Monday, July 14, 2008

Books vs. Experience?

A comment from crake on Ryan Holiday's blog:
"Lately I have been thinking that you can't learn anything from a book that you don't already know.

The only thing that has ever changed me is experience. I think getting your heart broken once teaches a person more than reading about it a dozen times. Or when you really are down and out, that experience I would not trade for even my favourite most definitive book."

At first this seems like a decent argument. Experience can shake your core, it's personal and it happens immediately. Books are not written specifically for every individual and it might not be relevant right now. Taking a stance one way or the other, experience might win out. The problem with this argument is that books were never meant to compete. They were made to complement.

Take for example my problem with Meditations. While some of the book has had a big impact on me (See the header quote), about half of it doesn't resonate with me. I haven't experienced some of the evils and trials Marcus Aurelius talks about, therefore I can't connect with it as much as I can the rest of the book.

Does that mean I would be the same if I haven't read it? That I haven't learned anything?

Absolutely not. It's simply prepared me for what's ahead.

Books help explain your experiences. They crystallize the ideas and themes. They take your raw emotions and confusion about why things are going wrong and explain them. They give you a guide to how to live your life to the fullest. You might not have experienced the lessons yet, but if the book is any good you will and you'll be more prepared and objective than if you just went into it clueless.

The idea that you can't learn anything from a book that you don't already know is ridiculous. Books about life add perspective that is near impossible to get from only experience.

Reading and experiencing combined is the only way you'll truly know who you are.

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