Reading Habits.

Witness this phenomenon in my reading habits: While reading one book (in this case, Philip Rieff’s “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”), it occurs to me that it would be advantageous to my understanding and ability to work intellectually with this book to have read some other book (in this case, Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents,” referenced frequently in Triumph of the Therapeutic, and probably on Rieff’s mind throughout). Thus, I will put reading the first book on hold, and begin the other book. This book marks the place of the first book, since when I finish it, I will return to the first book where I left off.

Since no better name comes to mind, I’ve deemed this the book taco.

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Now, book tacos are but the visible endpoints of a much greater construction. I could have a few book tacos going at once on various topics; one taco perhaps wedged in another taco, or more than one book wedged into another book at different points. In fact, that Rieff book (of the psychology and/or psychology+culture taco) is “tacoed” (coin!) in Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” which I began reading independently of the other books as part of a separate topic, on feminism. When I got to chapter two in The Second Sex, however, the topics merged, since that chapter is about psychoanalysis. I realized that it may be preferable to complete my psychology book taco before going on to further my readings on feminism. You see the emerging effect—initial books will get further and further away, and primary information will continue to build.

Many items, visible and invisible, books and information, online articles, films, certain discussions I’ve had, even plans and future events are tacoed in such a manner. Some objects encountered in the past are half-digested: they await their proper context. AllConsuming.net helps me keep track. I can list books (and other media—hence the “all consuming”) I’m “consuming,” have consumed, or intend to consume. I can name the order in which I intend to consume them, and tag them with their topic/ taco title. It’s a rudimentary brain organizer, allowing better organization than just making physical tacos can (for practical purposes—you know, the books fall out once you go so far). But it can only do so much, as I’ll explain below.

The building of book tacos tends to follow some trends. The newer books get moved backwards, and the older books that supported them move closer (the inside of the taco). I’ve been lead back to Plato more than a few times. Specific information gets further away, and more abstract information gets closer. I had to pause to consider that one for a moment, but it makes sense—you’re studying a specific topic, find that the specificity is better understood from a broader frame of reference, and find the more abstract information that surrounds the specific before you return to it. Information becomes a means to greater information. Everything is considered in context.

There’s also a symbolic connection. Looking at information this way makes it possible ask someone, “What is your taco shell?,” which means, “What is that for which you aim; what is your sense of the last thing?” or even, “In what context are you considering everything else?”

This mode of operation creates a sense of urgency. The builder clambers to get to the outside, and to consume the new item before the one that inspired its consumption fades from mind (especially with regard to the connection it has to the new item, or why it inspired the consumption of the new item in the first place). In a way, each new book is less and less significant. They are all efforts to get to the outside and stand in the way of reaching that furthest information, the one toward which they build.

I must admit, this can be a pretty miserable state—the distance from the truth, the urgency/ anxiety, the uneasiness, and the perpetual state of inconclusiveness are tiring, and the journey takes increasing amounts of work. The inability to keep up with it all and the fading connections that have not been transferred to long-term memory can give one the sense of having poor memory (Method will attest), or not feeling quite in touch with things, or all there. One has a lot of tentative information in one’s head—a lot of remembering context, or knowing something in such a way that it can be readjusted. External storage systems (e.g., AllConsuming, your PDA, the huge mind map on your bedroom wall [though I’m thinking more about that last one], etc.) can only help so much, because this information has to be held in mind to some extent because it’s so fluid. It can’t be filed anywhere permanent because it awaits its ultimate place in the developing system, i.e., it only has a true place once the item that contains it has a place, and on upward to that taco shell that grants meaning to the rest of it all.

I was surprised when I found out that a lot of philosophy works that way, more as time goes on. Instead of going further, the philosopher claims that the one he refutes has found his beginning in an appearance, mistaking it for the ground, the true beginning. His biases have caused him to make a false attempt and his entire investigation is crippled. The refuting philosopher takes a big step back and builds from his true(r) beginning. The tendency, as I’ve noted, goes from the specific to the general, from the particular to the abstract, and from the contemporary to the prior shaping events. In short, away from what is most desirable and useful.

But to get to those better things, to return to the here and now where we are most powerful and present and all the information is more significant, we have to navigate through the rest. There are some shortcuts. Certain items can be eliminated due to insignificance (There’s a margin of error here, of course. Some things can be judged irrelevant pretty accurately, others might just barely lose out, and you can’t really be certain about those.) Some are adequately contained in other items and don’t really need to be tacoed in. Some things can be taken in fast or in a condensed form. Organizational tools make for the most efficient order of consumption, and allow one to make a plan. It’s always better to do these things in order—makes for less loose, floating bits of unattached information, if things can be filed as you go into bigger chunks of unattached information. Maybe there’s some way to defrag, if you will.

I think that sometimes the frustration and buildup can become so much that people go crazy or just stop. And stopping does clear the air—one has to take a meditative moment to remember the outermost layer, what one is aiming for. (Going crazy means something like falling out of the system altogether; leaping totally out of any context to be free of it.) Then again, another strategy is simply not to aim. Then each piece of information takes on its own significance; in a way, that individual has reversed his book taco, since each book leads him not away from the first book, but to new ground. Indeed, this is the construction of the St. John’s program—beginning at the beginning (until you get impatient and start aiming, or shaping up to aim… when the outermost layer becomes political philosophy, say, and everything is accepted or dismissed, and interpreted, based on that context). Working this way seems to require a guide, though, to tell you where to go next. Otherwise clueless floundering/ library surfing is all you’ve got.

One common solution is to choose a stopping point. Find an ultimate context that isn’t too broad—specialize. The temptation to stop short has a formidable opponent in the desire to know everything, but that in turn has an even more formidable opponent in death. Everyone hits this point sometime, it might be wise to choose it so as to gain some compromised satisfaction. Again, early retirement is the accusation the new philosopher makes of the old.

I’ve also seen a response to the whole system taken as a blur. An insight into the universe precedes. All that stuff looks unmanageable, unbearable, a vast mystery that is too much for an individual (so judges that individual). Taken in all at once, it’s terrifying and amazing. He lives in wonder—a blur, perhaps momentarily latching onto certain points of entry, and then giving up again. A tedious person; though he may possess true wonder, most of his output consists of description or regurgitation without synthesis, and exclamations akin to “Fascinating!” The more honest ones may develop a wide-eyed, mystical attitude about the incomprehensibility of the universe and radiate unsubstantiated appreciation. (Note to self: This can’t be the same as phenomenology, can it? See below.) At best, endearing and childlike, at worst, cynical and blasé.

Now, this is a curiosity: what about the one who claims this fluidity as a principle, the one who rejects an ultimate context, whose information extends to infinity? The one who, even when given immortality, would not be able to satisfy his ends? The taco shell is contextlessness. Whoa. More later.

2 thoughts on “Reading Habits.

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