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Not Putting Books on a Pedestal, Talking About Books You Haven’t Read, Cultivating a Personal Micro-culture, & Engaging Your Work

Resource: Henry Miller on Reading, the Life of the Mind, and How to Fix Education


The greatest source of knowledge is not books, but life itself. We all read too much, even those of us who don’t read enough. What we need is not more words and stories swimming around in our heads, but more felt experiences, more direct engagement with life.

School gets the whole learning thing backwards. The way school approached education is analogous to teaching a man how to swim on land so he can learn how to swim in water. People don’t learn from models of reality. They learn from reality itself.

School doesn’t teach individuality. That’s why it’s better for making engineers than artists.

Writers don’t belong on a pedestal and neither do books. Authors are people just like everyone else. No better. No worse. Books are objects just like other objects. No better. No worse.

There are no shortcuts. The long and hard path is usually the one that makes you better equipped to getting where you’re trying to go.


On the illusion of shortcuts and the vastness of knowledge beyond books:

“In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. All that is set forth in books, all that seems so terribly vital and significant, is but an iota of that from which it stems and which it is within everyone’s power to tap. Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge. Men are still being taught to create by studying other men’s works or by making plans and sketches never intended to materialize. The art of writing is taught in the classroom instead of in the thick of life. Students are still being handed models which are supposed to fit all temperaments, all kinds of intelligence. No wonder we produce better engineers than writers, better industrial experts than painters.”

On not reserving a special status for books:

“My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate. In this sense, and in this sense only, books are as much a part of life as trees, stars or dung. I have no reverence for them per se. Nor do I put authors in any special, privileged category. They are like other men, no better, no worse. They exploit the powers given them, just as any other order of human being.”

On why we’re more likely to read too much rather than too little:

“One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.”

On the superiority of direct experience over book knowledge:

“The vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas. The question — never resolved, alas! — is to what extent it would be efficacious to curtail the overwhelming supply of cheap fodder. One thing is certain today — the illiterate are definitely not the least intelligent among us. If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself — direct experience of life. The same is true for art. Here, too, we can dispense with ‘the masters.”

Resource: How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
Description: Insights from Pierre Bayard on how to THINK about books you haven’t read

“To engage with literature — and, by extension, with the world — in meaningful ways, argues Bayard, we need to understand the relationships between works and their position relative to each other within the collective library.” -Maria Popova


Each book we read carries a piece of who we are. Books are like messengers that speak our truths to us. Books are like portals or paths that we traverse in order to arrive at who we are.

Trying to find what is true for others when you read a book makes reading less effective than trying to receive what is truthful to you.

We needn’t be ashamed of the books we fail or refuse to read.

Non-reading, the choice to not read certain books, is just as important as reading. We must carefully curate what we won’t spend our time reading.

Each time we read, we contribute to the inventory of our inner libraries.

When we interact with others, falling in love with them or disagreeing with them, we are engaging each other from the space of our inner libraries.

It’s not possible to know what it means simply by looking at a single book from your collection. We have to see what other books are surrounding it. Each book is part of a network of other books. The meaning of a book to a reader is the relationship that book has to this network. What you get out of your reading isn’t determined by specific books, but rather by the network of books you own.


On books as a system of relational understanding:

“As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.”

On a book’s place in the collective library:

“A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements… The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.”

On the relationship between books being more important than the contents of a book:

“Rather than any particular book, it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual, much as a railroad switchman should focus on the relations between trains — that is, their crossings and transfers — rather than the contents of any specific convoy.”

On non-reading as active practice:

“Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”

On how the books we discuss serve as portals to our inner libraries:

“In truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture. In every such discussion, our inner libraries — built within us over the years and housing all our secret books — come into contact with the inner libraries of others, potentially provoking all manner of friction and conflict.”

On how we are the sum of our inner libraries:

“For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little, these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering.”

On how books reflect our inner world:

“The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit…”

On shunning conventional notions of being cultured and following our curiosity:

“To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves…Only in accepting our non-reading without shame can we begin to take an interest in what is actually at stake, which is not a book but a complex interpersonal situation of which the book is less the object than the consequence.”

On a book’s place in our quest for self-knowledge:

“The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in — a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.”

Resource: William Gibson on Cultivating a “Personal Micro-Culture”
Description: On creating a world within yourself


Are creative ideas come from fascination, not emulation. It’s not who we try to imitate based on what we think is successful or intelligent. It’s who we can’t pull away from based on what enchants us and pulls us in. Your greatest source of influence is the totality of all the pleasure you’ve received from the things that have moved you when you weren’t necessarily asking to be moved. This is your personal micro-culture and you cultivate it by indulging the things that interest you.

The concept of personal micro-culture is reminiscent of Bryan Caplan’s notion of Building Your Own Bubble:

Also see: Make Your Own Bubble in 10 Easy Steps, Quietism and the Bubble, and Shy Male Nerds and the Bubble Strategy.


On personal micro-culture and creative influence.

“We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction. Learning to write fiction, we learn to listen for our own acquired sense of what feels right, based on the totality of the pleasure (or its lack) that fiction has provided us. Not direct emulation, but rather a matter of a personal micro-culture.” -William Gibson

“I love this concept of “a personal micro-culture” — what an eloquent way to capture the most important aspect of who we become, as creators in any medium and as human beings. Design legend Paula Scher knows that. (“[A design is] done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head,” she said.) Artist Austin Kleon knows that. (“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” he said.) The blossoming of our combinatorial creativity hinges on a cultivation of our personal micro-culture. How are you cultivating yours?” -Maria Popova

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen
Description: The art of engaging


The best way to decide what items from your Next Actions lists you’ll work on is your intuition. Trust your gut.

There are some techniques for sorting out priorities and plans of action, but look at them as guidelines rather than dogmas.

The Four Criteria Model: 1) Context — Where are you? What tools are available to you? Who are you with/around? 2) Time available 3) Energy available and 4) Priority


On trusting your gut:

“WHEN IT COMES to your real-time, plow-through, get-it-done workday, how do you decide what to do at any given point? As I’ve said, my simple answer is, trust your heart. Or your spirit. Or, if you’re allergic to those kinds of words, try these: your gut, the seat of your pants, your liver, your intuition—whatever works for you as a reference point that has you step back and access whatever you consider the source of your inner wisdom. ”

On the importance of context:

“Since context is the first criterion that comes into play in your best choice of actions, context-sorted lists prevent unnecessary reassessments about what to do. If you have a bunch of things to do on one to-do list, but you actually can’t do many of them in the same context, you force yourself to continually keep reconsidering all of them. “

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