The Burning Questions

I’ve had an interest in philosophy since my teen years, and I had my first panic attack about the impossibility of infinity before I was ten, so I’m no stranger to the burning desire for knowledge that has consumed so much of my life and so much of the world throughout history. I’ve often found myself asking what we can learn by studying the past, from science and religion, from the universe itself, and from looking toward a transhuman, post-singularity future.

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It wasn’t until I reached college that I first encountered a physical manifestation of what I call these burning questions. In an art history class at JMU, the professor showed us slides of a painting called Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin. In my search for meaning I’ve so often struggled just to find the questions, let alone the answers. But when I saw the painting, those three questions became the primary mantra in my search for meaning in my life and in the universe itself.

The search for knowledge is maddening. Why are the answers to the questions which seem so vital to our very existence so impossibly elusive? The closer we get to the truth, the blurrier it becomes. If only we had a massive pair of communal reading glasses.

In thinking about the past, the “Where Do We Come From?”, I wonder if we have Adam and Eve to blame for devouring any knowledge fit for humanity, digesting it, and turning it into excrement. If there was a tree of knowledge growing in my garden, I wouldn’t think twice about rebelling against the powers that be for a taste of what’s behind the veil. Rules are meant to be broken, right? Maybe I’d be struck by a divine bolt for my insubordination, but why go to the trouble of planting a knowledge tree if its fruits aren’t meant to do anything more than fall to the ground and rot?

I’ve always been an avid reader and looked to books for my primary source of answers. At the same time, I have an understanding that those answers aren’t in any book, because there most likely aren’t any answers. But recently the maddening thirst for knowledge has hit me with full force, regardless of how much or little I think I understand about the way the world turns. This summer I’ve been devouring books at an alarming rate, usually at least a couple a week, searching the pages for answers, and then, without pause, tearing into the next book, desperately hoping to get a little closer to some universal truth.

Obviously I haven’t come across the meaning of life. I promise I’d share it with you if I had. And if you have, please let me know so I can go back to reading at a leisurely pace. Just leave your insight in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to note your insight and shelve the books so I can go back (as if I was ever there) to sanity.

I’ve also been reading a lot about immortality and transhumanism, thinking about the Where are We Going? question. I haven’t really been seeking these books out, they’ve been finding me.

I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know the answer to any of the burning questions. But I still ask them. I still madly scour the pages of book after book, Untitledlooking, I guess, not for answers, but for reassurance that it is okay not to have the answers. That not knowing is fine. That it is good. That it is the way the universe is designed and maybe the meaning is wrapped up in that unknown, a wrapping paper tessellated with question marks. I mean, what’s the point of existing in the first place if everything’s already figured out? Why go through the motions?

But I digress. In all the reading I’ve been doing this summer, one passage in particular jumped out and smacked me across the face, leaving my ears ringing with the sound of one hand clapping. So while I may not have any answers, I’m stabilizing again as I’m reminded that the human concept of meaning might just be the greatest barrier between us and understanding our place in the universe.

Here’s the passage, which is from Another Roadside Attraction:

“But seriously, if life has no meaning—”

“To say it has no meaning is not to say it has no value.”

“But to say it’s all meaningless. Isn’t that a cop-out?”

“Maybe. But it seems to me that the real cop-out is to say that the universe has meaning but that we ‘mere mortals’ are incapable of ever knowing that meaning. Mystery is part of nature’s style, that’s all. It’s the Infinite Goof. It’s meaning that is of no meaning. That paradox is the key to the meaning of meaning. To look for meaning—or the lack of it—in things is a game played by beings of limited consciousness. Behind everything in life is a process that is beyond meaning. Not beyond understanding, mind you, but beyond meaning.” – Tom Robbins

 

 

 

The Future of Books is in Your Hands! (Hachette v. Amazon)

If you’re a book lover, or just interested in business, chances are you’ve heard about the recent Hachette v. Amazon “war“. If you haven’t, basically Amazon is upset with a major publishing company about a deal that didn’t go their way. So now they’re restricting sales of books from Hachette Book Group authors.

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We just want to read Harry Potter! 😥

There have been instances of Amazon not allowing preorders of books by Hachette authors, (Including lots, and I mean lots, of big name authors such as J. K. Rowling!),  ridiculously delayed shipping times for those books, and even raised prices and suggestions of (non-Hachette) books they might prefer to the one they specifically clicked on because they were interested in buying it.

Why is this a big deal? Well, ordinarily it wouldn’t be. Companies have disagreements all the time and create alliances and enemies. What makes this case different is that Amazon pretty much has a monopoly on book sales these days, so their tactics have a great impact on Hachette, its authors, and potentially all writers and readers (as well as the publishing industry as a whole).

When I hear the term “monopoly” used to describe Amazon’s book sales, I immediately think of dystopian societies like in Farenheit 451 in which books are perhaps not yet banned, but are a regulated commodity. If Amazon does one day hold a monopoly on books, it will have a monopoly on what is published, and will be able to censor books to its liking or to act as advertising tools rather than function in the many ways we have come to know literature: as art, companionship, beauty, escapism, etc. This is the extreme, but it’s scary that it is a foreseeable future.

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Trinity Library, Trinity College, Dublin

So what can we do?

I feel like the eventual answer is for the publishing industry to gang up on Amazon and create a competing virtual book store, but right now all we can do is support our local book stores. Support libraries and attend readings. And if you want to buy books online, buy them from a book store or publisher website. We need to show Amazon that whatever disagreements they may have with publishers, we as consumers, as writers, as readers, — we have a voice — and books are written for us and by us. And they are purchased by us.

If Amazon wants a piece in that, fine, they can treat readers and writers and publishers with respect. And just maybe, one day we’ll learn to trust them again. But until then, read, write, and realize how precious and fragile this freedom is.