Books: A Love Story (keynote file)


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These are the slides I used for the Ignite presentation that I gave at Kiwi Foo in February 2012. It features books that I've loved, and tells a story about why loving books matters. See the notes for the narrative that went along with it. There is no video.

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  • At first I planned to talk about some of the technical topics I’m interested in these days, but I thought it might be fun instead to talk about why I love books, and to share some personal stories about books that have played a part in my life.\n
  • You might at first think of the kinds of practical books I publish. At O’Reilly, we say our business is “changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators” and that’s exactly what these books do. They are _tools_ for transmitting knowledge from mind to mind.\n
  • This is what Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics, called “time binding”, that fundamental human activity by which we embody knowledge in artifacts (starting with language itself) that enable it to be transmitted to other people and down the ages. Korzybski’s notion that language is a map, and “the map is not the territory” also resonated, surprisingly, with my love of poetry.\n
  • Take Wallace Stevens. I discovered his poetry in high school and it’s been with me ever since. Lines like “The poem is the cry of its occasion,\nPart of the res itself and not about it.” “said words of the world are the life of the world” or the way a poem “searches the possible for its possibleness” are part of how I think about the interplay of words and reality. Poetry helps us to see.\n
  • And it’s not just poetry. Novels too can help us see the world more deeply. Consider this lovely passage from Gilead, a love story that reflects on the history of the American midwest in the 19th century. A spark jumps from mind to mind, and you see the world in a new way.\n
  • Edwin Schlossberg summed this up beautifully when he said ....\n
  • And that’s what I was trying to do when I wrote pieces like ... I was trying to build maps that help people to see the world more clearly, and not to take wrong turns.\n
  • This is also the right way to think about philosophy and religion, as maps to the moral side of our lives. This book is the heart of my philosophy of life. I’m always finding something new in it, like this passage I found this afternoon... It starts out like a formula for a successful foo camp, and ends with a good lesson for Hollywood and the music industry.\n
  • And that brings me to another way in which books are tools, described by John Cowper Powys in The Meaning of Culture. He talks about how culture, as opposed to education, is the way that you put literature, art, music and philosophy to work in your own life. Let me give a very personal example. In 1969, I went to visit the north of England. I stayed at a B&B near the headwaters of the River Derwent, and swam every day in the swimming hole there.\n
  • This book is the heart of my philosophy of life. “The surest test if a man be sane is if he accepts life as it is\n
  • But it wasn’t just any swimming hole. Because I was reading a historical novel called The Golden Warrior, I was swimming in...\n
  • But that book also fired me up about a notion of leadership, which I also thrilled to in the opening pages of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the idea that leadership is a compact of mutual loyalty between a leader and those who follow him. That’s a notion that modern business leaders seem to have forgotten.\n
  • Dune of course was also about someone who had the power to see the future, and the dangers of locking in the futures you can see. I went on to write a book - my first book - about Frank Herbert and his ideas.\n
  • The book opened with this thought:\n
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  • But I also was shaped by a gentler vision. One of my favorite books as a teenager was this utopian novel about an imaginary country much like old New Zealand. it is part of what motivated me to settle in Sebastopol, and to articulate ideas about business as something that supports a richer life rather than a frenzied goal of profit for its own sake.\n
  • And sometimes books strike you like a bolt of lightning. This line, in a novel about a man who changes his life in middle age, led me on a path to deep changes in my own life.\n
  • But a personal culture of books isn’t just about the big stuff; it’s also about the little idiosyncracies that you stuff your head with. I have a corn on my right foot, and every time I see that little hard callous, I think “maybe I have Mekstrom’s disease”, and if you’d read Space Plague, you might think so too!\n
  • Or consider Anne of Green Gables, a children’s book that I read in my thirties and that came to be one of my all time favorite books. The heroine reminded me of my own daughter. But the book also has deep lessons. It’s a story about an orphan girl adopted by an elderly brother and sister to help them on their farm in their declining years. They expected a boy, and when Matthew, the brother, \n
  • played in the movie version by Richard Farnsworth, brings her home, Marilla, his sister says ... and he says in his slow, kind drawl ... This has occurred to me so often as a reminder of the values I aspire to. When I say “Create more value than you capture,” it’s images like this that form the deep backstop of that in my soul.\n
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  • Or consider Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, a painting by Delacroix that my daughter took me to see in Paris. I later read a poem by Rilke about this same Biblical story, which I then put to good use in my talks inspiring hackers to work on stuff that matters. Jacob can’t possibly beat the angel, but comes away stronger from the fight.\n
  • and Rilke says something like this: “What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated decisively by successively greater beings.” And that is a final gift of books: they inspire us to reach further and deeper. As another poet, Robert Browning said, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”\n
  • Books: A Love Story (keynote file)

    1. Books: a love story Tim O’Reilly @timoreilly Ignite!:KiwiFoo February 10, 2012
    2. You may think of the kinds of books I publish
    3. “Time-binding”“Language is a map”“The map is not the territory”
    4. “The poem is the cry of its occasion,Part of the res itself and not about it.”“said words of the world are the life of the world”“searches the possible for its possibleness” -from An Ordinary Evening in New HavenPoetry too is a map, a way of helping us see moredeeply.
    5. “The smallness and themeanness of the towns is atestament to the courage ittook to put them there.”
    6. “The skill of writing is to create acontext in which other people canthink.” -Edwin Schlossberg
    7. • The Open Source Paradigm Shift• What is Web 2.0?• Government as a Platform• The Maker movement
    8. “Rid of formalized wisdom and learningPeople would be a hundredfold happier,Rid of conventionalized duty and honorPeople would find their families dear,Rid of legalized profiteeringPeople would have no thieves to fear.”
    9. Culture is literature, art,music, and philosophy as putto work in your own life, asopposed to “mere education”
    10. More than just a swimming hole: 1066 touches me in 1969 The headwaters of the River Derwent, the river that ran red with blood when Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, fought off Tostig and the Vikings before going down to meet William at Hastings in 1066
    11. A powerful sense of the dangersof predicting the future.
    12. • “One of his central ideas is that human consciousness exists on--and by virtue of--a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes.”• Full text at http://
    13. A vision of a richer, moremeasured life in animaginary country much likeold New Zealand
    14. “Given that we can liveonly a small part of whatthere is in us, whathappens to the rest?”
    15. Anne of Green Gables
    16. Anne of Green Gables “A girl! What use can she be to us?” “I was thinking maybe we could be of some use to her.” Megan Follows and Richard Farnsworth
    17. • Delacroix paints the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an Angel• Rilke treats this same story in his poem The Man Watching
    18. I use it to inspire geeks to work on stuff that matters