Beyond that, perception tends to be affected by one's age. When I was young (e.g., in my 20s), all the possibilities of the world seemed open to me and it was just going to be a question of what I would do first - I put everything else into the category "I'll get to that when I have time." I had done a lot to develop my talents and knowledge base, and in a range of areas to boot. But my reading of the "great works" trailed off following college. Time was too limited to get to most of them. But, some day, yes, I would do so. I had never learned to play an instrument. But, when I had time, I would learn piano. I had limited time to do non-business travel, but some day I would make it up.
Of course, "some day" one day comes and you quickly realize that many unrealized hopes and dreams would never in fact be realized. And that includes becoming cultivated in a range of areas. When this fact first strikes you, it truly is depressing. For me, it was the first time in my life that I started to feel "old" (feeling old is not so much chronological as it is a state of mind). You become overwhelmed with the fact that you will never keep up with all the new trends and you will never have the time to fill all the holes in your knowledge base or to do all the things you dreamed of doing.
In time, though, I came to make peace with this sense of restlessness. Life is too short to do everything but life is more than ample enough to do important things, things that count beyond the mundane routines of daily existence. This life is but a breath or, as my 100-year-old grandmother said shortly before she passed on, everything that she had experienced to that point was "but a blink." When you can get to that stage and say, "no regrets" for a life well-led, you can have peace with your finite capacities and your finite existence in this world. There is much that is beautiful to do in this life. You don't need to do it all. You just need to do it well.
As someone who's slowly but surely approaching that cusp of realization you describe, I thank you for putting this so eloquently.
But after a car accident 3years ago I realised that there isn't necessarily a tomorrow. I look at a beautiful sunset today and accept that I might not see tomorrow's. And if I do, it won't be exactly the same. I look at today's and appreciate it, cherish it.
Some people see this acceptance of the possibility of death as a negative thing. It is not. It drives me to make today count, knowing that I can never get around to doing everything, but that what I do should matter to me. You will not die with no regrets but you should be able to minimise them. And it isn't all about work, production or consumption -- often what I really want to be doing is lying on the grass, watching the clouds drift past, as the kids run around the garden jumping on me.
I found Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" to be hugely inspiring: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27s_Search_for_Meaning
That said, I don't think death is necessary as a motivator to "make today count." Today is a motivator to make today count. The living is the thing. Every attempt I've heard to bring extrinsic meaning to life falls flat on inspection. You have to chase what moves you, and that doesn't change as a function of expected lifespan. At least, not much.
In many ways I think we prolong life without consideration for preserving the quality of life. Losing my mobility or my eyesight (both of which happened to my grandparents) would be a huge problem for me.
And perhaps some people can find that motivation for living for today but in my experience most people can't. Even those close to me have not had the same reaction to my car accident... it is not enough for someone to tell you or show you how short life can be, you need to experience it.
You are right, and the article is wrong! ;-) The article confuses breadth and depth.
What matters is not how many subjects you know a little about, or how many acquaintances you have, or how many shows you attended; what matters is the things you know well because you built them yourself, the one or two friends you can trust with your life, or the artistic emotions that changed you forever.
I can't really add to that. Well-said.
I think nowadays each year I read about 50% new books, and 50% books I've read before. I think you get more out of reading that way.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Which serves as a reminder to make sure those books count, as well. Top shelf, as it were.
My first thought in response to this actually deviated from the intention of the topic. You see, I am constantly amazed at humanity. For all the stupidity and evil, we have a capacity for overwhelming kindness, compassion, ambition, and ingenuity.
Few days ever go by that I don't see something that makes me have a moment of extreme pride in this species (and I wonder if other species from other planets out there in the great beyond would share any of the same appreciation).
Anyway, those thoughts are usually followed directly by the realization that life is so painfully short. Too brief. No matter what fantastic accomplishments I witness in my few remaining decades on this blue ball, I will miss out on everything that comes after. I probably won't be alive when we discover other life in the universe. When we accomplish teleportation and long distance space travel. When we have kick ass robots that we can have conversations with. When we do everything that nobody can even conceive of, today.
I wonder, would anyone take up the offer if it was given, to be in some sort of stasis that allowed you to awake for one year every hundred years? You'd miss out on all relationships and so much life, but you'd also experience a year of life every century, well into the 31st century (and probably beyond, if medical science could extend your life another forty years at some point, there).
I'm tempted. I can't say I'd do it with absolute certainty, but I would have to think very long and hard about the chance for such a prolonged journey. Plus, I bet girls in 3011 are total sluts.
You mean like Brigadoon/Germelshausen?
(in the original german tale, the time-travel is a curse)
Even if I were into that idea, I guess I just don't have your faith in humanity or modern society even.
My bet is that some x<100 years after you've been put into stasis, the company folds, sells the bodies (assets) to pay off debt and you are forever lost.
This of course, ignores the natural disasters, massive wars (we've had 2 in the past century), or other calamities that might completely destroy society/contracts as we know it... 100 years is a LONG time.
(I include a number of statistics on how much stuff, exactly. Skip down to http://www.gwern.net/Culture%20is%20not%20about%20esthetics.... where the numbers go into the billions.)
In some ways, the more motivating question for me is: what have I produced? If time is an input, what is my output? I would hope that I'm converting time as efficiently as possible into great output, though I know that's often not the case. But framing my life in this way -- as the processing of time into something tangible -- keeps me focused, energized, and productive.
Then I came to the conclusion that I'm a tiny life on a tiny planet in the arm of a huge galaxy in an infinite universe. That the entire planet - to the universe - is no more than a speck of sand is to the entire Earth. That on this planet, celebrities and accomplished scientists and creators will almost all be forgotten in decades; certainly a hundred years. A few will last beyond that. As the span of time grows, only a few names -- maybe Hitler, George Washington, Ramses -- will live on for hundreds of more years. Even thousands. And I'm certainly never going to amount to anything like those guys.
And, when it comes down to it, all of human history has occurred on this tiny blue speck. Even the most monumental achievements and persons won't matter to anyone outside the planet and almost none will matter even to those of our own species who might continue on (assuming we aren't obliterated by some catastrophe and have spread out into the universe).
So, I'm able to recognize that anything I accomplish will only have temporary meaning and that the both the most awesome and hideous legacies of all time will grow to mean nothing. So . . . why worry about my trivial actions? I'm like a bacteria on a counter waiting to be sprayed with Lysol.
And no, that doesn't bum me out.
The most dramatic impact is that I stopped letting a project I started in 1997 (when I was 20) continue to suck me dry, like a vampire. I ran it far after I'd entirely lost interest in it. Partially because I felt it was my one meaningful contribution to anything, so far. I started it in 1997 and did every piece of work involved in it from building the servers to writing all of the backend code and front-end presentation and dealing with users (it was an auction site with a niche sub-culture twist and a screw-eBay and their fees selling point). When you invest that much time (many thousands of hours) and money and emotion into a project, you feel an obligation to maintain it. When you know there are tens of thousands of regular users (100k, at the peak) depending on it for socializing and even their income in some cases, you feel obligated. And, like with bad relationships, the familiarity and all of that invested time obligates you.
For me, it got to the point where I wouldn't read my email anymore. I wouldn't post in my own forums. I wouldn't even visit my own site for months at a time. I would rely on a script to ensure the site was up and responding, because even just seeing the front page load filled me with anxiety and a degree of loathing. I ran this for twelve years. The last six of them almost entirely out of some misguided sense that I owed it to people. Or that I owed it to myself (that ceasing it would somehow waste all of my personal investment in it).
One day, I decided that was it. I had to cut the cord with the project and the community and everything that it ever meant. I published a grateful thank you and goodbye (sans the details about how I had come to loath everything about it) with a notice that I would terminate it in three months. And on that date, I simply pulled the plug.
I still have a workaholic mentality, where work is concerned. But at least my every waking moment outside of work isn't spent dealing with users or mediating conflicts between them or fixing bugs or feeling that I had to get around to re-writing the entire code-base all over again. Or feeling that I needed to respond to all the requests over the years for me to "sell my code" to people by actually polishing it up and making it a product (I didn't). Instead, I can read a book, watch a movie, listen to music, play a videogame, or even just take a long nap. All things I rarely ever did the previous dozen years.
Further, while I spent those dozen years essentially feeding that monster with every ounce of leftover energy and not having the mental bandwidth left over to ponder future ideas and ventures, I now have some free space and time that allows me to pursue something new. I don't have anything yet. I never really was a huge "idea" guy (that project was my only shining moment of brilliance, to be honest). But, now, I can.
You can find the specific segment I refer to from Pale Blue Dot, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p86BPM1GV8M
And you can find the text, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot#Reflections_by_Sa...
The notion of an individual immortalizing legacy is a very western notion. One only needs to look at some of the great cornerstones of western literature to see this, specifically The Aeneid and The Iliad both speak of glory and historical remembrance. You don't see this as frequently in eastern culture. Ancestry is important, but ancestry is less about individual immortality as it is about continuing the family lineage--something that is much larger and more important than the individual.
When my studies in philosophy shifted from a western focus and began to incorporate eastern thought, I had a very similar experience. I realized that my existence was insignificant in the grand scheme of things--something I had really known before but perhaps never fully accepted. This is a powerful thought because from this we can deconstruct our entire society and existence. Some of my favorite western literature is from the existentialists. When you begin to go down this road, however, you can come rather close to madness, as many of the existentialists did. Rules of man and nature can be questioned and dismissed as irrelevant. Life can become meaningless.
Oddly enough I seek out my favorite existential texts when I too am in a dark place and feeling the solitude that a conscious and reflective life most certainly brings from time to time. I find solace in the fact that others felt this despondence and through pages and time the authors reach out with empathy. That is what art gives us--a medium through which we can bridge the solitude of existence and touch another being. That feeling reminds me that the connection between beings is what life is about (at least for me)--a moment of escape from our corporal prisons and a brief return the the continuity of the universe. This I believe is fundamental to the human experience, even if I don't understand the meaning of life.
I think I tend to be more of an absurdist than anything else. Interesting for those interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism.
Regardless, I believe one cannot go wrong in defaulting to this simple, folksy wisdom of one of the great thinkers of our time:
Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. - Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi
Thanks, nice find. I always thought I'm an existentialist,
but no, I'm an absurdist.
I've never been a workaholic, and have always been pretty laid back - but since hearing that passage, I've had a much more sage, compassionate, patient and relaxed outlook on things. It's acted as a kind of momento mori for me - don't get too upset about things; don't get too worried about things; just make the best you can of what's going on now for yourself and those around you.
I too feel driven all the time. Perhaps too much. I spend a lot of time feeling guilty about not doing something. I hope that remembering what you said lightens my load too.
Yes, I think the difference is for what you're using this picture.
One way would be to get depressed, to suffer from the meaningless of life.
But then you have just used the picture to feed the one, who is
harming you, the ego. He's the one who takes the fun, the freedom
out of your life, because he tells you what you should be and do.
And I think that's fine. It's important we try new things before we completely understand them.
My adrenalin levels are way up though, as I'm typing this. It sure doesn't _feel_ fine.
In it, The book loving protagonist survives the "end of the world" and, after being all alone, is ready to kill himself. But once he stumbles upon the library, he realizes he has the rest of his life to read whatever he wants. Of course, things don't go as planned.
If you were the last person on the planet, would you still read and listen to music? I mean, without being a member of a species and a society that contextualizes you, does music even mean anything to you anymore? Do stories? If you're exiled on an island somewhere, you know that humanity continues to hum along past your horizon, even if you're stranded from it. But once it's eradicated - along with the whole ambition and possibilities of it - do created works hold anything for the one remaining survivor?
This has been touched upon in speculative fiction, i.e. the library of knowledge remaining from a civilization that no longer exists. More than once. Not even including Kal El :-)
I'm not at all as sad over missing most of contemporary culture as I am over missing what will happen beyond my life span. The technological marvels, the scientific advances, the development of new ways of looking at what life really means. The advent of new forms of life, perhaps alien or artificial, which is so unlikely to happen during the flash of time I get to spend here.
In this perspective the article came across as very unimaginative and dull, but I suppose that's only me.
I routinely go back to re-read things I've read before though. That's really what defines what books I got something out of reading. I'm probably never going to read Plato again if I have a choice in the matter but I'm currently returning to Cicero and then reading Augustine of Hippo whose major works I read years ago. I've also read the Bible more times than I could count.
Thankfully there aren't too many new computer books worth reading or I'd never get around to reading these old books.
- Cliff Notes
Some people see reading as a leisure activity. I see it purely as a knowledge transfer method, hence I prefer it to be concise and to the point. The only argument I can think of in favor or lengthy books is that by spending more time on the material, it sinks into your head better.
But on top of that, I think the framework/lens you have when you're reading makes a big difference too. Biggest advantage of a Cliff Notes-style is to add an opening paragraph saying: this author was writing in a time of social change X or common belief Y, and most of this book addresses their concerns related to that (many of which were unfounded).. or something.
On your last point: I think reading as leisure is a wholly worthwhile pursuit in its own right - tacitly feeling the experience of the world through another perspective - though I'm not sure I'd need to read more than a book a month for this
Books did this for a long time. Printing improved books by distributing the data cheaply and widely.
But humans also used books as tools to create more and more data. So pretty quickly the data grew to the point where everyone has the data but you cannot see the forest for the trees.
So now the killer app for knowledge is no longer distribution of the data but contextual searching of data.
For example, lets consider the fact that it takes .19 seconds to find someone's personal distillation of Darwin's Origin of Species. I can now get a summary of one of the great scientific discoveries in less than 1000 characters and be back to reading Facebook updates without blinking an eye.
I didn't read a single word from the original work. I never touched on the years of toil, thought and research that become obvious only after you hear it in Darwin's words. To draw a relevant analogy, its like we are adding layers of abstraction to information. Wikipedia is just the high-level, interpreted view that hides all the nitty gritty details we don't need to worry about anymore. So how often will we need to dive into the inner-workings in the future?
The question becomes is this satisfying? Is it "good enough" to just read the cliff notes? I hate to say it but I think yes. We will end up with an increasing number of "instant experts" who know a little about a lot. And the craftsman - the true specialists - will probably just fade away with the rest of the irrelevant details.
As far as I'm concerned abundance is great because there's just so much to learn and be surprised by in the world!
That's the wrong way to go!! Start with Aristotle, rather, and read only books that have stood the test of time. What would be the point of reading every Kindle "space opera" priced at $0.99?
If you read all of Plutarch, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Cervantès, you're fine, really.
"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
[snip] Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.
[snip] To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."
Also, in order to know whether you like something or not you have to experience it. You may not like reading (as opposed to watching movies for example), but if you do enjoy reading you cannot not like Plutarch for example?
I'm not sure "literary taste" matters much (except for certain professions: (English) teachers and writers mainly), but you yourself seem to be quite happy to have developed one: _I have read enough books in my life to be able to distinguish good writers from bad ones_.
But I don't agree that the point of reading is to "feel good".
There are many ways to "feel good" and if I had to list them, I'm not sure reading would make the top ten — I'm positive it wouldn't make the top five.
To me, the point of reading is to learn something: either something about the world or something about human nature.
Therefore, a good book is a book that contains _new_, genuine information; and that's why I think that starting with the classics is a good idea. "Classics" are where new information was first created, and that's why they became classics.
Plus, he wasn't saying one should actually skip those books, he was just making the point of how many books there are, and how few of them one can read, even with a lot of devotion.
The point I am making is that it doesn't matter "how many books there are", it only matters how many GOOD books there are.
I think a way to know which books are good before you've read them, is to rely on the "wisdom of the ages"; you may have a better approach (your friends tastes, Amazon recommendations, whatever) but it doesn't change the fact that most books are not worth reading and one should only strive to read the books that are.
The article is a typical NPR piece in that the unproven, unexplained assumptions that the author makes in the process of writing are by several orders of magnitude more significant than the thesis of the text. The thesis seems to be "there are lots of books, and you won't read them all". The assumption is that all books have equal value.
Frankly, if someone believes that any book has equal value to any other book, I wouldn't much care about that person's take on literature. To me, it's akin to listening to a "mathematician" who says that all proofs are valid.
My point is, the number of books that I would really miss reading is very finite and manageable. My problem isn't in reading them all, but in finding them all amidst the ever increasing amounts of garbage.
On holiday I usually take seven or eight books for two weeks - depending on the type of books.
The fiction books seem to be needed, for me, to not exhaust myself on non-fiction. The best time for me to read these is when I am less busy and have down time.
I find talking to him enormously educational. In so many episodes of history, for example, he's read about it from multiple perspectives and can talk about them.
It also depends on the writer and genre - for example, I could read several Terry Pratchett books in a week, but slug through a heavy novel.
I know I'm missing lots of good entertainment, but TV series, for instance, always seemed like a huge commitment of time for me.
It saddens me whenever I think about this for a moment. Only hope is that humanity achieves singularity before I die which is in my opinion not likely.
There are a couple places where this analogy breaks down. Status matters a lot in art. Also, in math the end-product is the main thing that matters, while in art the creation process factors into its impressiveness. A sculpture hand-chiseled out of marble is more impressive than one made by a 3D printer, even if they are indistinguishable to human eyes.
Still, I dare say that if Bach created his works today, they would be appreciated about as much as other high-quality contemporary composers (such as Hans Zimmer).
Did I just compare artists across history? I'm such a hypocrite.
When we talk great composers, you might argue about Beethoven vs. Mozart vs. Bach... but would you throw anyone from the last 100 years into the mix?
Carl Orff, John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer.
For more individual achievements, Zack Hemsey for "Mind Heist" (aka the song from Inception) and Clint Mansell for "Lux Aeterna" (aka the Requiem for a Dream song).
There's a lot more to modern composition than film music and Carmina Burana.
Listen to it with good quality earphones and tell me it doesn't send chills down your spine.
There are what, seven times as many people alive today as were in 1800? It's pure silliness to propose that the geniuses of art and science are dead. To the contrary, as it is so effortless today to produce art, works of incredible beauty are common enough to no longer be particularly notable. Of course that could be good or bad depending on your perspective... But I'm gonna say good.
Part of the reason the classical musicians were so voluminous in their output is that their rules were so constraining that once you wrote down the melody, half the work was already done for you; there were a very limited number of choices left to you. I enjoy Mozart a lot, but at the same time listening to him with modern ears it is obvious that he has a very strong signature style, and that he could simply crank out the tunes using that style in a manner not entirely dissimilar from how one cranks out autotuned pop hits using standard harmonies and singers that can't actually sing. Mozart's results were better but there's more method overlap than you might think.
I think when people say that all the good composers are in the past, they are really just socially signalling. It's not actually true. Plenty of spectacularly good people are around today, and like I said before, if they seem less unique it's because the top end has become crowded, not depopulated.
Despite having no physical limitations of relevance, Mozart would never have written even The Flight of the Valkaries or much of anything else Wagner did, let alone Debussy, or Gershwin. All the classical musicians, geniuses though they were, were also very very confined in their style. They did not exhaust the space of good music; they only took the first hill of what we'd call modern music. It is a disservice to the many that have come after them to pretend they were uniquely virtuous; they were merely uniquely first.
And I will argue that good art is resolution independent. So we are creating a lot more stuff, and some of it is even good. Probably more good stuff than we used to create, but orders of magnitude more unremarkable drivel. You probably wouldn't be missing much by sticking to the classics.
I'm dedicating my whole life in an attempt to live again.
Is it? How do you know?
The true joy of life is the trip, not the destination
But logically, there will be a point in the future where the output of humanity in an hour will be greater than the sum total of all human knowledge prior to 2012. Some fans of the Mayan calendar say this date is December 21st, 2012. Kurzweil says more like 2045. Really hard to say, IMO. But still, if we have the power to create that kind of information then we'll have to be able to take in a lot more, so I'm not too worried about missing everything. I'm just concerned about the information pertinent to my health, career, and loved ones, which is quite readily available thanks to sites like this.
How much of that output is celebrity gossip and tweets about coffee and coverage of gadgets that will soon be forgotten?
I'd say much of the "increase" is just us putting into writing the kind of daily chatter that ancient people didn't bother to write down. It just increases the noise-to-signal ratio for future historians.
Also, not to be ignored, as stated, is our ability to find knowledge is making the filtering process far better than before.
Sure, an ancient library didn't contain a lot of celebrity gossip, but good luck finding what you need amongst the available works - sans anything but the librarian's best remembrance of what a book contains and its value.
Sortof boring in the end, isn't it?
I've found that it works well. It also converges: by not filtering out crap I'm not in contact with crap and I see very little if any crap in my life. And whenever I find a new thing, most of the time it truly is something wonderful and comes up pretty much at the right moment when I'm most receptive to it.
I would feel very anxious if I kept thinking and worrying myself about what I might be missing.
Overplanning will make your choices too selective, thus making you knowledgeable in some areas and totally ignorant in others (most of them).
Underplanning will make your journey unfocused, conferring you some knowledge on everything, but not much else.
So, I guess we should strive for a balance, but what this balance represents is distinct for everyone.
Experience is not about quantity, it's about those magical moment when your world expands in a violent flight, and about learning to love the world in new ways.
(It applies beyond academia, too)
I don't think it cuts out all that much. I would assume that the number of books published before 1761 would be a tiny fraction of a percentage of all books ever published.
Why not stop? Replay from, say, 1910, in an infinite loop. Nobody would notice, and we could all get on with other things.
Oh I guess this article was written by someone who plans on dying :p
(too bright, didn't read)
This is a tough realization, in any case. Even a million-year lifespan wouldn't help, because all of the books we were reading now would be likely to fade if we were to live another million years. As humans, we're innately finite in all sorts of important ways (e.g. attention, memory) that have nothing to do with lifespan.
I have to agree with the people who've said that "it's the journey, not the destination". It's all we can control, and it's what we actually experience. As a deist and Buddhist, I've often wondered why God wanted us to evolve in a world where lives are so short and death happens all the time, instead of one in which humans could get a more reasonable 10,000 years (or process information and experience 100 times faster, which would have the same effect). It's infinitely frustrating and reminiscent of Sisyphus (probably, in fact, a Greek metaphor for the reincarnation of the spiritually lazy, noting that ancient Greeks did believe in reincarnation) but it also has a certain beauty to it: getting to go through childhood and to re-learn all of the great things in this world again, and again, and again.
Since when does an "all good, all knowing" entity get backed into a corner where it itself relinquishes free will? Said God could have easily created this world with the intent that it is far from perfect for a very specific reason. The pain one assumes in this world is evil and horrible is only accurate if one also assumes that it has no further purpose.
It's like saying that all the difficulty in learning to ride a bike could not be allowed by a truly loving parent. That's clearly false.
If the pain is to a higher purpose that in itself provides for a greater good (like riding a bike) then the net effect is a better world. The operative idea being that pain and struggle allow us to become better.
God didn't relinquish free will here, but he can't or won't choose to make a shoddy world. It wouldn't be all-good or all-knowing. For a better explanation reference C.S. Lewis.
A child riding a bike can only see the failure and difficulty of learning, not them winning the Tour de France. If we are all in the process of learning, would we even know a "better world" if we saw it, and is a "better world" the outcome that matters?
I believe in a God who is omnibenevolent but electively non-omnipotent on account of deliberate non-interventionism. I believe that free will exists, and possibly at a very low level (even a quantum level, perhaps). Free will makes the future nondeterministic and therefore it makes sense that God would pursue an evolutionary plan that is robust no matter how that free will is exercised. And since all the suffering and "evil" we experience comes from being evolved organisms at a rather low point in our arc, this doesn't contradict the concept of a benevolent God, especially if "he" settles the score at some point in the future (e.g. by allowing us to reincarnate into better forms, either in this world after they are produced by evolution and technology, or in another).