I grew up in a fairly conservative religious community that abhorred study and praised ignorance, in a way. They believed along with what Asimov said of many Americans: that my ignorance is as good as anyone else’s knowledge. I understand that the rational capacity of any given person is up to the task of puzzling out existence and beauty and truth and love. It’s enough. And I also understand — and advocate for — the mutual humanity and dignity of every human soul.
But let’s be honest: ignorance is not wisdom and foolishness is not knowledge.
One of the verses they would quote came from the book of Ecclesiastes, the book of proverbial wise sayings and truisms penned by King Solomon the Wise of Israel. After this whole pretty nihilistic book of sayings, he said, “Of making many books there is no end and much study wearies the body.”
This got thrown at me a lot.
It got thrown at me for reading in a community where little boys don’t read outside of the classroom. At least not without getting made fun of.
It got thrown at me for going to college where reading and logic and rhetoric were the main focus.
And then again at that same college for taking a more studious path.
For writing outside of class for fun.
And then for aspiring to make many books from all of these communities.
The funny thing is, it’s true: there is no end to making books. It’s actually something that New York’s publisher’s row and Amazon are quite good at: books are freaking commodities at this point in human history, a thought that would have baffled our forebears who had to scrabble and scrape for parchment and quill.
And in a way, much study does weary the body. Recently it hit me how thin I had spread myself in my study — of dabbling in The Intelligent Investor and The Complete Book of Etiquette and some tractates on philosophy and psychology and theology and then the literature and fantasy and eventually they all start to mash up into a weird sort of stew.
Now I’ve thrived on this for years, right? The whole referencing obscure things so that even though a person might know a thing or two about one field, they can’t possibly know them all.
But it’s tiresome.
It’s tiresome for me because that kind of well doesn’t go very deep in any one particular area.
And it’s tiresome for experts because they can easily see through it. If I don’t know much about the one thing they know a ton about, why on earth would they trust me to know something about the subjects on which they remain ignorant?
So it grew tiresome.
And you want to quit studying all together. And quit writing. And the truth is that chaos is the default: no one’s waiting around cheering you on, just wishing, just wishing up on a star that GOOD OLD YOU will come along and put some words and thoughts to order.
But here’s the thing: that verse was cherry picked out of a whole context the community I grew up in ignored. Here’s the whole paragraph from the man after whom Saruman the Wise was named:
Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people, He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails — given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing whether it is good or evil.
It’s funny because that “making of books there is no end and much study wearies the body” line happens in the midst of a tradition. It comes after this guy has basically said he sought out the wisest, truest, highest good of all of the words said. He calls them “firmly embedded nails” that goad us on. And that we should be warned of adding to them because (1) we can make books forever, but it’s hard to add to their words and (2) because it’s tiresome to do so.
In other words, the tradition matters. It matters where we come from and whether we know what the best things ever written or said were. It matters that we steep ourselves in the ideas of the great sages and wizards of the past. It matters because the sayings of the wise both goad and root us, that we may be both prodded and shod.
As I wrote in Old Books > New Books, it matters that we know the tradition because without it we’re blind to our reputation and to whether we’re adding anything to the conversation. Something must steer us. Something must bind us to reality.
And that takes study. It takes reading the old books. Not studying — as I did — any new fad or thought that comes along. Not making — as I have — books that simply add to the filler. But that we carry on the deep and old and wise knowledge of our ancesters and add to it what little we may and warn ourselves of adding to them.
So I’m spending my morning reading time trying to learn the western tradition finally. It’s slow, grueling work. And it’s so, so rewarding.
Because ultimately, the saying by the guy after whom Saruman the Wise was named ends that we must seek the highest good, the highest and noblest beauty and truth, the ultimate reality.
And the way forward and up and into that ultimate reality is first to turn towards the past.
So I’ll be giving much study in the days ahead. Not to new books or interesting subjects or whatever passing fad grabs everyone’s fancy.
But the Western Canon of Literature.
And that alone — the wisdom and highest good within — will power me to make books and keep my body from being old and weary.