Maximum Daily Dose of Information

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 27, 2015

Is it possible to overdose on news? We know we’re ruining our bodies by eating too much food; should we worry about overstuffing our minds? Is the internet the equivalent of mental junk food? The FDA keeps warning us we’re taking too many drugs as they learn about long-term toxicity. Modern society seems all about excess of everything. What if everything we consume, either physically or mentally, has a maximum safe dose?

By nature I’m an information junky. I want to know everything. Of course, that’s a stupid approach because we’re all choking to death on information overload. Every day I wish I could read five books and two dozen articles. If I could, I’d watch eighty hours of television. Every day I get more email than I can process in a week, so I never clean out my inbox. I know I’m not unique.

It’s going to be a while before science answers this question, but I figure there’s a limit to how much information we can process each day. Somewhere below that limit is the healthy amount to digest. And way below that level is the amount of information we remember. We piss out unabsorbed facts just like we piss out unused vitamins after taking our Centrums. How much daily information we can practically process, and better yet, how much information do we actually need to make us spiritually healthy?

Here’s a proposed theory. Information that’s good for us are facts we remember the longest. Usually that kind of knowledge is useful for living. Information we encounter today that is remembered tomorrow is of a higher quality than all that info we forgot with a good night’s sleep. And information we remember next week is superior to what we forget after two days. Anything we remember next year, or for the rest of our life, is primo wisdom.

In other words, learning something worth remembering is within the safe daily dosage. All those other fun facts are just like the yellow pee we make after taking vitamin B12 tablets. Here’s three videos. Which do you think you’ll remember a year from now.

I’m pretty sure food waste is something I’ll think about for the rest of my life because I deal with wasting food every day. I’ll probably remember the video about sharks every time I hear about a shark attack, which won’t be that often. The cute pug will be forgotten before the day is over.

I’m a bookworm. Most of the books I read are forgotten rather quickly. Probably because I read too many books. But also because I don’t try to remember them. Most people read to occupy their minds. Reading is pleasant and entertaining. Like television, it’s a rather mindless activity. Of course, most work is mindless repetition. Our minds are not IBM Watson supercomputers mining data.

I’m now rethinking the way I take in news and information. Every article, every book, every blog has a few key points that I might remember. What I want to learn is how to quickly spot works that are worthy of reading—and remembering.

Take this essay. Have I given you a concept that you’ll remember?


The Future of Books

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here’s my conundrum, do I keep The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel by Johnny Rogan, or give it away. This 1988 book revised in 2008 has 735 pages about the The Byrds, my favorite music group from the 1960s. Rogan has since updated this book in 2011 to a 1216 page monster, that’s just the first volume of a trilogy. I read the 2008 edition with much delight, spending several evenings in an orgy of nostalgia, playing my old Byrds albums as I read about how each was created. I kept the book thinking I’d reread it. Was that a mistake? Is the knowledge in books changing so fast that there’s little reason to save them?


The edition I have is quite exhaustive in its scope. But if I wanted to read about The Byrds again, shouldn’t I read the latest definitive work? Why have I saved this book for seven years? It’s still a great read, and maybe it’s all I need to know about The Byrds.

Books have become a physical burden. I had a friend who claimed to own every book he ever read. Can you imagine the Sisyphean task of dragging a library behind you everywhere you went? That would be a snap if they were ebooks. Or if I lived in one house my whole life. Or if knowledge wasn’t changing so fast.

This book represents another kind of burden, a psychological burden. We experience life one moment at a time, yet most of us cling to all those past moments. Not only do I want to save my memories of The Bryds, but retain a book that collects all the group member memories. That’s kind of weird when you think about it.

We exist in a transitional time. We’re very close to having all our external memories online. What if The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel  was a website that grew as Rogan wrote and researched? The multimedia aspects of the web could greatly expand its potential. Personal and public libraries wouldn’t be burdened with lending and storing the book. And it would be available to all instantly.

I can also see the content this book incorporated into Wikipedia. What if all knowledge was hyperlinked into one book? What if the history of The Byrds was written by anyone who cared about their history? What if all memoirs, interviews, photos, bootlegs, videos, etc. were at one location, and hyperlinked by a carefully crafted narrative of dedicated editors?

We now serialize history with the latest definitive book. What if history lived on the web as an ongoing collective project? Is moving towards such a hive mind existence scary? How much time do you spend reading the web versus reading books? How often do we get facts from iPhones?

Can you imagine books in the future? Are they changing so fast that it’s not worth collecting them?

I’ve always been a lover of books. I hoard and collect them. But I’m starting to wonder if I only need to own one book, the one I’m reading.


Thinking Outside Your Head

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 13, 2015

Most people do all their contemplation inside their head, but it’s worthwhile to explore ideas about externalized thinking. Internal thinking is confined by our ability to mentally recall details and juggle concepts. We find it very hard to plot a novel or design a skyscraper without writing things down, and since the invention of the stylus we haven’t had to. From clay tablets to computers, we’ve been able to do much of our thinking outside of our brains. However, people generally prefer to use neurons for personal thought processing, and use external tools for professional thinking.

Like most people, I’m lazy and usually attempt to juggle my thoughts mentally, but now that I’m getting older, I realize external forms of memory are a big help. Until you attempt to organize your thinking externally, you don’t realize how vague your thoughts really are. Most people take in information – they watch television, listen to music, read books, listen to their friends talk. Except for talking, people generally don’t express their thoughts, and fewer still attempt to translate their feelings into words.

Take movies for example. Let’s say you see a movie that resonated deeply with your emotions. What do you tell your friends? “I just LOVED that movie.” Not much real information in that statement. And if pushed for details, you might expand your message, “It made me laugh. It made me cry. I really identified with the main character.” Still not saying much. People with better memories and communication skills will summarize scenes that touched them most. That actually does a better job of communicating. Writing a full movie review that systematically chronicles your reactions and explains why you have them, pushes your ability to express yourself, think coherently, and externalize your thoughts.

It’s much easier to babble one’s random thoughts as they float to the surface of our consciousness than to wrestle them onto paper, organizing them into successive coherent sentences. Writing this essay is hard work for me. I’m constantly feeling the urge to get up from this computer, go get some Triscuit® crackers and Swiss cheese, get in my recliner, and munch my snack while listening to Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.

In other words, my instinct tells me to run away from the work of external thinking. Writing this essay took days. All this thinking about thinking got me to think about how we lasso, corral and brand our thoughts. From this work I noticed certain techniques we use to think outside our heads.


One of the most basic ways for external thinking is to make a list. Some people are quite good at remembering, and can keep a tally of items in their head with no trouble. I can’t. Putting items on a list is an external form of thinking and memory. Reorganizing the list and contemplating their ranking is external thinking. Looking at the list later is external memory.

Lists come in different variety, such as unordered, ordered, alphabetical, numerical, etc.

List of Musical Instruments:

  • Violin
  • Guitar
  • Piano
  • Oboe

It really doesn’t matter what order they are listed, we’re just trying to remember the class of things called musical instruments.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  1. The Beatles
  2. The Yardbirds
  3. The Who
  4. The Rolling Stones

Not only are we trying to remember specific groups, but rank them. This reflects personal opinion and tastes. If you took on the task of listing your absolute top 25 albums of all time, it would require a lot of contemplating and reflection. Composing such a list could take a great deal of work and effort, and using pencil or computer to compose the list would be a huge aid, because few of us can keep twenty-five items in their head at once. Recalling a lifetime of favorite albums is a mental struggle. Keeping a list over days or weeks is a kind of long term thinking. It allows us to conquer space and time.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  • The Beatles
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Who
  • The Yardbirds

This is the same list, but it’s alphabetical. Such a listing connotes a desire not to rank.

Favorite Albums:

  • Rubber Soul (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
  • Electric Ladyland (1968)

This uses a numerical approach. If you look at the various approaches to making lists you see that list gathers details and imposes order. Unless you have a special kind of brain, you don’t do this mentally. This is why I say it’s thinking outside your head. List making is just the beginning. There’s all kinds of ways to think externally. My list of books read since 1983 is an external memory. At first I kept the list in an old chemistry notebook, but recently moved it to Google docs using the spreadsheet. For decades I recorded just the title, author and date I finished reading the book. I refer to this list pretty often and it’s been very useful as a memory aid. When I moved to the spreadsheet, I added some columns – year the book was first published, and what format I read the book – hardback, paperback, trade paper, ebook, library book, Kindle ebook and audiobook. I’m able to search the list and reorder it by any column, and I can extract sublists – like all books I read in 1999. I could never do this mentally. There are some idiot savants that might, but it’s not a common trick.

External memory

Outlines and Mind Mapping

A step up from list making is outlining or mind mapping. Our brains are constantly striving to categorize by who, what, when, where, why and how. Using an outline, or it’s modern equivalent, the memory map, we can add more layers of structure that a simple list cannot handle. Outlines are essentially compound lists. They offer layers of structure and can infer more inherent meaning.

I thought out this essay with Xmind. Each detail originated in my brain, but recording it in Xmind allowed me to see a growing structure that triggered additional inspiration and details. Thoughts are like spider webs that interconnect in interesting patterns. We don’t see those patterns until we externalize them.

Logs, Calendars and Timesheets

Sometimes we want to organize pieces of information by time, like the list of books I’ve read since 1983. I wish I had been doing this since 1959 when I first became a bookworm. I just read a biography of Kay Francis, and she keep a calendar for decades that recorded the parties she attended and her sexual conquests. The biographer used it as the structure of their book. I wish I had kept a list of all the movies I’ve seen. At work I sometimes kept timesheets of projects I worked on.  Logs, calendars and timesheets are our way of planning events and remembering when things happened.

Diaries, Journals and Blogs

For casual thinking outside the head, nothing beats diaries, journals and blogs. Isaac Asimov kept diaries his whole life that allowed him to write his memoirs with precise details. This blog is my way of remember my external thinking sessions. Quite often I’ve reread posts I wrote years ago and not remembered them at all. This is amusing to me now to see how I thought back when. Reading old blog posts is sometimes sad too, because I often feel like I can no longer think as well as I did just a few years ago.

Essays and Books

Before October 14, 1947 when Chuck Yeager flew his Bell X-1 people theorized about the “sound barrier” as if it was impossible to fly faster than sound. I often feel like I have a cognitive barrier that I can’t think through.  Even though I’ve written 916 blog posts for Auxiliary Memory I feel there is an essay length that confines my thinking. I struggle to make a thousand words coherent. Imagine the task of writing 100,000 words. I have met writers who talked about taking ten years to write a book. That’s a Mt. Everest of external thinking.

As an aside, I got the details about Chuck Yeager from Wikipedia, which is a hive mind form of external thinking and memory.

I have often thought that the large novel or nonfiction book is the most complex form of human thought. Can you imagine all the thinking that went into War and Peace? Isabel Wilkerson said she interviewed 1200 people to write The Warmth of Other Suns, and took over a decade to write. Did any individual architect designing the One World Trade Center spend as much time thinking about their project?

As an expression of external thinking, the novel or nonfiction book is among the most complex, don’t you think?

Thinking About Thinking

This essay is a recursive expression of external thinking. I started out by making lists of ideas. Then I switched to mind mapping. For each section, I would spend time daydreaming about the idea, and when I came up with interesting details, I’d write them down. I cannot even keep a portion of this essay in my mind at once. If I start rereading the beginning, I forget the rest quickly. It’s only when I reread this post several times do I see consistent patterns. Several times within the essay I used the same example, having forgotten I used it previously in another writing session.

I’m at the 1,500 word mark and hitting a barrier. Writers with better minds than mine can take this subject and turn it into a 100,000 word book. One of the best I’ve read is The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick.

There are two barriers that hold me back. One is the scope of the idea, and the second is the length of time I can contemplate an idea. If an essay gets too long, or I have to struggle with it for more than a few days, I crash and burn. I’d love to be able to write a book, but that’s probably more external thinking than I’m capable of accomplishing. I wonder if that’s a cognitive barrier or an age barrier – or both. Even with these tools I can only comprehend so much at any one time.


Can 20th Century Dogs Ever Learn 21st Century Tricks?

We moldy holdovers from the 20th century must admit now that it’s 2014, that the 21st century is much different from how things used to be in our Leave it to Beaver days.  Young people born in the 1990s will have a hard time even understanding our old ways.  And why should they?  As a writer I should spend less time focusing on the past because more and more of my potential audience will have no understanding or connection to it.

On the other hand, I don’t think I can ever become a post post-modern, or whatever we should call a 21st century individual.  I just can’t move my head into the Twitterverse, and have a hard time even using Facebook, which evidently is becoming passé with the younger generations because they’ve already moved on to newer technologies that I don’t even know the names of.  Even more, I really can’t imagine myself wearing Google glasses, or modern fashions.


But I have changed a lot.  Is that even interesting to the 21st century citizen, that a 20th century person is adapting?  If I live to be 100, I’ll have spent roughly half a century in two different centuries.  How long will it take to become a completely 21st century person?  Is it even possible to catch up?  Will 20th century folk always be on the trailing edge of 21st century living?

In history and literature, the term modern means early 20th century, and by the time I was born I was growing up in a post-modern era.  That kind of talk is completely alien to a true 21st century mind.  What do they call their post post-modern lives?

In the world of science fiction, we talk about post-human cultures, and post-humans and trans-humans.  We expected genetics and other cyber technologies to transform humanity into something new.  However, we thought they’d be physically different, but what if that’s not true?  What if merely growing up in a high tech culture makes that generation significantly different?  Hell, us baby boomers growing up in the 1960s thought we were significantly different from our parents who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s.

Would it be possible for a 20th century person to catch up and even surpass a child of the 21st century?  I have 50 years of wisdom and knowledge they don’t – won’t that count for something?  I also have 50 years of reading science fiction and thinking about the future that should give me some kind of edge.  But is thinking about the future of equal value to growing up in the future?  I don’t know.

When I sat down to write this essay I intended to write a completely different essay.  It was originally called “How New Technology Changed My Old Lifestyle.”  But as I wrote the first few sentences I realized the more interesting question is:  Can my older mind catch up with newer thinking?  And if I’m having a hard time, how do the Gen X and Millennials feel?  If must be confusing for a Millennial (Generation Y) to think of themselves as the cutting edge generation and realized they’ve already been surpassed by the latest crop of youngsters, which some people are calling the New Silent Generation or Generation Z.  Hey, it’s a bitch getting old, get used to it.

And even though modern teens walk the tech walk, and talk the tech talk, do they even have a clue as to what the fuck is going on?  Is living in virtual worlds almost 24×7 of any real value other than hiding out from the real world?  Did rock music and dope confer anything special on us baby boomers that made us more savvy about reality?  Is being hip a real survival trait?  Can you transform the world into a better place with just smartphone smarts and social media savvy? 

I think the real trans-human mind will think with scientific clarity that requires seeing with statistics and math.  The real power minds of the 21st century won’t be Twitterers, but data miners.  Talking in 140 characters only leads to snippy gossiping skills, if you want to conquer the world you’ll need to be able to digest petabytes of data at a gulp, and convert it into  graphics that show visual insights that transcends text.  In other words, if you’re only nibbling at tech, you won’t get far.  It’s the super-geeks that will inherit the Earth.

To answer my title question, yes, it’s possible for baby boomers to excel in the 21st century but only if you ignore the glitter of tech glamour, and go deeper.  In every generation it’s the folk that can tell shit from Shinola that succeed.  Technology is transforming how we live, but I’m not sure it’s transforming us in how we think.  People still think the same stupid stuff, but just say it in 140 characters or less.

Probably the real 21st century citizens have yet to emerge.  And all the tech we’re seeing is a kind of churning of digital conversions, transforming culture more than people.  Does it really matter that you watch TV shows via broadcast TV, cable TV, or Netflix TV?  19th century people would feel superior to me because I’m not smart enough to hitch up a team of horses.  I’m thinking the difference between old humans and post humans are whether or not they can comprehend what David Deutsch writes about in The Beginning of Infinity, which is the ability to effectively evaluate knowledge.  Sadly, I’m just as far from understand that as I am at understanding the Twitterverse.

JWH – 1/8/14

The Weight of My Possessions

I own too much crap!  I’m no hoarder, but I still own too many unused, unwanted, unneeded things.  I hang onto to stuff believing I’ll need it for the future, but after six decades of experience, I’ve hardly ever needed what I saved.

I wish I had an app for my tablet that knew absolutely everything I owned and the last time I used it.  This is a fantasy app, because even if I had such an app, I’d never input all my crap to track.  I wished I had this fantasy app that magically knew everything I owned, when each thing was last used, and counters for all the categories of ownership.  I could contemplate iPossessions every morning when I woke up, and before I went to sleep at night, and it would inspire me to lighten my physical load, and theoretically, every day after that, my spirit would grow lighter.  Aren’t we psychologically burdened by ownership?

How many pair of pants do I own?  I tend to wear my three favorite pairs of jeans over and over.  Many other pairs of pants have hung on their hangers for years unworn.  Why?

I have about 700 hardback books and another 500 digital audio books, plus over a 100 and growing ebooks.  I know I will never read most of them, but I keep saving them.  And like an idiot I keep buying them!  I’m cleaning up my home library/office this morning trying to make more shelf space for books.  Either I need to buy another bookshelf, or get rid of about 20 feet of books stacked in piles around the house.

If you don’t know it exists, why own it?  If you don’t use it, why own it?  If you’re not using something and someone else could, why not give it away?

There are even websites devoted to reduced ownership, like The Minimalists.  Some people like Andrew Hyde, who is a traveler, takes this concept to extremes, he only owns 15 things.  I have no need to go that far, but maybe getting my list below 1,000 items might be a fun challenge.  I’m sure my current list would run more than 5,000.

Some people like to minimalize to save money, like Living on a Dime, which has articles like “How Many Clothes Do I Need?

There’s a website called The Burning House which asks people to submit a photograph and a list of things they would grab to save when their house is on fire.  Think about it!  What would you take?  Those items should be your real prized possessions.

If my house burned down, what would I miss?  What would I cry over not having ever again?  And how many things would I never know that I had lost?

Or think about it this way, what if your house burned down and you got a new one.  What possessions would you replace first?

[After this wonderful pep talk to self, I shall go forth and throw away! ]

{{I hope}}

JWH – 9/29/13

My Favorite Free Newspapers and Magazines on the Web

When The New York Times put up a paywall I stopped reading it.  I love The New York Times, but $180 a year is outrageous for what was once free.  I was even more shocked at that the same content costs even more to read on a tablet or smart phone.  I found ways around their monthly page limits, but ultimately I just gave up trying to regularly read the paper.  I’m not against newspapers and magazines charging money for their content, I just think it needs to be a fair price.  Of course a fair price is like beauty, and is set in the eyes of the beholder.  $15 a month might be the right price for upscale New Yorkers, but not to me.  If The New York Times charged $29.95 a year for digital subscriptions, I’d be a subscriber.  Instead I decided to go looking for other sources of news.

By the way, I have a weird concept about periodical pricing.  A newspaper that produces 365 editions a year sounds like it should cost more than a magazine that produces twelve issues a year.  But I can only read so much per day, and only involve with myself with so many periodicals.  On average, I read about as much from a daily newspaper as I do from a weekly or monthly journal, so in my mind, they each require a reading grazing fee, which should be about equal.  The difference between magazines and newspaper titles is not quantity, but quality of writing and the amount I can read.  Since I can only read an hour or less a day on periodical publications, I’m not willing to spend more than $15 a month total for my newsy reading.

As long as some publishers offer free content I’m going to consider it first.  The internet is full of free content, but which free source of essays and articles are the best?  What content is worth paying for if it was reasonably priced?  I pay $9.99 a month to Rdio for streaming digital music.  I subscribe to The Rolling Stone Magazine and The New York Review of Books on my iPad.  I’m open to paying for more content, but the price has to be right.

Commercial newspapers and magazines generally produce the best writing anywhere because they pay professional writers.  In searching for the best content on the web, I tend to find the highest concentration of quality writing at print magazine and newspaper sites.  These free sites are so good I would pay for them if I had to and the price was right.

And paywalls sites still offer lots of free content. The New York Times is very generous by allowing readers following links to read full articles.  Other sites, like New Scientist suck readers in but quickly cut off the flow of free words.  But even NS will offer some free complete reads.

The sample articles I use come from my Evernote clippings or from my Twitter feed, which I use to remember articles I read and like.


The Atlantic

Far and away, my favorite free online magazine is The Atlantic.  Their website provides content from their print magazine along with original content written just for the web.  I subscribe to their daily updates which recommends 3-5 articles to read each day.  The Atlantic’s web reporting equals their top tier print reporting.



Los Angeles Times

I started noticing the Los Angeles Times when Zite frequently sent me there to read book reviews.  Zite is a tablet app that does for article reading what Pandora does for music.  You thumbs up and down what you read and Zite finds more of what you like.  The LA Times evidently is writing more of what I like to read.



The Smithsonian

I can’t figure out if content for The Smithsonian is blocked or if they just end every article with “subscribe now for more coverage” to scare you into thinking there’s more to be had if you plunk down some dollars.  I keep finding plenty of free stuff to read.  Fascinating stuff.  Actually, more great stuff to read even if I read 24×7.  Here is the listing for the last March, 2013 issue.  And here is the start of the archive section.



The Guardian

The Guardian is another newspaper that Zite often takes me to.   Zite and Google links me to foreign newspapers, which is one of the great pluses of the world wide web.  Zite knows I love book reviews and both the LA Times and The Guardian reviews a lot of books.



Brain Pickings

Brain Pickings isn’t a commercial newspaper or magazine, but it’s so professional that it should be.  Maria Popova is a professional writer who has created a beautiful web site that she calls “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.”  Brain Pickings is classy blog written by a professional writer with amazing graphic design skills.  I wish Auxiliary Memory was 1/100th as good.



John Brockman’s is where the world’s smartest people hang out.  The site is built around conversations with cutting edge thinkers, but it also focuses on the latest science books.  The conversations are often a narrative overview of a current project. is not a newspaper or magazine, but the quality of content is so great that it competes well with professional journalism.  The contributors are major science writers and philosophers, writing about research on the front lines of new knowledge.


Most sites on the web are free.  It’s hard to imagine that pay sites can compete with so much quality free content.  My six favorite sites are just a drop in the gigantic WWW bucket.  My goal is to find the right mixture of reporting that gives me the best puzzle pieces for mapping reality.  All too often we read news that is immediately forgotten.  I want to read articles that educate me with a lasting impact.  In fact, I often think reading less on the internet is better.

Like junk food with empty calories, the web is full of junk data and empty facts.  Brilliant articles that are available for all to share should have a great impact on our society.  It used to be people had to buy books and journals to get quality information.  Now all seven billion of us have access to a tremendous amount of free knowledge.  We can all be renaissance men and women.  The quest is to find the needle in the haystack article to read each day that makes a lasting impression.

Tools like Zite let me quickly review 20-30 newly published articles each day, out of thousands.  But the real goal, is to find the single article that’s worthy of study, contemplation and memory.

However, there is a problem with this system.  It only gets me the free articles.  What if the best articles still cost money?  Is the best knowledge being shared today, or withheld?

JWH – 3/3/13

Rethinking the Great Books of History

I am listening to “Books That Have Made History:  Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.


I’m a life-long bookworm.  I got my degree in English Literature.  I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist.  I wish I had the time to master the great books.  And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history.  However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.

Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw.  And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.

Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach.  He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:

  • Does God or do gods exist?
  • What is fate?
  • What do we mean by good and evil?
  • How should we live?

Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers.  He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs.  In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945.  Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks:  How did they come to such morally different conclusions?

Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history.  I think he’s wrong. 

Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives.  I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us.   I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person.  I disagree.

Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story.  I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.

Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor.  I’m asking why we should read the great books of history?  If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them.  I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers.  I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.

Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act.  I think that’s wrong.  I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.

Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers.  Explicit answers are dangerous.  We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment.  Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write.  But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.

History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.

If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research.  Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.

This represents a schism in approaching reality.  If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing.  If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets.  Books That Have Made History falls in the later category.  My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.

However, they do make me ask:  Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study?  If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?

JWH – 9/12/12