Bookshelves and what they tell others about ourselves

I used to have many physical books and bookshelves along with DVDs prominently displayed in my living room. A colleague mentioned their bookshelves recently and while there is a quote I like:

“We enjoy dreaming up a library that reflects every one of our interests and every one of our foibles—a library that, in its variety and complexity, fully reflects the reader we are.” Such a library is “an assembly of titles that, practically and symbolically, serves [to define us].”

Alberto Manguel (via Lucas Cherkewski)

Interestingly enough, that is in part why I gave away all my books and all my DVDs. While yes there was a practical reason to it, I never really re-read a book and the movies I had a copy on a hard drive. The real reason is that I was using it as a way of defining me to others.

At first blush there doesn’t seem to be anything sub-optimal with that, but I realized that for me, it was a vanity project. I wanted to appear erudite (smart, but like, for wankers), to show off my “depth”, how intellectual I was, how well read, how spiritual, how pragmatic, how emotionally mature etc etc.

And the problem with that, with culturing the image you want to project is that, for me anyway, it takes the focus away from being that deep, emotionally mature, intellectual person to giving that perception.

I don’t need folks to see my library, (I need to resist name dropping “smart” books here that would only serve the exact purpose as what the paragraph above talks about) for them to know who I am. They can figure that out relatively quickly.

I understand the appeal of signalling and it’s benefits. Yes it’s easier to know who you’ll have many things in common with. But does that actually grow my understanding of the world? Will it help me be exposed to new ideas and new opinions if I only interact with folks I think are like-minded.

I know that last paragraph is a bit of a jump, from the image we project with our bookshelves to getting out of our filter bubbles. But I think it’s related in that if we want to better understand the world, we need to let others better understand us, and that means not necessarily using simple signalling to categorize and simplify what is at it’s core an incredibly complex individual.

Edit: I realize this may seem like a hit piece against people who have bookshelves prominently displayed. That’s not my intention, if you have bookshelves that’s great, I just wanted to talk about why I no longer do, doesn’t mean I think you’re vain if you have bookshelves.

… That no one can take for us or spare us

I posted a quote a few days back. But I think I should of expanded on what it means to me. To explain why I find that quote appealing.

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
“On ne reçoit pas la sagesse, il faut la découvrir soi-même, après un trajet que personne ne peut faire pour nous, ne peut nous épargner.”

Marcel Proust

There are a few implications, and they all stem from the last few words, “that no one can take for us, or spare us”.

The first is that it means that we need to accept that we cannot learn, we cannot become wiser, without adversity. We can read all the books, but we won’t find wisdom. We’ll find information, we may even find knowledge, but we won’t find wisdom.

That wisdom has a cost. It has an emotional toll. It has some painful introspection. It may lead to some self delusions that were protecting us shattering.

The second implication is that we cannot transfer wisdom. The corollary is then, that I can’t stop something that needs to happen. To do that is to rob that person of the wisdom it will bring. It’s often a bitter pill to swallow since we’d prefer to protect the individual from the inevitable pain that will accompany this, but at times it’s the only option.

Approximate Answers

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t have to… I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Phillip Richard Feynman

Radical Candour

I know many people talk about Radical Candour and I  know I’ve mentioned it a few times and I wanted to just put this article here:

I think one of the reasons I mention radical candour is not to tell others I’m doing it. But to remind myself that I’m trying to get better at it.
In all honesty, I think I’m pretty mediocre at it. I’ll often say things that are sub-optimal and will often shy away from tough conversations.
This article reminded me of the rewards having those conversation has, especially in the long term.

One of the things people seem to miss most when implementing something like radical candour is to first listen and to try to understand the other person. How can you expect someone to listen to you, if you haven’t listened to them?

Being pulled back in the real world

While reading Buddhism Without Belief I couldn’t help but notice how, while reading the book, I was more aware of certain things.

I’m aware of my surrounginds, I’m aware of how I want to act, how I want to change certain patterns. I have compassion for others. I notice the world around me more and appreciate it more.

But, just as it comes, it disappears. I get pulled back into the “real” world. I get pulled back into ruminating on things. On how person X is terrible and playing out conversations in my head where I let them know how shitty they are etc.

It’s interesting because they talk about it in the book. It seems you can only stay into this place of awareness, of appreciating the non-duality of ourselves and others for brief moments at a time before getting pulled back.

Hopefully I’ll be able to extend those moments slowly but steadily.

Mindfulness is Buddhism without religion

I’ve been re-reading Buddhism without Beliefs and I strongly recommend it. It’s a short book and I’ve been trying to not read more than a chapter a day to make sure I can focus on it.

It was written in 1996 and reading it, I couldn’t help but notice how what it advocates for is now basically referred to as mindfulness. A sort of religion free version of Buddhism.


It’s a cliché to say that we live in a world of distractions, of instant gratification. I just right now got distracted from writing this to pick at my nails….

And while it’s easy to blame our phones, technology, technology companies, advertisement as the go to way to monetize something, etc. Just like my previous example shows. While the external doesn’t help, we can always find something to distract ourselves with.

I’ve wanted to start reading indistractable for a while now. Slightly ironic I know. One thing I’m trying differently is to do the exercises that accompny the book and to try to actually adopt it as part of my day to day life.

I find that too often I read a book, an article, whatever, on some way to better myself. I agree with the article / book, or in many cases I’m like, oh ya I already “know” this. And by know I mean I have the information on this topic. I already have all the information I need on how to be in better shape. How to lose weight. How to be happier. How to be better at task X.

And yet…. They don’t usually stick.

I did a speech at toastmasters recently and I might write a version out here later, but the point of the speech was that the initial action was useless. There are no big swooping actions that change the world. It’s not a single speech from Ghandi that ended the occupation, a single decisive action I took (paying for personal training) that helped me get in shape or a single challenging instance that makes you smarter at something. It’s the constant iterative small progress.

I’m just at chapter 2. But I’m hoping it will help me be more mindful of how I spend my time. I guess we’ll see.

impermanence and lost videos

I recall this video I saw once. It was a bit cheesy, you know most of it being a voiceover of nature scenes and the like. It touched upon impermanence and mentioned Nietzsche and some other philosopher sending each other letters and one (I’m going to guess Nietzsche really) talked about how impermanence was sad. And the other on how impermanence meant that this moment, this present moment you just witnessed was special, was unique.

At some point it pivots to Buddhism and the acceptance of impermanence being part of the noble truths. Something that a main cause of suffering, is not accepting how everything is transient.

At times I feel silly for liking some of those “I’m a hippy and philosophize about life” but I often find it’s good reminder. A bit like how people shit on quotes, but I really like them.

I’ve tried to find that video. I mean, I even looked on vimeo, (and looked thru my youtube history) And I don’t know if I’m using the wrong word. Kinda like how memory will trick you. Maybe the term was transience… Anyway, if anyone finds it, post it in the comments.

How Am I Not Myself?

My second favourite movie is I heart Huckabees (First is Memento). It bills itself as an existential comedy, which you know, fits my genre. It explores some of the absurdities with life, meaning and nihilism. One great line in it is when Lily Thomas’s character asks

“What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?”

I heart Huckabees

And the answer Judd Law’s character gives helped me with a big struggle I had with my mental health.

For many years I worried greatly about how my behaviour changed when taking my meds. I wasn’t as pessimistic, I didn’t ruminate as much, I didn’t spend as much time thinking about how the world is fucked. I struggled with it because there’s an easy trope to fall into and it’s of the tortured genius. It’s easy to point to great thinkers in the past who were tormented.

There’s also a bunch of folks online who think taking meds and “fighting” their mental health struggles makes them sheep. It’s easy to think this. Just think of Brave New World, 1984, and most dystopian books. The thinking is that if you move your focus away from everything that’s broken, if you don’t stay focused on the wrongs on the world, on the flaws of humanity, you can’t solve the problem.

It’s a very appealing theory. It means that all that suffering you’re doing, is not in vain. You’re not wrong to feel this way. It justifies the pain, both the past pain and the present pain. It means all that time I suffered wasn’t my fault for not changing myself, it’s everyone else who is too weak to sit with the darkness.

I’m not even sure who, but I think it was an aunt who, when I was 17-18, gave me a quote from George Bernard Shaw.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself”.

George Bernard Shaw

When Judd law is asked “What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?” he answers

“How am I not myself?”

I Heart Huckabees

Both existential detectives then keep repeating and pondering “How am I not myself?”

And once it sinks in, once you realize the absurdity of saying or even asking if you’re not yourself you in a sense free yourself from all expectations.
You cannot be anything but yourself. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be pleased with yourself. That you can’t improve yourself. Just that there is no need to worry if you’re yourself. Because you can’t be anyone but yourself.

(And yes, this means that, even given the good intentions, I’m not a huge fan of the “not myself” mental health campaign which implies that you can or should be someone different.)