Shredding for seeds

Venkatesh Rao recently said that he didn’t “read” books and articles anymore; he felt “reading” was too passive. I suggested “interact”. Still too passive: “Hmm it’s a more violent act. More like shredding by your own memory logic” he said. 

I think I get his point. I used to believe that the point of reading a book was to incorporate the author’s entire argument or worldview into your own. I thought the aim was to collect and be able to reconstruct the perceptions of as many people and perspectives as possible. Wrong. I’ve since discovered that reading—if I do it to aid my ability to think and ask questions—is a quest for useful fragments. I do it to find splinters of solutions for whatever problem is top of my mind, or to mine for ideas and concepts which I can foresee as being valuable in the future, but in some as-yet-undecided way. 

For example, I highlight and record short phrases just as much as entire passages. I’m just as likely to transfer a passage like this one from Keith Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers

“My teachers had felt obliged to destroy our spontaneity, using techniques that had proved effective for hundreds of years, so why not reverse their methods? I had been urged to concentrate on one thing at a time, so I looked for ways of splitting the attention; I had been taught to look ahead, so I invented games that would make it difficult to think past the next word. ‘Copying’ had been called cheating, so I made people imitate each other. Funny voices had been anathema, so I encouraged funny voices. ‘Originality’ and ‘concentration’ had been prized so I became notorious as the acting coach who shouted ‘Be more obvious!’ and ‘Be more boring!’ and ‘Don’t concentrate!'”

…as I am to record these two words from the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

“…inviolable solitude”

By recording the former in my commons I preserve a coherent argument with a definite meaning. By recording the latter I save a seed, something that could grow to mean or influence a number of different things. For example, “inviolable solitude” could refer to the shelter of one’s own thoughts and ideas, to the inner citadel that is our mind. “Inviolable solitude” could refer to a fundamental human need, or a luxury attainable only by the affluent. It could be said to describe how truly separated every human being is from every other, or it could be an accurate depiction of how those suffering from mental illness would describe their condition in society. 

In this sense, reading could classified as a modular activity—as a never-ending search for parts from which new ideas, new concepts, new models, new systems and new beliefs can be constructed.