On monkeys and writing (and, especially, on reading)

Posted on August 18, 2006

One of these evenings, as I was driving home and listening to my back-queue of podcasts, as usual, a thought came to me which I found both strikingly obvious and interesting enough for having “discovered” it “independently” that I should share it here.

I was listening to a music podcast in which each episode is themed and listeners contribute a song and an introduction for each one, and this particular episode was based on the subject of “war and peace”. One of the contributors quoted Sun Tzu in his famous work “The Art Of War” and for some reason my mind drifted at that point as I was trying to remember the particular quote he was reading.

I couldn’t remember it and it bothered me that it should be so, and then I started getting all introspective and philosophical and realised that the thing that bothered me about it was that I though this particular work should be remembered and “digested” properly and I clearly hadn’t done it.

But then I usually forget most things I read anyway, having such a terrible memory, what I do retain is the basic ideia behind the work, so why did I feel like this particular piece of writing should get different treatment than the rest?
Especially given that almost everything that it says is mostly obvious if you think about it for a couple of minutes…

And then it hit me: “Aha! Yes, that’s it, ‘a couple of minutes’ , that’s the key to this problem!” though I, deep in introspection as I swerved desperately to avoid the pedestrian that for some strange reason was in front of my car. Well, maybe not so strange a reason, after all that was the sidewalk I had gotten myself into in my reverie…
(Yes, I’m joking, no this didn’t happen, no you don’t need to be on the lookout when I get my car into the street).

But seriously, it’s the “couple of minutes” thing that took me aback.
The thing I realised then was that nowadays writing comes easy. In fact communicating in almost every form is easy and cheap and so people communicate anything that comes to their minds and are done with it. Not unlike the famous horde of monkeys (you know the ones, they are supposed to have written all of Shakespeare’s works while he cooled down in the shade with all the damsels…).

And because of the relative low cost of communicating, which makes for a lot of “low-quality” stuff being communicated, people also tend to consume stuff in passing.
I read things (books, articles, whatever) and get the gist of it or the fundamental ideas of it but that’s it, I’ll keep the ideas or refute them and get on with things because chances are that if the subject is important enough someone will write about it again and I’ll come across it an read it and things will get shaped in my head through quick exposures to different angles.

But of course things where very different in the past and certainly so when Sun Tzu wrote “The Art Of War”. In those days communicating was a costly business and not many people (in fact only a select minority) could do it, and even then at somewhat of an expense, so people didn’t just write whatever came into their minds; in fact they thought long and hard about things and only when they concluded that they had reached a decision or had come to a conclusion of merit would they decide to write it down and compile it with other thoughts of importance in order for other people to be able to benefit from the expensive thought process the author had gone through.

The net result of this, of course, is that things written down on older days are a product of deep thought and are refined and polished ideas whose meaning and importance are far greater than the spurious thoughts that just come into the head of Mr. John Doe and which he dutifully splashes on his LiveJournal.
And so the things written down in days of old should be read with careful attention and with a few cycles to spare to it, instead of consumed on the run while you guzzle up your morning caffeinated beverage of choice.

And that’s what was bothering me about not remembering the quote that was being read. If I didn’t remember it that means that I didn’t pay enough attention when I was reading the book and if I didn’t pay attention then I couldn’t possibly have soaked up all that it had to offer.
And yes, almost everything in there seems rather trivial and common-sense to us but if you take the words as something more carefully chosen to convey a certain thought or meaning then you will probably gain some insight into the full story that is being told, instead of just the mere sentence that is being read.

Is this even making any kind of sense to anyone else but me?

Well anyway these where the thoughts that grabbed my attention that fine August evening while driving home and caused me to not pay attention and not assimilate anything else that was being said on the other podcasts.

And just so you know I’m not a complete hypocrite, the obvious irony of me jutting down this entry off the hand of my cuff is not wasted on me. In fact I think it just helps drive the point home rather nicely.