Go with a smile!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Allconsuming is dead

A few weeks ago I received news that allconsuming, which was the online app that I've been using to help me organise my reading list, is dead. I'm thinking about it - I've devoted so much of my life to books. I'm still wondering about those books. I was thinking about books in 2010, which was my last free year for quite some time. Now I'm still thinking about them.

When I got back from Snowy Hill I had just picked up the habit of reading. I didn’t really have a reading habit, even during my JC days. I tried to pick up something during my national service days, but I spent a lot of time trying – and failing – to read a lot of fiction.

During that time, Borders opened in Singapore. Somewhat briefly. The book megastore can and should be seen as a turn of the millennium relic. It’s there to promote a lifestyle – coffee and books. And a nice, cosy environment to enjoy the two. It’s quite notable that neither of these exist anymore. Ebooks are cutting into the business once dominated by the proliferation of “megastores”. And rising rentals in big cities in America are threatening the business model. It is ironic, because these businesses at first thrived because information technology was making it viable in the first place for businesses to run big chain stores and manage large inventories.

I used to manage the list of books I read on allconsuming. Now they’re going to shut the site down. I think that probably between the years of 2002 and 2007, that was when I spent the most amount of time reading. In fact I’m starting to wonder why I spent so much time reading books. I thought that it was more a case that it was something that I simply enjoyed doing, that it was pretty harmless to gather around a lot of knowledge, and that I was just biding my time.

All well and good, I suppose. But there was a point beyond which all that would be useful, and I think I passed that point some way back. I remember when they used to have warehouse sales on books at the expo, and back then, such was my lust for books that I used to grab them by the boxes. And then there was once when I was hailing a cab to cart all my books back home. The cabbie asked me if I was really going to read all those books. He said that I should really be going out to nightspots on a Saturday and meeting people. I wasn’t sure about that. But as time went by, he was probably right.

At that time when allconsuming got shot down, I had 500 books listed as read. I should have stopped at 300,400, and then after that move on to something else. I did recognize why I liked reading so much. My MBTI type is INTP. At certain points in my life I may have acted more like an ENTP or an INFP. Anyway the patron saint of INTPs is Albert Einstein, who loved nothing more than to sit back and contemplate the universe. AND DO NOTHING. That’s the worst part about INTPs. There was a chapter in my Chinese textbook a long time back where somebody praised a person for “learning for learning’s sake”. Now I do that way too much. Only a textbook writer would praise something like that. The teacher’s mission is to impart knowledge – well and good. But when you go beyond that and start thinking that knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the centre of the universe, that’s the first step to going bonkers.

I used to spend entire weekends just reading a lot. But these days I recognize that sometimes all this reading is a cover for not wanting to do anything, for being wishy washy and indecisive.

Is knowledge still supposed to exist in the forms of books?
I have to go back to my college days for this. That was not the place that I was introduced to the medium of books, although that was the place that turned me into a big reader of books. Owing to the amount of books I had to read for some of my courses, I turned out to be pretty OK at it. I will never be a fast reader of books because usually after I had read something, I will always want to contextualize it against everything else I know, and that can be pretty laborious and require a lot of thinking.

Are books some kind of a museum?
But the medium of the book also reminds you of the crowded bookshelf. Once you fill that bookshelf up, it is full, and it will very often be pretty messy. And that body of knowledge sits there, static and unchanging, year after year, long after it has been superseded or maybe fallen out of fashion. The flipside of the library is clinging on to your old ideas. It reminded me of my boss’s office. He used to be a professor, and his office was full of books. And many of them were books, full of abstruse mathematics that I had come across in Snowy Hill, and they once held some form of joy and wonder for me. But now that I look back upon it, it’s some kind of ossification. I never really got through to that boss, because I think he held too fast to his old ideas. He wasn’t willing to accept new ideas that were radically different, and there were some people he didn’t have a high opinion of, he absolutely refused to accept new ideas from them. He was good at what he was good at, but I was pretty aghast at a few instances where he misapplied his engineering knowledge.

What I did notice now was that at one point, when blogs ruled the internet, knowledge would come in the form of some kind of a library where you could retrieve any article you want. These days, it’s been replaced by feeds, like the one you have on Facebook. It was no longer possible to look for all the articles that were of a certain date range, but instead you had to search for it on Google and if you couldn’t – too bad. If you wanted to get back all the stuff you read yesterday, you needed to scroll to the bottom and force the database to fetch some more articles to scroll down.

In this instance, knowledge became something like a stream, or a bus that you stuck your hand out to catch at the right moment, rather than something eternal that will always pile up, always take up space on your bookshelf, and be read by people 10, much less 100 years from now.

The books that I had read were pretty ephemeral anyway. Many of them were extended magazine articles, or collections of magazine articles that talked about the latest ideas. Many of those ideas would be merely fanciful speculations that would prove themselves to be wrong pretty quickly. Or they would be first or second drafts of history, that would be later on discarded for more definitive versions.

What’s happened now that data has replaced books?
What I found in graduate school is that the journal has replaced the textbook as the central domain of knowledge. Perhaps this is about engineering being more about practice and absorbing new ideas, and replicating recipes rather than getting introduced to the canon of great books. Notice that there is never any such thing as the Great Books in engineering.

The other day I was arguing with my sister about the impact that the easy access to information has had on us. I am the last generation who has grown up without access to the internet and thank fuck God for that. She said that it was a good thing that back then our libraries were so crap that we had to hunt high and low for good books – it was a good thing that it forced all of us to be really picky about what books we read. I said that it wasn’t entirely a bad thing that people suddenly got a lot of information, but a lot of the time they got a lot of information that reflected what they already know. So you would have a lot of climate change deniers who managed to surround themselves with a wealth of knowledge on what previously used to be a pretty marginal section of quackery. And mistaking that mountain of information for real knowledge. The problem is that there is a plethora of junk and it is very easy to convince yourself that just because there are so many serious sounding “facts” and “evidence” that climate change is not man made, or that God really did create the world in 7 days, or that 9/11 was the work of the Zionist conspiracy.

When you read a lot of books very quickly, you don’t necessarily grab the main ideas out of the books. There is a reason why going to school is important: because having the old style classical education will draw you to the big questions that have always been asked, and mainly the people who teach you stuff are correct about many of the big ideas – until the next information revolution comes along. But a lot of the classical knowledge is still sound. To use an example, Einstein managed to make a big dent in Newtonian physics, but it’s only a dent. For most intents and purposes, it is still valid, it is still taught to people all over the world, and it is still more relevant to our life today than relativity. Scientific revolutions can only make so much of an impact.

The structure of knowledge is that when you are young, you are going to have a mental framework, and that’s when your values are shaped. And whatever knowledge that you have later in your life will be assessed based on that mental framework. When you read a very important piece of work, it will build your mental framework, and if you’re very very lucky, you will still be able to read a book on the wrong side of 50 that will permanently change that mental framework for you – but that’s pretty unlikely. So I think that I have a pretty solid mental framework for a few things – although I never did build up a good enough mental framework where economics and finance is concerned – there were so many other things going on in my life that I was distracted. And I never mastered any Chinese languages. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I’m old – master Chinese.

The problem is that I just read a lot of stuff because it was bound into books. I was just spending a lot of time reading books. And a lot of the time, I ended up reading a lot of books that repeated material that I had already read before. Or I was learning a lot of facts about things all over the world that were very interesting but did not have very much to do with my life. Now that I’m older, I find that I’m not that clear when it comes to articulating things. It used to be that I had a very clear vision of things when I was younger, and when I had just learnt some things for the first time, I could articulate it pretty well. But now I see both sides and everytime I put forward an argument, there’s this back of my head saying “yeah but” and it’s very distracting and it prevents me from putting that point forward forcefully. In fact some people have speculated that the cognitive impairments of old age are not mainly due to the brain getting old and having neural cells dying, but they are also due to there being too much knowledge to handle and contain that everything slows down. Unless you really have the good wisdom to organize everything down into a very good structure.

There must have been some post in the past where I reminisced about what my long reading habit was like. Come to think of it it was one of the most time-consuming habit I ever had. I mean, ever. But considering also that it came after a teenage-hood where I was bored stiff doing almost nothing, it seems almost like productivity. Before I left for Mexico, I packed away all my books, and they took up - what - 10 boxes? And they're still lying there where my room used to be. And I didn't have a lot of time to read books when I was a student at the University of Mexico. But after I graduated, they allowed me to loan books for another year, and boy did I take them up on that opportunity, although truth be told I probably only read about 10 or 20 books - I would not be as thirsty for it as I was during my heyday as a reader when I judged how far I had gotten in life almost purely based on the books I read. (God how crazy that was...)


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