Quantum Libraries

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

T. Greer recently shared the contents of his own quantum library — the books and articles that, no matter how often they are returned to, provide fresh insights and new knowledge.

It struck me as a list of yet more books to add to my anti-library — the books on the shelf that have so much potential to be read one day. I’ve been meaning to read — rather than read about — most of his list, namely:

  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
  • James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
  • Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddihmah.
  • Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization.
  • Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex System.

One book in his quantum library, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, has crept into my own. I originally read a borrowed copy in one day in eighth grade — one school day, uncharacteristically ignoring all the classes I was nominally attending — and then I re-read it maybe 15 years later, and I did in fact get much more out of it. It certainly seems prescient in our social-media world.

Similarly, I’ve gone back and re-read Asimov’s Foundation, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Moore’s Watchmen, and Herbert’s Dune — all for a mix of entertainment and enlightenment.

Despite the fact that I’m a Tolkien-geek by any normal measure, the same pattern holds for his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — I read each once in childhood and once in adulthood, and they were very different experiences each time. In fact, the only thing I remembered from my childhood reading of Lord of the Rings was that there were super-orcs who could travel by day. I haven’t yet made it to my adult re-reading of his Silmarillion.

When it comes to more scholarly works, I suppose I’ve read Sun-Tzu’s Art of War multiple times, and Machiavelli’s Prince, as well, but they’re both quite short. I concede that I got very little out of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings either time I read it.

There are quite a few books that I haven’t re-read, but I have read fairly deeply the first time through:

  • Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms
  • Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene
  • Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal

I won’t touch on television and film except to point out that I really should re-watch Groundhog Day.


  1. Rollory says:

    I can not recommend the Silmarillion as reading for its own sake. It’s clumsy and overlong and contrived and takes otherwise interesting concepts and shoehorns them into overtly Christian cosmology.

    At one point I had started memorizing the Lay of Leithian (the epic poem Tolkien wrote about Beren and Luthien) – working on the first version (published in Lays of Beleriand), as it covered more of the story. It was a fun thing to do – Tolkien really was a good poet – especially as I kept running into places where Tolkien had quite simply screwed up (lines that didn’t scan, couplets missing one of their lines, rhymes that didn’t quite work) and kept finding ways to improve that. I got as far as the fourth canto, at which point I hit a brick wall, because it became glaringly clear at that point – and in rereading the rest of the story – that Beren in fact has no heroic qualities whatsoever, he’s a blowhard who fails at everything he does, every stage of the story is Beren saying “I’m the man, you stay safe little lady”, getting in trouble, and then Luthien steps in at the last moment and rescues him – this happens repeatedly. Beren is the most ineffective and simply impotent “hero” I have ever seen presented to a reader of fantasy, and the story itself is as radically feminist as any university activist could wish.

    It makes you start wondering why exactly Luthien would have fallen in love with him. Reading between the lines of their first meeting, the conclusion I came to was that Beren lost control of himself, raped her, and this most sheltered princess of them all got a permanent crush on the bad boy.

    In this light, Thingol’s attitude toward Beren is not only understandable, it is laudable and good, and as defenders of civilization we should prefer to see him simply execute the thuggish barbarian and lay down the law in his household. The “reason”, within Tolkien’s universe, that this can’t happen is that Beren is the ancestor of Earendel, who is “needed” to go beg the Valar to come help Morgoth. Why exactly the Valar couldn’t be perfectly aware of what Morgoth was up to and take action on their own initiative was something that I never could figure out.

    The Silmarillion – and the rest of Tolkien’s work – is to me more interesting for how it has informed the mythological structures we are creating for ourselves today, and how the common understandings of those myths have changed from Tolkien’s intentions. For example, Tolkien deliberately modeled his dwarves on Jews: a clannish, reclusive, gold-loving people with a strange and incomprehensible language, who everybody hates but are just misunderstood. Today, though, everybody knows that dwarves are Scotsmen: clannish, gold-loving drunkards with a genius for machinery and battle and a strong burr of an accent, who everybody loves – a radical departure from Tolkien’s intent, but a concept that is much more palatable to the public. Another example would be Malekith, the dark elf antagonist in the last Thor movie. I saw that name and thought “that’s gotta be borrowed from Tolkien somewhere”. Well, no: it’s borrowed from Warhammer Fantasy, which takes the forms and appearances of Tolkien’s universe and places them in the cosmology of H.P. Lovecraft – as radical a departure from Christianity as one could imagine.

    All this to say that while Tolkien gave us images and ideas and concepts, they have not remained the ones he intended, and their present form may not at all be ones of which he would have approved – although I will claim that in many cases they are objectively better as mythological contexts for the human experience, given our increasing understanding of the mechanics of the universe.

    We can see the Chaos Gods at work ever more clearly: Khorne in Ukraine and the Mideast, Nurgle in West Africa and among the Western pozzed, Slaanesh in San Francisco, most universities, and sharing Silicon Valley with Tzeentch, who in turn maintains complete dominion over DC. These are symbols of what must be opposed – opposition in which modern society has lost the will to engage, in part because it refuses to clearly identify its enemies.

  2. I suspect you’d really enjoy Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. I know Falkenstein is not a fan, but I like them both.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Oh, yes, I’ve read and enjoyed all of Taleb’s books — Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile. That said, I’ve read and enjoyed Falkenstein’s critiques, too.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I will have to re-read The Silmarillion one day — probably after Peter Jackson makes a trilogy of it, and the first one infuriates me. Did I mention that I just started re-reading The Hobbit?

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