Nothing like seeing a friend from three decades ago, when you were a new and very green adult in the world, to stir up the mind.
John and I also talked a bit about Gilgamesh today. Me talking about Gilgamesh is nothing new. I do that with anybody and everybody who’ll listen. But talking about it to the guy who knew you way back when when you so naively embarked on a conscious search for “Truth” — especially when that same guy joined you, and with exactly the same naivete — that is something new.
It’s like our 20-year old selves were sitting on that beach with us two 47-year-olds all day.
False Starts in the Search for Truth
That 20-year-old me was such a lousy seeker for Truth. He read all the Old Books devotedly — the Greek, the Hebrew, the Vedic, the Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Taoist, the Gnostic, the Transcendental, “Yak yak yak.” He read them all, underlined passages, filled margins with scribbles, exclamation points, interrobangs. He started (and rarely finished) journals devoted to only copying the choicest of those words of Wisdom — quotes only. The Things to Remember. These were the words of Wisdom and Truth, and they were going to teach him Truth and Wisdom, by god. If he read them real closely to be sure he understood, then he’d find Truth and Wisdom. And life would be better because he’d have those things.
All I could do today while thinking about him was laugh at him.
Because I think I know now that that’s exactly the wrong way to read the Old Books.
If I had read Gilgamesh back then, when I was him, I would have been expecting it to teach me too. Another Old Book that was supposed to be Wise. That’s not how I read it now, thank goodness.
How Moderns Read
Anyway, I sat there on that beach wishing I had my iPod so I could record what I was trying to aphoristically sum up about what I know about reading now — and wish I’d known well before 20, at your age, my students. I didn’t want this little stab at something essential to slip away. It went something like this:
It’s not what we learn from the Old Books. It’s what we see in them.1
That mental shift in relation to reading, I want to say, comes close to a definition of the modern reader. A traditional reader gives up his authority to the author. A modern reader takes that authority back. Copernicus did it to Aristotle and Ptolemy, for example — he doubted their scientific authority based on his own observations. Voltaire and Nietzsche did it to the religious authority of popes, preachers, and the Bible.
A modern reader, in a nutshell, doesn’t read on his knees.
The scary thing? It seems that a large number of Americans are not modern readers at all.
And the sad thing? They all went to American schools — which doesn’t speak well about American education.
- And yes, this is probably true of all books. But moreso, I think, for pre-scientific books. [↩]