An Open Book (actually, a whole lot of them)


For those who haven't yet discovered it, I need to recommend The Open Library. It's an online resource that collates the collections of many libraries around the world, and offers some of them as ebooks that can be checked out for two weeks at a time. Membership is free. The collection is spotty, but pawing through it yields much of the same delight as a used bookstore. Maybe much of it is mediocre or outright trash, but gems abound if you look for them.

Among the gems available for checkout is something that reminded me how many of the big reading influences in my life were nonfiction. John Holt's How Children Fail, originally written in the late Fifties, still reads like it hasn't aged a day.

The poor thinker dashes madly after an answer; the good thinker takes his time and looks at the problem. Is the difference merely a matter of a skill in thought, a technique which, with ingenuity and luck, we might teach and train into children? I'm afraid not. The good thinker can take his time because he can tolerate uncertainty, he can stand not knowing. The poor thinker can't stand not knowing; it drives him crazy.

Emphasis mine. This insight applies to far more than just kids in a classroom; it's a major chunk of why society is as messed-up as it is. The need for absolute certainty and total answers runs deep, and also constitutes a large part of the justification of power. The more we can feel comfortable with not knowing, or understanding that our knowing is tentative and subject to perpetual amendment, the better off we'll be as a species. But right now we're not doing that.

There's a lot more in this book that's worth rediscovering in 2018. In the same way that Harlan Ellison was not really talking about TV in The Glass Teat, Holt was not really talking about education but the way society as a whole is mirrored in the educational process, and in the way many adults are not much more developed than children intellectually. Read the bit about the kids on the subway and on Boston Common — it's on pp. 55-57 — and I dare you not to think about the way internet trolls operate.

Back to my original point. I used to have a copy of How Children Fail, but I gave it away after I moved, as part of my general efforts to slim things down. For some reason I never got around to replacing it, but knowing there's a copy in Open Library that I can check out most any time I need to pretty much obviates that.

That's one of the benefits of any library: with books you only need periodically, or which you are only likely to consult once, you don't need to shell out for them. Especially if they happen to be costly academic tomes, or things that went out of print and are now only available courtesy of a used bookstore charging some rapacious price. I think I will always want to have a copy of something like The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po always at my elbow, but there are plenty of books I don't mind relegating to the status of a shared resource.


Tags: Internet  education  libraries 


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2018/08/01 08:00.

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