On Reading

Obama presses for Middle East peace at UN. Our reading list notes the best books on this topic. What do you suggest? http://fam.ag/adOCxe

This tweet from Foreign Affairs reminded me of something that I have been thinking for a long time, and it’s something that I believe offers comfort to the Outsider.

The constant stream of books, blogs, news articles, magazines, journals, op-eds, interviews, videos, that comes your way is overwhelming. My question in this is: What is the role of the Outsider when there seems to be no way of parsing all of this data and making sense of it?

Another, bigger question would be: Does reading more necessarily make you more intelligent and knowledgeable on a topic? Nicholas Nassim Taleb would probably answer in the negative. His argument being that sociology is largely a self-serving discipline.

In the reading that I have undertaken so far for the MPhil, I feel that I have learned a lot. Certainly I have learned more than I had discerned from passive consumption of news and other media before beginning my university career.

Reading and Passive Consumption

Since finishing my undergraduate degree, I have come to realize the power of reading.

Since starting this blog, which, although it is only a couple of weeks old has been fermenting in my head for several months, I have come to realize the power of passive consumption.

Every day, I get back from my wage slave job, and I check on my Twitter feed. There have been around 200 tweets each day for the last few days.

I only follow 60 or so people. Most of these people are in Afghanistan or heavily involved there or in other realms of foreign policy. Every night I come home and parse maybe 10-20 pieces from that feed, of which I read maybe 4 or 5.

If something exciting happens, like last night’s pre-release of Bob Woodward’s book, which has caused a firestorm, I might read a bit more, grab some more of the information, be better informed as to the argument, or just, in that case, to be better informed on the situation in general. But on the whole, I’ll read very little. I’ve read three books (almost) since starting as a wage slave, three weeks ago (eleven weeks left!) and my understanding of Afghanistan has increased greatly. (I was going to say ten-fold, but realized that this was an entirely arbitrary number, as it implies that there is some kind of a cap or limit or goal to knowledge acquisition.)

Reading books is a great way to get an overview of a topic, but I think that there is no substitute for getting out and living what you are studying. I hope that I will be able to visit Afghanistan in the course of the MPhil research, if not, I will make the trip for PHd study. It has to be done, for this is the only way to truly understand the situation.

I am not criticizing Foreign Affairs for this endeavour. Indeed, I personally downloaded this bibliography from Christian Bleuer’s Afghan Analyst project. I haven’t even looked at it yet, but I know that it will prove an invaluable resource, come January.

A trip to Afghanistan would preclude me from the group I am trying to foster here. I would no longer be an Outsider. And yet, in a sense, I think that I would remain in that position, just better informed. For instance, I will likely remain naive to the realities of battle, the fear of combat, the adrenaline rush of the fire fight. (A book that I own, but have yet to read is Anthony Loyd’s Another Bloody Love Letter, in which he describes how his heroin dependency vanished the moment he was in the face of battle.)

The role of the Outsider, with regards to books then, is, in my mind, to allow them to inform you and allow them to challenge you and your beliefs. But it is important to bear in mind Black Swan cynicism and criticism. There is no way that you can know everything.

How do you find reading benefits your understanding? Do you prefer books, articles, journals, magazines?

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)

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