Books, Books, Everywhere… but What on Earth to Read? (Part 2)

A few months ago, I posed a question: how do you decide what to read in an age saturated with options? I suggested some habits to avoid, such as reading with urgency and a too simplistic love of beauty. But don’ts are only so helpful. What should we do to become abler readers in the 21st century?

The downside of most positive recommendations is that they reflect personal prejudices more than their negative counterparts, and are therefore more limited. Rather than begin with any positive rules of thumb — such as C.S. Lewis’s quip that for every modern book you read, read two old ones — I want to reflect instead on the attitude with which to confront our bookshelves. 

What I have in mind is an attitude that integrates indeterminism — both an indeterminism of the imagination, as well as a wider, deeper, and more controversial metaphysical indeterminism.

First, the indeterminism of the imagination. We have a duty to cultivate our imaginations alongside our minds, but the processes of cultivation differ as much as the faculties. We develop our minds by asking questions, proposing answers and measuring them against logic and experience. Thus not only do we need a rigorous command of logic, we need to know which questions to ask, and in what order to ask them. Cultivating the mind is like raising rare orchids or tending a Japanese garden: it demands care, attention, and above all, control.

The imagination couldn’t be more different. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard observes that “images do not adapt themselves very well to quiet ideas, or above all, to definitive ideas. The imagination is ceaselessly imagining, enriching itself with new images.” In contrast with the mind, the imagination is like an English garden: spontaneous, abundant, and rambunctious. It’s obvious that reading is a key means of husbanding our imaginations. In choosing books, therefore, I think we should heed the more pliable approach of the English gardener, balancing preexisting plans and preferences with the organic development of the images we discover and the directions in which they lead.

Yet even in cultivating the mind, we can only control so much — and here we turn to metaphysical indeterminism. Truth, according to the scholastic formula, is the conformity of thought with reality: we think we know the truth when our judgments reflect the order of nature. The spirit with which you seek truth and evaluate wisdom, then, depends in part on how you conceptualize that order. 

The scholastics thought of nature almost as a stately cathedral, in which causes and effects are arranged in a neatly discernible hierarchy, like foundations supporting columns, columns supporting capitals, capitals supporting buttresses, and so on. But what if nature, broadly conceived, isn’t much like a cathedral at all? The unprejudiced study of natural history — from prokaryotes to pulsars — suggests that causes in the order of nature interact less like columns and capitals and more like the conflicting forces that shape the ocean as we know it, e.g. gravity, wind, density, saturation, etc. 

If that’s so, then it seems to me that we are more likely to bring our souls into reflective conformity with “things as they are” by relaxing our minds; by accumulating impressions and ideas like a tidepool trapping fauna, rather than trying to trap the ocean in a shell. But perhaps that analogy is imprecise — perhaps the imagination is the tidepool, and the mind is a beachcomber wandering the shoreline of existence, collecting shells, rocks, and a lot of wet sand, in the hopes of dredging a pearl.

Whatever analogy you use to illustrate it, the central contention of metaphysical indeterminism is that accidents play a starring role in the drama of life. Accidents, though, obey Christopher Nolan’s optimistic take on Murphy’s Law, which requires a certain threshold of chaos.

If I had to distill these reflections into a single statement of advice, it would be something like this: 

When choosing and reading books, look to cultivate a crop of chaos from which spontaneous ideas and impressions can arise, in both your imagination and your mind. The preceding don’ts are little more than irrigation canals to make that crop fruitful.

Concretely, what does this look like? 

I suggest two ways of integrating indeterminism. First, while being open-minded about other cultures is a start, being open-minded about your own culture is perhaps even more important. It’s easy to overlook the immensity and intricacy of your own civilization. The more you explore it, the more you’ll realize that what you assumed was familiar is, in fact, deeply foreign. And if your own heritage can pose such a riddle, what might actually foreign cultures pose? 

This leads me to the second suggestion: about any feature of your own culture, be it never so familiar, occasionally ask yourself, “How else could this be done?” Of anything you believe about the world, ask, “How else could this be conceived?” Then actually look for an answer to your questions.

It won’t be long before you start discovering books and authors from everywhere and throughout time, as well as the movements and counter-movements in which they moved. Quite often, you’ll find yourself saying, “Why not?” before diving into something on a whim. (Little is so ephemeral as whim, which is why any indeterminist should take it seriously.) In answering questions and heeding whims, Wikipedia is your friend — as are those remarkable Amazon and YouTube algorithms. They may poison political discourse, but only because they’re so good at “guessing” what you might enjoy.)

Neither the attitude I recommend nor my concrete suggestions should be taken as concessions to relativism, though I see how they might smack of it. All I’m suggesting is that we live in constant awareness of unpredictability. 

“The world is deep, deeper than day had been aware,” writes Nietzsche. Unpredictability is baked into the being of things — which, on deeper reflection, is how it ought to be. Why should we be suspicious of calling unpredictability an ingredient in the goodness of the world when the God Who made it all goes by the name of fire? “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars.”

This fiery God wrote the book of the universe and filled it with noise — the noise of countless stars collapsing and forming into planets; of countless species stumbling into and out of existence on at least one of those planets, where their stumbling has somehow filled the globe with life; and of one species of featherless bipeds who build things they know are bound to fall and gaily build them again. It’s almost as if noise, at least of the statistical variety, has a special place in God’s heart; almost as if there’s beauty in the challenge of deciphering it, even if the very process of deciphering adds, yet again, to the noise.

If that’s so, those of us who have the privilege of living in the 21st century should be thrilled. The great sea of human culture lies before us, accessible as never before, and it’s there for everyone — at least everyone interested in felicitous reading — to explore for themselves, according to the whims of their imaginations and the drift of their thoughts. 

It’s an exciting adventure, I’ve found. You never know whom you’ll meet combing the beach, examining tidepools, or sailing these vast and unpredictable waters — and that, too, is as it should be. “He is not a tame lion,” after all. Why should we expect the world or His children to be?

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