Books: a love story Tim
O’Reilly @timoreilly Ignite!:Unconferenz February 26, 2012Tuesday, April 17, 12 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.
You may think of the
kinds of books I publishTuesday, April 17, 12 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.
“Time-binding” “Language is a map”
“The map is not the territory”Tuesday, April 17, 12This is what Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics, called “time binding”, that fundamental human activity by whichwe embody knowledge in artifacts (starting with language itself) that enable it to be transmitted to other people and down theages. Korzybski’s notion that language is a map, and “the map is not the territory” also resonated, surprisingly, with my love ofpoetry.
“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 Haven Poetry too is a map, a way of helping us see more deeply.Tuesday, April 17, 12Take Wallace Stevens. I discovered his poetry in high school and it’s been with me ever since. He talks about the way a poem“searches the possible for its possibleness”. Poetry too is a map that helps us to see more deeply. The same is true of ﬁction
“The smallness and the meanness
of the towns is a testament to the courage it took to put them there.”Tuesday, April 17, 12Consider this lovely passage from Gilead, a love story that reﬂects on the history of the American midwest in the 19th century. Aspark jumps from mind to mind, and you see the world in a new way.
“The skill of writing is
to create a context in which other people can think.” -Edwin SchlossbergTuesday, April 17, 12 Edwin Schlossberg summed this up beautifully when he said ....
• The Open Source Paradigm
Shift • What is Web 2.0? • Government as a Platform • The Maker movementTuesday, April 17, 12And 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 moreclearly, and not to take wrong turns.
“Rid of formalized wisdom and
learning People would be a hundredfold happier, Rid of conventionalized duty and honor People would find their families dear, Rid of legalized profiteering People would have no thieves to fear.”Tuesday, April 17, 12This 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 ofmy philosophy of life. I’m always ﬁnding something new in it, like this passage... It starts out like a formula for a successfulunconference, and ends with a good lesson for Hollywood and the music industry.
Culture is literature, art, music,
and philosophy as put to work in your own life, as opposed to “mere education”Tuesday, April 17, 12And that brings me to another way in which books are tools, described by John Cowper Powys in The Meaning of Culture. Hetalks about how culture, as opposed to education, is the way that you put literature, art, music and philosophy to work in yourown 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 theheadwaters of the River Derwent, and swam every day in the swimming hole there.
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 1066Tuesday, April 17, 12But it wasn’t just any swimming hole. Because I was reading a historical novel called The Golden Warrior, I was swimming in...
Tuesday, April 17, 12But that
book also ﬁred me up about a notion of leadership, which I also thrilled to in the opening pages of Frank Herbert’sDune, the idea that leadership is a compact of mutual loyalty between a leader and those who follow him. That’s a notion thatmodern business leaders seem to have forgotten.
A powerful sense of the
dangers of predicting the future.Tuesday, April 17, 12Dune of course was also about someone who had the power to see the future, and the dangers of locking in the futures you cansee. I went on to write a book - my ﬁrst book - about Frank Herbert and his ideas.
• “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:// tim.oreilly.com/herbert/Tuesday, April 17, 12The book opened with this thought:
A vision of a richer,
more measured life in an imaginary country much like old New ZealandTuesday, April 17, 12But I also was shaped by a gentler vision. One of my favorite books as a teenager was this utopian novel about an imaginarycountry much like old Hawaii. it is part of what motivated me to settle in Sebastopol, and to articulate ideas about business assomething that supports a richer life rather than a frenzied goal of proﬁt for its own sake.
“Given that we can live
only a small part of what there is in us, what happens to the rest?”Tuesday, April 17, 12And sometimes books strike you like a bolt of lightning. This line, in a novel about a man who changes his life in middle age, ledme on a path to deep changes in my own life.
Tuesday, April 17, 12But 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 ifyou’d read Space Plague, you might think so too!
Anne of Green GablesTuesday, April
17, 12Or consider Anne of Green Gables, a children’s book that I read in my thirties 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 byan elderly brother and sister to help them on their farm in their declining years. They expected a boy, and when Matthew, thebrother,
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 FarnsworthTuesday, April 17, 12played in the movie version by Richard Farnsworth, brings her home, Marilla, his sister says ... and he says in his slow, kinddrawl ... This has occurred to me so often as a reminder of the values I aspire to. When I say “Create more value than youcapture,” it’s images like this that form the deep backstop of that in my soul.
• Delacroix paints the Biblical
story of Jacob wrestling with an Angel • Rilke treats this same story in his poem The Man WatchingTuesday, April 17, 12Or consider Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, a painting by Delacroix that my daughter took me to see in Paris. I later read a poemby 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.
I use it to inspire
geeks to work on stuff that mattersTuesday, April 17, 12and 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 bedefeated decisively by successively greater beings.” And that is a ﬁnal gift of books: they inspire us to reach further and deeperto change the world.