Letting Go

For some mysterious reason, my apartment complex has decided that they no longer want me living here. They gave me 90 days notice, so I’m methodically going through each section of my apartment to clear out the stuff I don’t need anymore.

I’ve lived here for three years. It’s the first place that has been my own space, my own home– ever. I nested. In the past 15 years, as I moved from one coast to the other and then back to Texas, home has been the place where I keep my books. When I finally got a great job and found a great apartment, I bought three large, expensive bookshelves from West Elm, collected all my books in boxes from my mom’s house, and finally gave them their deserved space in my home.

When that cold little note was left on my door, arrogantly telling me that this was my notice to vacate the apartment by March 20, I thought about carrying all those books down two flights of stairs, to sit in storage for months while I found a new full-time job and a new apartment… So many books! so heavy and dusty and … suffocating.

Last night, I combed through my bookshelves. As I examined each book, I asked myself, “Will I ever read this again?” (Or, “Will I ever read this?” because let’s be honest, 10% of everyone’s books haven’t been read. Yet.)

It was surprisingly easy to let go of Spinoza and Leibniz. I don’t remember anything from studying those texts in college, although I have notes in the margins to prove that I did read them. Having those books displayed on my shelf makes me look educated. I’m very proud of my Great Books education, but keeping those books when I have no personal connection to them is a lie. And maybe Half Price Books will give $0.50 for them!

As for Plato and Hegel and Tolstoy– if I was living in a cardboard box and needed to make a fire to cook food I fished out of a dumpster, well I’d starve before giving up those books.

Then there’s Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I remember being baffled by that book. Maybe if I read it again, I’ll connect with it. I’d like to be the kind of person who ‘gets’ Virginia Woolf. That’s what my bookshelf is about really. It’s about showing off the parts of myself I’m proud of– the part of me that so naively fell in love with Plato at age 19. The part of me that is still naive enough to believe I will eventually finish Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust– and actually understand it.

So who am I? Turns out I’m not a philosopher. I’m a romantic. I hope some current college student will be delighted to find my old esoteric texts on the cheap, and maybe they’ll mock my margin-notes. I’m going to be carrying boxes of literature around. The fluffy stuff. The stories. At this point in my life, I can’t bear to let those books go.

The Socratic Method

Last week I was able to sit in on a high school class discussion on Plato’s Gorgias.

Back-story: I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM.  Every Johnnie I know gets a soft smile on his or her face at any mention of Socrates.  To the subspecies self-identified as Johnnie, sitting in on a discussion-style class on Plato is like eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon.  It’s pure nostalgia.

The class took place at the Khabele + Strong Incubator, a “school” founded by another Johnnie.  This blog is about books and not education, so I won’t go into the brilliant framework of the Incubator, but please visit their website if you are curious.

First, the group agreed that belief and knowledge were on a spectrum, that a person can move between belief and knowledge depending on the circumstances.  The example we used was whether believing in angels is the same as believing in the Big Bang.  One of the students determined that even scientific knowledge is taken on faith, until you can understand the science that “proves” it to be knowledge.

Gorgias and Socrates discuss the difference between the skills of a physician and a rhetorician.  Gorgias was a very successful rhetorician and says he has made the rounds with his physician brother who cannot convince his patients to take medicine or submit to surgery. Gorgias applies his skills as a rhetorician and is able to persuade the patient to do what the doctor wants. This led to a discussion on the power of persuasion.  There’s a difference between being knowledgeable like the physician and persuasive like the rhetorician.  The discussion leader (a.k.a. teacher) asked how to fix this problem where ignorant people could be persuaded to some belief, despite what the knowledgeable people knew about the facts.  Three solutions were proposed:

1. Teach the ignorant to not be ignorant.

2. Teach the persuasive to have integrity so that they will only persuade people of the Truth.

or

3. Teach the knowledgeable to be persuasive.

This lovely group of high school students explored the pros and cons of each of those solutions.

For me, it was wonderful to take a step back from the substance of my everyday discussions on public policy and look at the purer, philosophical paradigm.  That’s the point of philosophy, to exercise our minds with abstract problems, because our daily decisions are colored with historical context and emotional attachment.  Young people, especially, need space to wrestle with these problems so that they can calibrate their moral compasses before being thrown into the confusing world.