Of Reading and Experience

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”

—Frederick Douglass

“I couldn’t live a week without a private library – indeed, I’d part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I’d let go of the 1500 or so books I possess.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

In my sophomore year of college, I was taking a political science course. One day, I went to the TA’s office for a mandatory consultation about my essay. When I stepped into the room, I saw the TA hunched over a compilation of Benjamin Constant’s political writings, which was one of the texts we were studying in class. The sight struck me and remained with me ever since. He looks like he’s praying…in this modern age, to pray is to read. This was the wordless thought that entered my mind. The TA’s office was a monastic cell, and the TA was a monk pursuing enlightenment not through chants or supplications or fasting, but purely through the intensive study of the printed word. As an aspiring Eastern Orthodox Christian at the time, I naturally disapproved of this worship of knowledge (secular knowledge, no less).

My disapproval of the worship of the printed word has since been replaced by a simple recognition of its limitations.

They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world. When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead toward the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimensions. And when he had failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation. 

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his A History of Philosophy series, Frederick Copleston notes how Immanuel Kant “astonished” people who had experience traveling to other countries with knowledge that he’d amassed exclusively through reading.[1] I have little doubt that Kant’s knowledge was impressive, but I think I would personally rather read an eyewitness account of a country written by a half-educated man than an armchair account written by a genius. In this respect I seem to have something in common with the Pirahã people of the Amazonian jungle,[2] in that I value the immediacy of experience.

When I was working part-time, there was a period in which I divided my time between reading and exercise. In the morning or the afternoon, I would take 3-5 mile walks through the suburbs. It was during these simple walks that I discovered the difference between reading and experience.

When walking, I noticed that the activity engaged most if not all of my senses; I was taking in sights, sounds, smells, and sensations: the bright sky, the rumbling of passing cars, the almost sickeningly sweet scent of pine, the sting of a cold wind.

Of course, reading is a type of experience: you feel the book (or e-book reader) in your hands and experience a range of emotions as the data feeds into your brain. This seems particularly true of imaginative literature.

But something seemed to be missing. As rewarding as I found reading to be, I couldn’t exactly tell a story about it: I could tell of a beginning, a progression, and an end, and the emotions I experienced during that time, but in the end I would only be speaking of what I saw, not what I did. There was much to gain from “going places in my head,” but all of it, it seemed to me, was ultimately a preparation for something more substantial–a real journey, an adventure, an experience that engaged every aspect of my being. In The Doctrine of Awakening, Julius Evola wrote something similar in regard to the difference between Buddhist theory and practice:

“Texts, dogmas, precepts are so many bonds or so many crutches, to be put aside that one may advance on one’s own. The Buddhist canonical literature itself is likened to a window, from which one contemplates the great scene of nature: but to live in this scene you must jump outside the window.”[3]

I feel that all of the reading I have been doing is something akin to studying maps. Is this preparation in vain, or will there be an actual, undiscovered country for me to explore? That is what I intend to find out.

Notes

[1] Chapter X: Kant (I): Life and Writings

[2] See Daniel Everett’s excellent book on the Pirahãs, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

[3] Chapter 18: Up to Zen

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