Going Through a Phase

The Page of Cups is about listening to your subconscious.


In the months preceding my trip to Italy, I spent a lot of time researching—researching where we should stay, where we should eat, and what we should see.1 But beyond the hotels and historic sites in modern-day Italy, I wanted to learn more about the country’s history to put some of those places into context.

I didn’t have a lot of time, so I did what any reasonable person would do—I went looking for the “best book” on Italian history. And as luck would have it, one of my favorite bloggers, Tyler Cowen, had recently posted such a list. For Italy, he’d actually recommended two books. I chose the one with the most compelling Amazon description and dove in (after allowing two days for shipping, of course).

the pursuit of italy

After reading the introduction, I was confronted with the (somewhat obvious) fact that this slim, 400 page work would not tell me everything there was to know about the country’s 2000+ year history:

“Since this is not an academic work, I have allowed myself to be quirkily subjective in my selection of topics and to give perhaps disproportionate space to those that seems especially illustrative of various moments or eras…”

As it turns out, “best” is not a synonym for “most thorough.”


And so it was that I learned some things about Italian history, but not others. Had I started the process earlier (or been less lazy), I could have read Tyler’s other recommendation, found additional options on Amazon, listened to podcasts, and probably watched some free lectures on YouTube. I could have done so much more than read one author’s romp through Italian history.

Reading that book did allow me to sketch an outline of Italy’s past, and for my trip, that was probably good enough. But I don’t doubt that my short time in one of Europe’s oldest countries would have been enhanced had I had a deeper understanding of where are these monuments came from. Because even the “best book” can’t tell you everything.

coliseum

As author Jonathan Safran Foer says:

“Remembering and forgetting are part of the same mental process. To write down one detail of an event is to not write down another (unless you keep writing forever). To remember one thing is to let another slip from remembrance (unless you keep remembering forever)…We can’t hold on to everything we’ve known so far. So the question is not whether we forget but what, or whom, we forget.”


Although he compiled the “best books” list and kickstarted the long journey that would become this article, Tyler Cowen came back last week with some contradicting advice:

“[T]he key is to pick an area you care about, and read in clusters, rather than hoping to find ‘the very best book.’”

The best way to learn about a topic isn’t, ironically, to read the best book. It’s to forget about “the best” entirely. Instead, cultivate an obsession. Go through a phase. Spend an entire month (or two, or three) reading all of the things, listening to all of the podcast, watching all of the movies (because learning isn’t doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring). Think like a teacher and create your own curriculum.

The truth is this—the “best book” simply doesn’t exist. No matter how good, how thorough, a single work can never be fully comprehensive. It can never overcome the author’s blind spots and biases. It can never beat out sustained interest and a diversity of source material. When it comes to “the best,” it might be better to think in terms of quantity rather than quality.

 

1.Despite my improv background, I am not very spontaneous when it comes to travel…or life.


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