UNREAD: Books, Bookshelves, Memory, Intelligence

Most people who enjoy reading have a few unread books on their shelves. Many of us have scores of them. I remember my own senses of incipient guilt and discomfort about ‘the ratio’, as I came to think about it. What was the percentage of my collection I had read? Was it reasonable to keep obtaining books when I had so many that lay unread on my all-too-numerous shelves? I admit my relationship with books is and has been flamboyant. I suspect, however, that I am less alone in this than some dare imagine.

Entering a bookstore, I often felt an uncomfortable gravity near the door; an emotional force, propelling me back to the quotidian urban realities outside its familiar scents and protections. This fear of having ‘too many unread books’  its major component. It seemed urgent to determine the nature of this limit through rational analysis and I often fielded arguments against myself like a financial adviser or a parent at the dinner table. I don’t think I ever found ‘the ratio’.

This could be due to something other than failure on my part; the unexpectedly peculiar (and fortuitous) structure of the problem, for example. The entire matter may, indeed, have little to do with rationality — and much to do with imagination. All the same, it is a natural intuition to preserve the distinction between passive, relatively pathological collecting behavior and its more noble metalogues; and during those humble days when bookstores were a common encounter or a desirable destination I wanted some palpable reassurance that I was still on the vital side of this troubling dichotomy.

It has only just arrived. Years after I sought it, and with portents far stranger and more wondrous than I might have hoped. Allow me to share with you the unexpected results of my long and painful indecision on this topic, and rest assured that though they may sound complete, they are still fresh to my own senses and eyes. I think we shall find there a country as undiscovered as it is somehow familiar.

We relate books with eating. And with friends, because a book is one of the few objects that more or less deserves the metaphoric mantle of ‘companion’, in the sense that they are like ‘being with other minds’. I have been known to introduce a friend to a beloved volume with praise not dissimilar to that I might prelude a human introduction with. And so they represent relationships, and ideas… dreams, and opportunities not merely for learning in the abstract, but for the establishment and exploration of entirely new ways of seeing, thinking, or even… having a mind.

Authors can seem deities in the universe of our experiences of growth; teachers, critics, adored exponents of all we sense and feel and hope but cannot say so well as they. To read is to be fed, nourished, and, if one engages deeply — to be challenged to grow in ways that would be otherwise unlikely. In this sense, too, they are a nourishment. But it is not merely the content that is nourishing, and in our rush toward portability, technical sophistication, universality, instant access, linking, sorting and relating to ‘content’, we are losing sight of a vast constellation of crucial developmental assets and necessities upon which the structure of our memory, our intelligence, and possibly our human future rely — and this reliance is vastly more intimate that we are wont to imagine. In fact, somewhat like quantum physics, these matters remain vastly more strange and sophisticated than we can imagine.

Although some of our metaphors about food and relationships don’t cross over well into our bibliophilia or the lack thereof, this doesn’t mean that all of them do. The one that those of us who are fascinated with books all recognize is the feeling that, like a greedy child at the dinner table, we have taken far more than we can consume. We fear that our ‘eyes are bigger than our stomachs’, to cite the familiar idiom. Yet, I intend to not only suggest, but to prove that, outside of relatively obvious exceptions that may mimic interest (hoarding, for example), this idea doesn’t translate across to book-collecting. Further, I am going to demonstrate why you want unread books on your shelf. Before I do that, I will mention a few caveats. The first is that the phenomenon this essay examines applies primarily to people interested in reading, in books, and in learning. If your interest is low or missing, books are not likely to have the same effect because interest leads into intimacy, and that becomes inner development almost as if it were magical.

All of us who read are aware that the phenomenon of relating books doesn’t have only to do with reading them, although I strongly suggest one endeavor to do so. No, our relationship with books invokes feelings and connections far too common and profuse to be obvious to us. Those amazingly numerous little duplicated rectangles stand for the incredible authority and prestige that their authors and subjects command. And they are the only local instances of such access or relation. We feel personally about them. In fact, I must suggest, they are a part of us because they become aspects of our own selves and minds in myriad ways we are too superficially confused to see or admit.

Books are ‘the produce of authorities’ with whom we may deeply identify; their authors and their purposes arouse our respect, admiration, adoration, or reaction. They often form paragons whose transhuman stature invites us to emulation (of course, we may also despise, oppose, or critique them) — and they are the axis of our connection to echelons of culture, knowledge, prestige, hope, and authority that often lie far outside our mundane human predicaments, contexts, and relational experience.

To those interested in books, a bookshelf is a ‘subliminal’ signal-array. They attract interest, arouse intention and attention, sustain and catalyze imagination, nurture curiosity, inspire novel perspectives, and our relationship with them is fundamentally nurturing to our own experiences of original thought and invention. The volumes and possible relationships between them on a bookshelf, again, for those intereste3d int them, project a continuous parahypnotic force. These forces are unique in all moments, people, circumstances and contexts in part because they are too random and aspecific to settle into predictable elements or analytical units.

The books you have read signal to consciousness and memory in one fashion, and the books you have not read signal in another, and very fascinating fashion — presuming, that is, that you maintain some degree and kind of interest relationship with them.

Now, ask yourselves about the roles of bookstores in our neighborhood, and libraries in our communities. The electronic version in absence of these is… unthinkably dangerous.

This is part of why you definitely want to have a large, inviting, physical bookshelf: your subconscious and unconscious minds use the unread books as suggestion arrays. They actually try to ‘figure out what is in them without reading them’. The titles and orders on the shelves have functional outcomes for our intelligence. And this is not only true of books, but of all collection behavior. These behaviors continuously inform the structural and relational potentials of faculties that derive category-and-identity features which underlie our consciousness, intelligence and awareness. Relating with collections can refresh and advance these assets by leveraging novelty, wonder, and authority (amongst other variables) to restructure our intelligence, memory forms, structural frameworks, linguistic perception, and so on.

So when you arrange a large bookshelf, your ‘unread books’ that you maintain interest in are informing your developing intelligence subtly, as suggestions. But as powerfully as an ongoing, always repeated suggestion-bank. This is shockingly more effective and important than we can imagine, but its effect depends primarily upon the interest of those who encounter it.

Here’s some food for thought: prior to bookshelves and other collections, the primary asset-enstructuring force of our memories and intelligence was nature. The ‘books’ were plants, animals, living places, and relationships, they ‘could never be finished’, and if one couldn’t read them the result was death. Of course, everyone could read them.

The ‘living bookshelf’ was infinitely deep. We not only failed to preserve that, we are profoundly confused about why our children keep collecting animals — and why we are fascinated with collections in general. We do not understand that this is actually the evidence of an attempt by our minds to recover the assets our cultures obliterate, and, in the children, the desire perhaps to return such treasures to those parents, who, in most cases, would not have the slightest idea what the children were concerned about — and probably could not be made to understand.

Now, in your imagination, extend this metaphor to the importance of bookstores in our neighborhoods and libraries in our communities… electronic representations will not provide survivable paradigms for our memory, creativity, intelligence, and humanity… we require physical objects… to touch, dream about, know, and reflect upon…

(opportunity kept near)
(all the unique domains of relation with books that inspire the -structure of our relationships and intelligence- but are -not merely content- and have to do with seeing, holding, manipulating and linking all of the different variables in these relationships, not merely content, author, and title.)
(Location on bookshelf matters; proximity to other books modulates effects/suggestions)
(URL lists aren’t like books/shelves – nor are file lists. Bookshelves must not become mere databases.)
Digital bookshelves that show our digital books to our eyes and visitors is not enough.

oblique learning. subconscious topic loading.

inconvenience is an asset in some aspects of learning and relation, books are inconvenient in the common electronic context, and this context contributes to this in a way that evolves with users’ choices and those they are presented with as finished solutions to choose from

the expectation that content ‘is delivered’. so too, learning, knowledge. we had to go get it, and that matters.

the sqrt-1 sequence; suggestion, fascination, forgetting, superfunction.

{This is a rough-draft of an essay in-process.
I often publish ‘as-i-work’ and revise in-process}


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