Sunday, July 18, 2010

What and Where to Read

I'll bookend another David Brooks quote with two Keynes quotes:

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones

But Brooks believes we should try to entrap ourselves with the old ideas:

. . . different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on . . .

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

The thing is, you can read books with terrible, unimportant ideas just like you can read terrible writing on the Internet (like this). Brooks isn't arguing for books so much as arguing for the cannon. But I don't read fiction because there are hardly any good ideas in fiction--you tend to get out only what you put in. That eliminates most of the cannon. The rest, which is mostly philosophy and religion, you can learn more efficiently through secondary sources. Reading Kant in translation or Berkeley directly is a horrible way to learn about the categorical imperative or subjective idealism. If you want to be smart don't read a lot of "great books," just siphon a ton of great ideas out of good textbooks and literature reviews. Then think hard about why most of those ideas are bad (e.g. this).

That said, Brooks might have a point when you consider libertarians. They tend to learn everything they know from a few Internet sources and don't know much economic theory. Indeed,

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

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