2018: my year in reading

Intellectually, my life is divided into periods of reading and periods of thinking.  The two overlap, of course, and the former should be and is a stimulus to the latter, but I do find that my concentration switches between absorbing others’ ideas and working out my own.  My last few years of graduate school, I spent a great deal of time on philosophy, politics, and Church history (probably to the detriment of my dissertation research).  While I was a postdoc, my spare time reading tapered off as I concentrated on the construction of my own synthesis, which was then unveiled as Throne and Altar.  By the time I became an assistant professor and new father, I was too engrossed with my own thoughts to devote any of my precious bits of free time to reading others’ thoughts.  Not much could have come of those years outside work and family regardless, so I’m quite satisfied to have written a couple of essays that greatly pleased me.  However, without outside stimulus, my mind came to be stuck moving in the same rather small circles.  Eventually, even I noticed it and started to lose interest.

So this year I have devoted my spare time to reading.  Actually, that makes it sound more like a decision than it was.  The potencies of my mind seem to have made the decision for me.  I find it more difficult to write than I once did:  needing more force of will to begin, the articulation of thoughts a slower and more draining effort than once it was.  On the other hand, I find my ignorance more vexing and reading easier than when my heart wasn’t in it.

Now, in this the last half-hour of the year, I will take stock of my past year of reading.  Here’s a list of books I read in 2018–probably missing a few, but all that come to mind at the moment.  The main focus has been on philosophy of physics topics (Callender, Aristotle, Jaeger, Crowther, Teller, Rovelli), although I’ve wandered into various other areas.

The Tragic Sense of Life (Unamundo)
Self-motion: from Aristotle to Newton (Gill & Lennox)
Structure of Dynamical Systems (Souriau)
An Introduction to Noncommutative Differential Geometry (Madore)
Physics (Aristotle)
What Makes Time Special? (Callender)
Quantum Objects (Jaeger)
Effective Spacetime (Crowther)
Conceptual Mathematics: an Introduction to Categories (Lawvere)
Quantum Field Theory in Curved Spacetimes (Wald)
An Interpretive Introduction to Quantum Field Theory (Teller)
Scholastic Metaphysics (Feser)
The Structure of Objects (Koslicki)
The Natural Desire to See God (Feingold)
Religion and the Rebel (Wilson)
The End of the Modern World (Guardini)
Renormalization Methods (McComb)
That Hideous Strength (Lewis)
The Order of Time (Rovelli)

I don’t plan to review most of these here, but I’m happy to comment of the above that readers would like to hear about.

Almost all of these books are nonfiction, with C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength being the only fictional work I can remember starting and finishing this year.  (The many nonfiction-like ethical and religious digressions probably helped keep me from losing interest.)  Fiction is difficult for me to read; I find long descriptions of settings to be very tedious.  And while I am capable of empathizing with fictional characters, I find myself less eager for such emotional taxation as I age.  After all, fictional characters are seldom enjoying themselves–that would be boring.  As a young man, I had a taste for tragedy; now I avoid vicarious misery.

Every nonfiction book I start with the hope that it will revolutionize my thinking and give me the secret of the world.  (Otherwise, why would I bother reading that book?)  On the other hand, it gets harder going past page 200, because I start thinking that if my world was going to be turned upside down it would have happened by then.  It’s remarkable how universal that 200 number is for me.  If I ever write a book, I’m going to remember that and keep my book short.

Well, for heavily mathematical books, it’s more like page 100.  At least for me, math reading is much slower going:  Read a sentence.  Translate/absorb.  Read a proof.  Stop to think of how I would try to prove it.  Read the proof, stopping after each line to translate/absorb.  Plus, I think I have a learning disability which I call “mathlexia” that causes me to forget midway through a proof the meanings of all symbols defined above.  And yet, I keep coming across mathematical physics books that look like they might revolutionize how I understand the world, so I must live with my disability.

The sense of duty to read from beginning to end is usually misplaced.  My intuition that I’ve gotten as much as I’m going to get from an author after giving him 200 pages is probably sound.  This has been a year of passive learning; I have tried to read books at least most of the way through on the assumption that I don’t yet know enough to decide what’s important.  Perhaps I’m also putting off the hard work of thinking for myself.  I’ve found it best that these receptive periods not last too long.  During graduate school, I read some history books from which I remember nothing.  I simply can’t retain very much information, and that which I don’t use for my own worldview-building is soon forgotten.

Since 2017, I have realized that I was wrong to dismiss 20th century philosophy for so long.  I’ve been impressed by how many of them know physics and have reasoned carefully about the nature of space, time, and quantum mechanics.  Not that I necessarily agree with the ones I’ve read, but I’ve realized that it would be foolish to settle on my own ideas without consulting them.

The goal is the de-modularization of my mind, the unification of my picture of the world.  Following that, the unification of my life–some way to bring my research, philosophical hobbies, and religion together, or at least to better understand each in the light of the others.

The older I get, the more conscious I am of what an incoherent jumble my beliefs are.  This is progress of a sort.  I’ve noticed with my big undergraduate classes that a crucial skill–perhaps the key to academic maturity–is the ability to diagnose one’s own confusion and lack of understanding.  The kids really don’t know that they don’t understand.  The bits and pieces they’ve got don’t fit together or don’t even make sense individually, but they haven’t got the skill of probing for these problems.  I recently said to a graduate student that it is only now that I have tenure that I finally have time to teach myself physics.  And I do keep finding myself thinking “You know, I didn’t realize it, but I never really understood X” for many values of “X”.  On the other hand, I’m also old enough to realize that I’m running out of time.  Already, my faculties may be slowly declining, and each year I will have a little less energy.  How do other people accomplish so much with their time?

5 Responses

  1. When I first began serious reading, I imagined that it would, in time, bear me down into the main stream of thought. In my mind, it was as if I were paddling a canoe down from some obscure tributary to a great river at the bottom of the valley. When I reached the great river, I imagined that I would agree with the smart people, the smart people would agree with me, and the world would make sense. It turns out that this was the reverse of what actually happened. A lifetime of reading has left me with an idiosyncratic mind, and with some opinions that smart people find shocking or incomprehensible. Reading actually took me out of the main stream, and up bifurcating creeks that are increasingly narrow, lonely and thwarted by logs.

  2. Happy New Year, JMSmith. I very much appreciate your work on the Orthosphere introducing us to many other idiosyncratic minds forgotten or silenced by the triumphant and narrow mainstream. And thanks for commenting. This was an admittedly self-indulgent post, just listing what I’d been reading without book reviews. But then I thought to myself that I actually would be interested to see such lists from other bloggers I follow.

  3. I enjoy book lists, so thanks for posting your list. Maybe in lieu of book reviews, you could tell us which of the books listed you particularly recommend? Or, perhaps easier, which of those you don’t recommend?. (I appreciate your book reviews, by the way: I have been introduced to some excellent books and authors through them.)

    A second request might be to tell us which of the physics or mathematics books, if any, could be read by an educated layman.

    Coincidentally, I just read That Hideous Strength for the first time over the holidays. Like you, I enjoyed the ethical and religious digressions, but as a story, I thought it inferior to the previous installment of Lewis’s space trilogy, Perelandra. I wonder, given some of your other comments about fiction, did you find That Hideous Strength to be too Manichean for your tastes?

    Merry Christmas!

  4. Hello Ian,

    “The Order of Time” is intended for educated non-scientists. I quite liked it.

    The other philosophy of time book I read, “What makes time special?” does assume some background with differential geometry but was also very interesting. As for what not to read, “Quantum Objects” and “Effective spacetime” were pretty forgettable, and Souriau’s and Madore’s books are tough-going even for many theoretical physicists.

    Lewis’ N.I.C.E. certainly hasn’t aged well. When he was writing THS, the pose of being unsentimental, scientific, dispassionate may have been popular among secularists. If so, it didn’t last long. For the most part, the enemy has worked by being more sentimental, more ostentatiously compassionate, than Christians. On the other hand, in the first part of the book Lewis does paint a horrifyingly plausible picture of a completely dysfunctional university. If I go to hell, it might take the form of a university appointment with no teaching or research, where everybody’s time is devoted to university politics, backbiting, faculty meetings, and fawning over the latest multidisciplinary boondoggle like N.I.C.E.

  5. […] have nowadays.  What’s it called?  Attention deficit disorder.  That must be it.  Also mathlexia.  God knows what would happen to me if I had to leave academia and find my way in the real […]

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