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Beyond Books and Teachers

Beyond Books and Teachers, the Guide Lies in the Path Itself


Henry Miller talks about books and reading to assert that life is the best source of knowledge and wisdom.

Writers and artists are known for disobeying their time’s pre-established moral codes. And, in the entire history of literature, there are few figures as iconoclastic as Henry Miller, who imposed on himself the enormous and complex task of tearing down precepts, and strived for an authentically free development.

Among Miller’s published works is a series of notes on reading (undoubtedly one the most effective vehicles that help us find freedom). The Books in My Life (1952) reflects on the menage à trois that takes place between a book, a reader and the society they belong to —a dynamic that derives in behaviors and attitudes about reading and knowledge in general.

My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters configure, not isolate. In this sense, and in this sense only, books are as much a part of life as trees, stars or dung. I have no reverence for them per se.

This fragment reveals Miller’s usual severity, he dissects the ambivalence that is used to judge reading in modernity; a contradictory oscillation between veneration and contempt, respect and marginalization. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the author of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn refuses to acknowledge that books hold any special wisdom:

The vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas. The question —never resolved, alas! — is to what extent it would be efficacious to curtail the overwhelming supply of cheap fodder. One thing is certain today —the illiterate are definitely not the least intelligent among us. If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself —direct experience of life. The same is true for art. Here, too, we can dispense with ‘the masters.’

Perhaps books are like baby-walkers, a necessity early on in life but that, when the right moment comes —one which books could paradoxically point out—, we can leave behind in a corner and start walking on our own.

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