There’s a section in Plato’s Dialogues where Socrates is talking to Phaedrus about writing. He tells the story of the Egyptian god Theuth who, when he discovered writing, came to King Thamus and told him all about the wonders of this new art. Theuth told him it would become the remedy for memory. King Thamus, however, disagreed. In his eyes, while it was cool that the margin of error for remembering things would be drastically reduced by writing them down, the disadvantage was that ultimately, people would get lazy, so that it’s not so much a remedy for memory, but a system of reminding. On top of that, young and naïve students would get cocky, and think they’ve learned everything on a topic just because they read a book about it. And that’s more what I’d like to focus on, here.
We all know those people; they’ve read one book on Capitalism and all of a sudden they’re experts on politics. Or they’ve read all the classics and think they’re masters of the human condition. However, they have yet to actually discuss it with somebody. They boast about being well-read for the sake of being well-read and feel entitled to intelligence because they’ve read about it. That was one of the problems King Thamus foresaw; a massive increase in know-it-alls and a drastic decrease in respect for teachers and lecturers and those true “masters” that didn’t just read, but read critically, and then discussed, formulated opinions, and developed further theories. The worry was that they’d be ignored in favour of what the reader read. Well, at least until they’ve written a book themselves. Then I’m sure that one would be gobbled down with equal fervour as the rest.
And that’s the fascinating thing about writing; when something’s written down, it looks a lot more legitimate than when it’s said out loud. Writing things down hasn’t just become a crutch for memory. It’s become a form of mind control. When you’re sitting in a lecture hall and a professor is talking about history, there’s still room for questions. (Provided, I guess, that you live in a place that allows freedom of speech.) If something doesn’t click, you can ask them to rephrase it. If you doubt what they’re saying, you can challenge them. If you’re still unclear, they can show you examples. With a book, you can’t do that. A book can’t talk back, and it doesn’t always flesh out every point of view. And that’s not the book’s fault. The book was written by a person who believed what they wrote (hopefully) and perhaps felt it’d be too cluttered if they gave room for opposing views. Perhaps they had a strict word count and had to make sure the manuscript wasn’t too long. There are tons of factors that can influence the content of a book.
The fault, I think, lies with the reader. People generally know what they like to read, and sometimes that’s directly connected to what they like to hear. And what people like to hear is that their perception of the world is the correct one. And they will hunt for books that further prove that they had it right all along. So if a person is just reading one kind of book, that writing will shape their mind in such a way that contradictory opinions are scorned and not worth their time.
I am completely guilty of this. I’m constantly turning away books that I’m not interested in because they deal with things I think I already know about. And sometimes, yeah, I’ll already know everything the book has to say. But more often than not, I probably missed out on a good way to enrich my knowledge, because even if I know everything there is to know, there are tons of different ways to approach that information, and plenty of different biases that can present things in a different light. Maybe it ends up entirely changing my views on the subject.
And really, isn’t that how a lot of novels work, anyways? The same story told over and over but in ways so different you hardly recognize them?
What I’m trying to get at isn’t that we should necessarily read more; it’s that we should not get bogged down in just one kind of book, whether it’s by genre or ideology. Perhaps get out of our comfort zone once in a while. More importantly, we should talk about books with people who we know don’t have all the same views as us. The best arguments I’ve had have been over completely fictional plots, character choices, or rules of magic. My friend and I discuss Harry Potter as if it were real. We’ll seriously sit there for hours and debate over whether something was cheap or not. And it seems kind of silly, because there are real world problems that need solutions, but the liberating thing about books is that the answer doesn’t matter. You can both be considered right and it won’t start a war.
Most importantly though, discussing these things gives people a more open mind. Even when they don’t agree with the person they’re talking to, they’re acknowledging that other possibilities exist. It’ll take us out of the automatic “Well I think” and guide us towards “What are your thoughts?” And the more we do this, the easier talking gets. Forming opinions doesn’t become blind anymore; we’ll actually actively look for ways to support them because we know that they’ll be questioned, and if we can’t support them, we’ll consider changing them. And in this way, we can keep ourselves out of the trap of entitlement that was laid out for us the moment that writing came into existence. We can prove King Thamus wrong.