Books and writings can be a hindrance or an aid. In today’s world where nearly everyone is alienated from nature and natural experiences and where culture is irredeemable (but it always has been, you will object), there is no substitute to awareness and learning. This does not mean that we become intellectuals or become dependent on them; only that we must read sufficiently in order to choose wise habits and share conversation with wise people of the past.
Our reading must be as edifying as encountering someone we might have met a thousand years ago or more. We must feel as compelled as if we had spent a lifetime in a mountain or forest or desert or cave. The wrong books, like the wrong people, are a waste of time and a hindrance on our path. That said, we must understand what is meant by “wrong” in this context, just as we must understand what “right” means when we speak of right intentions or right livelihood.
Books and writing are not passive. They can fully engage our minds and give our hearts courage and kindness. Conversely, they can unsettle and distract from stillness. Books crowd the shelves and call out for attention. I don’t want to be obsessed with them, like the hapless protagonist of Elias Canetti’s Auto da fe. Anything can be turned into a vanity and an escape from self. Learning has no limit, but life, time, and circumstances insist on priorities to knowledge.
Today right books can be contrasted with the crowd, the relentless drumbeat of media, violent external thoughts and images, but also with our own thoughts that rise like dust motes undisciplined by the mind. Yet one must get past both books and anti-books, the conundrum of possessing and letting go. (And like St. Augustine, I will add “but not yet.”) Here is a Zen story that illustrates this paradox well.
The old master had but one successor. He gave his disciple a book passed down from master to master for seven generations, with his own annotations. “This book is very valuable,” said the old man solemnly. “I give it to you to represent your succession.”
The disciple demurred, saying that he had received the master’s Zen without writing, and had understood it. The master acknowledged his disciple’s achievement. After all, he was his successor. But the old man insisted on his accepting the book.
They talked a while longer. The disciple felt the book in his hand. Suddenly he threw it into a flaming brazier beside them. “What are you doing!” yelled the master, angry for the first time in his life. “What are you saying!” the disciple shouted back.