I once read a book 12 times. By the 8th repeat it had become an overlap of entertainment and sport; I began to wonder just how many times could I get through from start to finish. Context is important here: the book was Cannibal Adventure by Willard Price, I was 10 or 11, and we were stuck on a long road trip from Nairobi, Kenya to visit family in the hinterland of Uganda. As much as my siblings and I tried to prepare to occupy oursevles, we always ran out of entertainment. It was perfectly normal to be bored enough to read each other’s books; I even remember reading a Sweet Valley High novel my sister brought along. Desperation has its boundaries though and I was soon back to the adventures of Hal and Roger in the wilds of New Guinea.
My experience is unique but glancing through reviews on Amazon I see a fellow with the following review of a Willard Price book:
I AM NOW 35 AND SOME OF MY BEST CHILHOOD MEMORIES ARE OF THE HOURS SPENT ON THE MANY ADVENTURES WITH HAL AND ROGER…AT OUR LOCAL PUBLIC LIBRARY YOU COULD FIND MY NAME ON THE CHECK OUT RECORD FOR EACH AND EVERY BOOK (AT LEAST 10 DIFFERENT READINGS OF EACH) FROM AMAZON ADVENTURE TO AFRICA, DIVING,SOUTH SEAS,LION,WELL YOU UNDERSTAND. I HIGHLY RECOMEND THESE BOOKS FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES. AND THANKS TO WILLARD PRICE FOR TAKING THIS YOUNG BOY ALL AROUND THE WORLD VIA HAL AND ROGER HUNTS MANY ADVENTURES….
I imagine this fellow was not stuck in a Toyota Corolla somewhere on the African savannah but like many fans of Price he returned to the material, again and again.
Today is so different; we have so much. It’s less that I’m old and more that I’m one of those people who lived both before and after the web. The internet in all its magnificence has given us the ability to experience the new all the time, not just in how we entertain oursevles but also in work. If you are a software engineer, every day a new framework, language, or tool becomes available. If you are an investor, markets are always open and the ticker tape never ends; as I write this on a Monday evening Asian markets are in full swing bridging the gap to the European open in a few hours and carry forward a synthesis of news and financial data into the open of the large American exchanges. Even if your profession doesn’t throttle you forward a person with even modest curiosity is easily overwhelmed by Wikipedia, Project Guttenberg, or the treadmill of pop culture. Your music collection is no longer a handful of CDs that you’ve carefully accumulated in small steps, it’s the internet and Pandora is not just in your browser - it’s everywhere. This means that you hear a lot but do you actually listen to anything?
It is the default but it doesn’t have to be that way; many of the people I admire throttle input and practice exhaustive use of the resources that they have. Most programmers I admire stick with a language despite the waxes and wanes of fashion in the industry. The most significant things in the digital world are only built with time, iteration, and accretion so constant change is not possible.
The world of scholarship, even as humanities and the liberal arts are supposedly dying, is built upon exhaustive use: the classics instructor who have come to an intimate knowledge of Homer after hundreds of readings of The Odyssey, or the archaeologist who lives not just in the present but in a past surrounded by ancient script that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. In a world of shallow use this is hard to understand - until you realize that this set of people interact with a world more rich and deep than can be had while flipping through young adult novels. It takes time to find the contours of ring composition or translate tablets written in dead languages.
Before I lose the engineers who read this because of my reference to the humanities, and before I lose anyone from the liberal arts because I can’t generalize beyond my professional inclinations, I want to make a small list of what exhaustive use means to me and then summarize.
Exhaustive use means multiple encounters over an extended time period
- A book which is reread over and over.
- Many projects with the same programming language or framework.
Exhaustive use means the ability to construct a completely mental model of something complex because of depth of knowledge
- Blind folded chess
- Vast memorization of narrative, context in a piece of literature
- Defining software structure, architecture end-to-end without needing to write code.
- Improvisational lego
Exhaustive use means exclusion of unrelated material
- Software Engineer focused on a single language/paradigm
- Focus on a specific topic area for scholarship (e.g. Tolstoy, archaeology, valuation models etc)
Exhaustive use is not being incurious
- Think the self-satisfied type who are disinterested in anything except their field of choice - I always suspect a lack of confidence or some other problem when I observe a person who is happily and/or wilfully ignorant.
In a world of overabundance it is counter cultural and might even feel wasteful to draw boundaries - to impose a fast of sorts on all that is possible. But the shallow use and experience of things, no matter the discipline, is the true wastefulness that stunts personal and professional growth. Rather than chasing after novelty perhaps it is what we already have in front of us, what we may feel that we already understand, that needs our attention - again - to yield from repeated effort and familiarity something that is truly meaningful.
I remember a bus ride home when I realized with dismay that I’d forgotten to charge my walkman batteries. I had 45 excruciating minutes to burn with no entertainment… until I realized I could “play” my favorite album (New Order, Technique) - melody, counter melody, percussion and all - right in my head. Not as a result of aptitude, but because I’d listened to it more than 100 times on that same trip home.