A few years ago there was a push to make more people use public libraries. One of the slogans was, ‘Lose yourself in a good book’. I liked this slogan because there is something nice about forgetting yourself and drifting away into another world. Certainly the library marketing department thought so.
In its extreme form ‘losing yourself’ is to live like Walter Mitty or Billy Liar. Most people would probably agree that to take things to such an extreme is not healthy. On this view, losing yourself for a while is okay but you shouldn’t completely lose touch with reality. Maybe The Everly Brothers stated the problem most succinctly in the song All I have to do is Dream:
I can make you mine
Taste your lips of wine
Anytime, night or day
Only trouble is
I’m dreaming my life away
I started to think about such things about twenty years ago. That’s when I decided that before I died I wanted to understand the world better. I pictured myself lying on my death bed thinking, ‘Well, that was weird. I have no idea what it was about and now it’s too late to find out.’
So while I still had time I started reading science and philosophy books to try to find what life was all about. My main interest was evolution and I concluded that life is really all about reproducing yourself, or rather, reproducing your genes. Then I learned that we aren’t mere animals at the service of our genes but robots rebelling against their genetic masters. Soon I was reading about evolutionary psychology, history, politics and economics. Before I started my program of self-education I couldn’t imagine anything worse than reading such dull material.
Over the past twenty years most of my free time has been spent reading such stuff. I had little time for the fiction that I had enjoyed before because it merely entertained without enlightening. I wanted to orientate myself in space and time to see where I fitted into the scheme of things and how and why I became who I am.
I have learned more about academic subjects in these past twenty years than I ever did at school or university. I can now contribute something to discussions on the driest of topics as long as the talk isn’t too highbrow and occasionally I become really really boring when some poor unsuspecting person asks me about my latest hobby horse.
But one or two things about my quest for knowledge never felt quite right. One was that none of my ideas and opinions were my own. Of course I thought about what I was reading and digested it but I was often won over too easily to an author’s point of view. I came to trust some writers, but probably only because I had read them before I had read their rivals. I then passed off my new views as self-evident, as though anyone who thought otherwise was a complete fool, even though I myself had been just as foolish five minutes previously.
To give just one example, my reading has convinced me that races differ in intelligence. Ashkenazi Jews are probably top, followed by north-eastern Asians (Japanese, Chinese, Koreans) and then whites. Bottom of the league come Pygmies, African Bushmen and Australian Aborigines with Indians, Arabs, South Americans and people of mixed race somewhere in the middle. Yet there is no way I could have come to this conclusion through observation alone. I simply haven’t met enough Pygmies or Bushmen to be able to judge. And the same is true of all of my academic knowledge. It is all taken on trust.
Of course, the same applies to most knowledge held by most people. We just don’t have enough time or brain power to start from first principles and work out everything for ourselves. Therefore most our beliefs are formed by what we have read or heard. Many people have read books that insist that all races are equally intelligent and believe them. Like me, they have taken what they read on trust and don’t have strong enough reasons to question their beloved authors.
The more I thought about all this, the more I saw how my head was filled with other people’s ideas that I had caught like a virus. Although such knowledge can be useful it doesn’t feel like it’s truly mine.
Of course, if I didn’t read anything I would know no more about the world than an Anatolian shepherd and this is probably worse than picking and choosing who to trust. Refusing to read or listen to anyone else would leave you confused if World War Three started or the Ebola virus came to your town. If I had read the newspaper then at least you might have stored up some food, built a bunker in your back garden or fled to the Shetland Islands.
But the more time goes on the less inclined I am to spend it reading. Nowadays I rarely lose myself in books, TV programs, daydreams, alcohol or anything else. Instead I try to notice what it feels like to be alive. I spend time looking at the pattern in the carpet on a dull afternoon and feeling the cool of the banisters as I go downstairs. It’s not that compelling but at least it’s real.
So rather than keeping up to date with the pros and cons of fracking and which rogue state is developing nuclear weapons, I am just going to potter around in my garden, feel the crunch of snails under my shoe and the light drizzle on my hands and neck.