestyle centred on reading encourages a false sense of superiority - or a false sense of the power of reason. (The original sin of philosophy: to mistake philosophy as essential to good action.)

  • More generally, you might think of reading as parasocial, involving false, dubious interaction with someone you wouldn't much identify if you met them without the filter of composition. Or worse, a replacement for live discourse which hides the ad hoc, underdetermined, unpersuadable nature of even highly intellectual encounters.

  • There's a Latin phrase I like a lot - Aut tace aut loquere meliora silencio, 'be silent or say something better than silence' - and maybe this goes for intake too; maybe unreflective reading just clutters up the mind. But nah: the evidence for the whole Shallows-Overflowing-Brain thing is no good. A friend of mine insists that reading too much makes creativity more difficult by cluttering you with precedent in this way but more by cultivating an unhelpful sense of reverence for the past and past ways in you. We can straw man this just by saying "OH NO now I've seen this round thing I can no longer reinvent the wheel!" but it is an ok hypothesis, I spose.

  • A cliché about reading philosophy in particular holds that its strict and dislocating analysis makes you vulnerable to psychopathology. Czech even has a dedicated verb ("umoudrovat se") for the act of "philosophising oneself away" - and if you've spent any time in epistemology, you'll recognise the need for the word. ('The logical production of ontological insecurity' or sth.) But the cliché probably gets the causation wrong: more likely vulnerable people are drawn to philosophy because it offers a rare outlet for our schizoid or socially unusual tendencies.

  • Reading broadly but shallowly (like me) prevents you from getting to the bone of any thing, the frontier of knowledge where invention and underdetermination remain (so, where the productive work is). Also specialisation is necessary to understand anything really technical properly. Obviously this is an argument against a kind of reading only.

  • Some conservatives are united with some feminists in what you might call unkindly symbolic paranoia: the worry that we (or children) might be programmed by explicit media, somehow encouraged to copy violence or misogyny. It took us a very, very long time to accept that reading e.g. de Sade doesn't cause sadism. (Though it might well be a good indicator of it.)


  • Maybe reading has no effect either way - because my memory's so terrible that reading just heaps up temporary sand dunes on my essential thoughtless inner desert. Maybe there's a skeleton of sickly crabgrass (one-liners and shadow gists), but maybe that's all. Maybe artistic knowledge, or 'wisdom' (if there is such a thing) doesn't last either. Maybe. But even if all this is so, I can reread without waste or resentment.

  • Reading boosts cognitive reserve. The idea is, the higher you build your mind, the further you have to fall into dementia. (The intellectual colossus and Alzheimerean Iris Murdoch is not so much a counterexample as a reminder of how horrific the rate of falling can be.) To create reserve without reading, you could get a hard job (e.g. involving maths) or take up Yahoo Chess. Exercise and lots of socialising do it just as well.

  • I like the idea that reading novels makes you more sensitive to whatnot, but honestly who knows?

  • Ultimately, reading is the best way to a modicum of ideological autonomy. While no one has no ideology, freedom consists in knowing many and slipping between them - and that skill takes either reading or spending a lot of time with all sorts of very annoying people.

I've been dissembling; of course I think reading improves. I'm mostly just out to tease mate James (who wrote his dissertation on similar lines). Cummings was an idiot, and "philosophy is salutary, even when no positive results emerge... The colour is brighter - that is, reality appears more clearly as such." - Goedel


Do you have an ultimate goal? Are you working towards some kind of a grand unified theory to which all these works will contribute and end up in your bibliography? Do you feel that these books are basically ideas trying to separate themselves from the minds that generated them and to survive their human sources through generations, ultimately ending up in every copy of the transhuman brain of the future?"

- TK

We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us in a more articulate form what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn't read it now.

- Lydia Davis

I read for a bunch of reasons. The mundane reason is that I read because I enjoy working things out more than I enjoy anything else - and books are still the most stable and constructive way of understanding the world better.

The grand reasons (built on top of this pleasure, but pretending to be independent and dialectical) are that it is only by possessing many different ideas that one can begin to call oneself mentally individual - having access to only one set of ideas means you are doomed to immobility, that is, illiberty.* Also clever people have a duty to society to think clearly, and in the case of people who want to claim the title "intellectual", a duty to provide an answer every time anyone sincere questions any of their beliefs. And more duties!: to at least try and keep up with the torrent of knowledge produced in this, our highest era yet.

The spiritual version is that I read so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. (The futility of building even the most sophisticated self-understanding, as a mortal, has never really worried me, possibly because I am still young and so death is not properly real to me. Please see the Larkin poem at the bottom of this for a mature, terrified view**). In fact, the spiritual version loops round to the mundane one: my burning joy in attaining understanding seems along the lines of Spinoza's amor dei intellectualis, though maybe with less metaphysical excess.

As to there being an ultimate goal to my reading: sadly not - I am a moralist more than a metaphysician. (The modern word for a rationalist-moralist is "effective altruist".) I have been warned off of systematic ("totalising") philosophy by the history of philosophy: too many Aristotles and Rousseaus missing half the world because they let their theoretical aesthetics stand in the way, stop inquiry prematurely. (Rorty says we should give up the idea of their *ever* being a real end to inquiry.) As such, I do not count on the Singularity or posthuman Upload, even though there is a strong decision-theoretic case for them. I am a transhumanist with an emphasis on the trans; we are probably doomed to be the failed first wave, with the right goals and theoretical means (e.g. "the abolition of suffering from earth", achieved via ecosystem-level genetic engineering; "the end of involuntary death") but laughably insufficient material means. But the successful ones will not come without our failed attempts, so.

* Sure, reading isn't the only way to get em. You could get these alternatives from extensive travel or living in a really global city; or by having an unsually well-developed theory of mind. Most of us can't.

** "And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying."

  - Larkin


Never mind that: since we should read, what should we read?

  1. Good things, that is, morally proper things.
    Who argues for this anymore? No, the popular form is instead

  2. Good things, that is, politically correct things.
    I don't mean this in the horrible pejorative way of tabloids, just in the sense of made with modern tolerance and sensitivity. Trouble is, books are a lousy source of moral cues (sorry Tolstoy) and a work completely ideologically pure will find it hard not to end up dull and lacking in

  3. Good things, that is, work of quality more or less independent of its morals.
    Well, sure, by definition. The question is whether this takes priority over other concerns, for instance

  4. Challenging things, which is to say disconfirmation.
    That's the ticket. Books by different people doing different things, and particularly with differing views. Even those of us who cling to discredited univeralist ideas should read more subaltern, queer, foreign things, just as a basic matter of proportionality. (Are 6% of your reading list in whatever sense queer? Are 85% nonwhite? Well then.)


mathematical desire

(c) Randall Munroe (2010)

Model of romance for you. Say there are two functions:
  • A(y) – how attracted person x is to person y, and
  • R(y) – x's respect for y.

Then, two composite functions with each other:
  • R(A) - how much respect x has given a degree of attraction, and
  • A(R) - how much attraction x has for a given level of respect.

If we assume that they aren't symmetrical (that people can have non-monotonic functions), then romantically active people all fall into 2 or more of 8 exhaustive romantic functions:

  1. [If A(y) goes up --> R(y) goes up]. R(A) is proportional: x is ruled by beauty's halo.
    (X is shallow.)

More eye pop, swell chest
  1. [If A(y) goes up --> R(y) goes down]. R(A) is inverse: The mind's revenge.
    (X is sadistic.)

More eye pop, shrink chest
  1. [If A(y) goes down --> R(y) up]. R(A) negatively inverse: Hm!
    (X is maybe insecure?)

Less eye pop, swell chest
  1. [A(y) goes down --> R(y) down]. R(A) negative proportion: Reverse halo.
    (X is nasty-shallow.)

Less eye pop, shrink chest
  1. [If R(y) up --> A(y) up]. A(R) is proportional: A just and rational desire.
    (X is blessed.)

Swell chest, more eye pop.
  1. [If R(y) up --> A(y) down]. A(R) inverse: The mind's disdain for the body.
    (X pedestalises.)

Swell chest, less eye pop.
  1. [If R(y) down --> A(y) up]. A(R) negatively inverse: Masochism.

Shrink chest, more eye pop.
  1. [If R(y) down --> A(y) down]. A(R) negatively proportional: Dignity (or purity).

Shrink chest, less eye pop.

Quelle surprise, those that have attraction determining respect (5&8) are the humane ones. But there are more perverse strategies than healthy ones, and can you say you’d be surprised if this were borne out empirically?

James points out the need of a reflexive self-respect variable, R(x), to really see the shape of an ordinary relationship (since we're drawn to people who are in some respect better than us). [If R(x) > R(y) --> A(y) down.] and [If R(x) < R(y), A(y) up.]


It is equally fatal to the spirit to have a system and to not have a system. One will simply have to combine the two.
- Novalis

Now, the exercise is laughably incomplete, missing as it does dozens of salient variables* as well as the internal poetic significance - what feels to be the whole point. (For any given individual, I would guess the above R-squared of the above at less than 0.3.) In fact just adopting this nasty economic-sociobiological posture dissolves the thing's poetry. But nothing can talk about everything.** The model’s as simplistic as can be and still illuminating, and that's the interesting bit; how much of us can you show up, how surprising can you be, with just two quantities and four relations. To me the options seem to be: entertain theories***, or settle for courageless commonsense (in which I include intuition). Aporia – the aseptic procedure for handling the debilitating pathogens, ideas – is a rare talent. Its opposite, human dogmatism, is the default but it's our failure, not theory’s.

When is a model unacceptably distorting, though? (Can we model that?) People who take the above line must be clear with themselves about when models become liabilities. This happens when: the class of mathematics used is too restrictive for the class of problem (generally true of human affairs, though do note Nate Silver-style stats); when the use of precise maths implies we have solutions where we have none or can have none; and above all when the model obscures more of the phenomenon than it uncovers. There could be good theories we wholly lack the maths for. People who think formally about people should remember they are heuristics: we use theory as a conditional reminder of the complexity of people, rather than a predictive or exhaustive encapsulation of them.*****

* e.g. The interval between the two's self-respect, simple proximity, parental influence, inverse parental influence, y's place in local pecking order, degree of shared interests, romantic anosognosia (or the whole subsystem of casual criteria)...

** You might say that theoretical silence preserves more than any theory can state, but I think you'd do silence too much honour. It doesn't mean anything to mean everything, and implying anything's the same.****

*** This claim is close to ludicrous fiat, saved from it only by my saying ‘theories’ rather than ‘a theory’.

**** What about Tractarian silence? Sure it's a peerlessly beautiful thought, but people divorce it from the properly hellish mathematical world that gives it its punch and significance. No-one is a Tractarian (except the very ill), because life would be intolerable without the nonempirical kinds of meaning the Tractatus shoves out of language and almost out of life.

***** All right, all right, let's say you've justified precise theorising about fuzzy humans. Why cloak it in maths, a rhetorical device that repels 80% of even the educated world?******

****** Look, it's a joke, A JOKE I TELLS YA!

XKCD (2000)

on not finishing books

Sometimes I don't finish books because I've become someone else in the interim and don't share their goal of reading it. Any book that takes more than a week is liable to fall foul of young people’s mutability in this way.

A lot of what we read is just to say we’ve read it - they are plugs for gaps in cultural armour. We fail to see these through because they are interminable – cf. Gibbons’ Decline and fucking Fall – and because our motive’s so base in the first place. The act of plugging could be noble – the will to improve oneself – but it's more often the ignoble fear of looking ignorant (rather than the excellent fear of being ignorant). The educated world keeps up an arms race in which indifferent bystanders are gunned down by fully-auto sneering, where books are secondary to the concept of themselves. This side of ‘literary’ culture, call it the consumerism of the immaterial, is scarcely different from more obvious consumerism about designer labels and very large cars. Each of the games motivates the player with identity concerns, providing us with superficial status by association and not via anything actual like form or content.

Relatedly: we can stop reading out of simple disappointment (because misled by hype) or simple disgust (because of unbearable prose). I’m no aesthete, but on occasion I’ve had to bail out because of style; bad translations from e.g. Swedish or Chinese, academic work of any field from the last 50 years.

Finally there are books you haven’t finished reading even when you’ve read to the last page. The hermetic, or meaningless, or stodgy, or countably infinite: Finnegan’s Wake, Pound’s Cantos, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest. Whether it’s worth returning depends on how poncey your peers are, or how much you trust the book’s ineffable reputation (which will be to the same extent you distrust your ability to actually read).


  • The particular is much less good than the general: look how much smaller it is.

  • Independence is necessarily nationalist.

  • Independence is divisive. It can only put up arbitrary walls.

  • Scottishness is an insular and bigoted thing.

  • Very Scottish art - set here, with Scots phonemes and concerns - is insular and uninteresting. (Unlike British or Greek or Indian art, which can be universal.)

  • Abandonment of Scotland is virtuous: it’s transcendence.*

  • How we imagine our groups is irrelevant to improving the world. Nation is only a delusion.**

  • Of course self-determination is secondary to welfare!

The big one was my conflating an opposition to Scottish nationalism with a contempt for Scotland. It was also very stupid to overlook how self-deprecation – being an anti-Scotland Scot – tied in to a wider devaluation of Scottish things. This actually put me in line with the British elite, like so many other ‘individualist’ Scots in history. Overcompensating, á la Trainspotting.

* But “In all parts of history, the bourgeoisie tend to side with the colonisers for personal and group advancement.” - Kelman

** It is actually a delusion with teeth.