Leaving books not fully read

by Gilbert Keith

Over the last year or so, I’ve started reading about 12 books but not quite finished them. In most cases, I’ve been fairly involved with the books, too, having gotten at least a third or more into them in most cases.
I’ve managed to finish a few – the ones I can remember right now are:
* Norwegian Wood by Murakami
* A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami
* The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur

The ones I’ve not finished have been very memorable:

* Moneyball
* THe Road to Serfdom
* Economics Explained
* A biography on Paul Erdos
* The Black Swan
* On the Road
* Moby Dick
* Good as Gold by Joseph Heller
* The Information by James Gleick
and the list goes on.

There hasn’t really been a compelling reason why I’ve left all of these unfinished. In fact, I’ve rather liked a lot of these books. When I was reading The Information, I simply could not keep it down. It had precisely the right level of detail and constructed an interesting narrative to describe the evolution of information – how we process it, how we generate it, how we store it, etc.

Why, then, you may ask, have I been so incapable of finishing all these books? In most cases, it’s been the vagaries of work – one week of travel, or a week of a lot of work, and I promptly forget about what I was reading and move on to another interesting book. In other cases, it’s my indiscipline with putting things back in their right places; if I forgot that I hid the copy of the Babarnama in my backpack, it’s highly probable that I won’t come find it there until I come back looking for something stupid like the piece of paper with somebody’s contact info on it.

But, I ask, is it necessarily a bad thing that I am leaving these books unfinished? I say no. I look at reading books not as a means of entertainment, but as a way to expand my intellectual horizons. Expanding of intellectual horizons, much like the expansion of many things, happens at the margins. If you aren’t a 6 year old who’s just discovered the process of intellectualization, you realize that you have a core foundation (the facts you know, the logic of the world you’ve worked out based on those facts and other empirical observations, the logic of the world that you think you’ve worked out based on inductive reasoning, etc.).

One of the goals of continually increasing at the margin is to co-opt the older knowledge at the margins of your intellectual sphere into the core. It is to ensure that the margins of your knowledge aren’t stretched too thin and don’t implode on you. I have realized that it is entirely possible to ring the margins into the core of your intellectual sphere by encountering the knowledge or experiences in different, independent contexts. Reading The Road to Serfdom the second (or third?) time around got me to solidify the concepts of what Mr. Hayek – though I know for a fact that I had read the same piece of information in a previous context and apparently had felt  no need to review the information I had learned.

There isn’t much more philosophical to add about this. I think I’m going to finish reading On The Road in a few days and my goal after that will be the Babur Nama. We’ll see later when I get to reading the Kiran Desai novella, or what the new and coming Indian authors whose books I purchased at Hyderabad airport, have in store for me.