Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Primary Sources

There is a great temptation in this day and age to take one’s reading filtered. Scholars, pundits, commentators, journalists, and writers of all kinds generate streams of words that trickle out of the sumps and springs of our culture, run down the sides of our societal landscape and into the vast oceans of words and ideas that form our collective consciousness. Some of what is written is quite useful, good, truthful, and a portion of it even qualifies as beautiful. Much of it is about other words, other writings, other comments, other stories. We write and we write about writing, and we write about writing about writing.

Case in point – you are reading some of it right now.

Unlike drinking water, however, filtered reading is not purer or even tastier. Filtered water may seem more palatable and feels safer. None of that nasty giardia lamblia, or cryptosporidium to worry about. But in the process of filtering much is lost and something is typically added. When hiking the Appalachian Trail I carried a large and expensive water filter to purify my water. It was heavy, but I preferred it to dropping musty tasting chemicals into my water. But even this filter would add traces of iodine to my filtered water.

There were times, especially in the southern states, where I was extremely glad to have a quality filter. The water sources were sluggish and sometimes stagnant. Muddy water was more common than clean water. In these cases, the filter was a godsend. But as I moved further north I found more and more springs and high altitude streams to drink from. Especially once into the New England states I began to simply not use my filter at all. If I’m standing in a place that is already higher than 90% of the population of humans OR animals, and the stream originates from someplace higher still, and if it is quick running over rocks and rills, I figure that drinking it is pretty safe. I might still filter if the source is near human or animal habitation, either wild or domestic. I might still filter if that water source is slow moving or stagnant. But more and more I found it to be safe and rewarding to drink directly from the source – the pure unadulterated water spurting from the heart of the earth herself.

I think this says a great deal about our reading. There is a generally recognized canon of “Great Books.” The list may vary in length and selection depending on who makes it. Most of these lists are oriented toward Western thinkers and those works foundational to western civilization. Some go broader to include Oriental works as well. It is not that these books are held to be true in all their ideas. They are considered great because they contain powerful ideas, powerfully expressed – so much so that in many cases the ideas contained in them have changed the world.

I have read much about these books. I have actually read very little of the books themselves. As I mentioned before, it takes work. First you have to find them. They are not always down in the valleys, along the highways where they are easily accessible. In fact, much of what you find in along the roads must be filtered. The purer better reading requires climbing and effort and sweat to attain. One has to be in a certain mental condition to get to where one can drink from those wells.

But, if my metaphor holds true, it is totally worth it. The experience of drinking directly from a mountain stream, plunging your face into the frigid water and sucking deep draughts of cold liquid diamond is elemental and altogether delicious. There is no better tasting water in the world. I suppose a scientist could argue, stating that the mineral content is not appreciably different or better than tap water, and that the risk of contamination is higher, but it’s not about minerals. It’s about the spirit of the water, I think.

I suspect the same may be true of the great books. There is something valuable in the work, in the spirit of the original work, the primary source. It is colder, fresher and cleaner, even though the language may be archaic and strange to the ears. The ideas are direct, unfiltered and bear with them a raw energy not present in commentaries and criticisms. Not that we should not read writing about writing. I suspect, however, that I would do well to drink more from mountain streams than I do, and I would do well to read more of the primary sources than I do.

We cannot afford to be lazy in anything we do. We can least afford it when it comes to our hearts and our minds.

1 comment:

The Scylding said...

Very true - I tend to fall into that trap most of the time.

And great blog by the way - I was pointed this way by Rick ritchie at Old Solar.