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The man of one book and the austerity of Twitter



Cave ab homine unius libri—or, beware of the man of one book. The injunction is an old Latin one, taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas and explicated at length in an essay by Isaac Disraeli (father of the Prime Minister, literary gent). The wisdom derives from Pliny and Seneca, both gave the advice that a person should read a few books widely. The contention is elitist: after all, it stands to elitist reason that the number of books that are worthwhile is small—and it is questionable whether every year more than a handful of books are worth notice (and unlikely even one will survive time).


Sir William Jones, so reports Disraeli, would read through all of Cato each year—Jones is an obscure figure today, but he laid down the law in Bengal and also pioneered the study of the Indo-Aryan languages (his father introduced the “π” symbol for 3.14159). Cato was appropriate for a man who had to bring law to the subcontinent. For Disraeli, the commitment to one book—or one author—represents a means to perfect your style as much to glean new information; and what is significant for him is that writers tend to have favourite authors to which they return—hence, for example, Rousseau went back to Montaigne, Locke, and Plutarch again and again (and that should give us reason to suspect Locke, Montaigne, and Plutarch—given that Rousseau was reliably wrong).


Actually, it’s not about a way to perfect your style—it’s about the way you bring your consciousness to bear in a singular way, as with the bindi, so as to have total focus on a text. I think the Quran is a central document in this regard; it is a single revelation dictated to one man—unlike the Bible, where everything is at second hand and mixed together—and “the recitation” provides a univocal guide to life (even to the way the state must be governed); and, being written in excellent Classical Arabic, it is also an aesthetic experience as well (indeed, it may only be studied in Classical Arabic). The Muslim is very much a “man of one book”—in his ideal form, anyway; and that is why Islam has such great power.


There is a meta aspect here: austerity begets excellence—just as video games have become worse as more processing power became available to make them. The very restrictions on processing power forced game designers to develop interesting work-arounds to make the games absorb, to make up for the fact that you effectively looked at red-and-yellow blobs on a screen; today, the graphics are almost photo-realistic but all the charm and challenge has left games. It’s the same as if you read many books, especially many mediocre books—I often see people who, to show off, display all the books they will read in a year and it’s all popular science or popular psychology (the stuff you find in airports); and it’s all trash, tendentious, and has about has much substance as an in-flight meal (and a similar duration).


The principle applies to Twitter as much as to books. Twitter is effective because it has strict character limits—in fact, that’s the only reason the platform works (similar platforms, like Gab, let people bore on about nothing for ages). Strict character limits give you less scope to lie and also force you to be creative, even if you’re not very creative—it’s the same as the limited processing power and those early video games. Trump was gold on Twitter because he fired off these laconic Zen-like koans that chastised American society—now he can bore on at length on his own Twitter-like platform he has lost his charm.


It’s effective to restrict yourself—effectiveness is virtue, virtue is manliness. The more you restrict yourself, the more powerful you become—ultimately, financial success is less about making more money than it is about reduction of outgoings, just as businesses need to cut what is unprofitable. The ineffective elements in a race, in the wider world, need to be pruned off to allow the wider organism to grow—and a society that is no longer austere and parochial is decadent (it reads many books, and values foreign books above all). So from this one rule about books you can extract a whole meta principle—a heuristic, a form of wisdom—to govern your life. Hence it’s a Hermetic rule; it’s microcosm and macrocosm—the one book stands for the entire world, the entire world is in the one book and vice versa.


If you choose one book to read again and again and it’s a wisdom book then you really will derive a Hermetic grasp as regards reality (if it’s just a bad comic book you read again and again perhaps you will become so bored with it that you will achieve enlightenment). It’s why I’d choose Brothers Grimm as my “one book” to have on a desert island over the Bible or Shakespeare—it’s about thousands of generations of engagement with nature, and just like a crooked road it has many curious crannies to explore (God is in it too, because nature is the portal to the divine). Genius is the crooked road that works its own course, just like a river—the straight road is efficient but has no genius. Brothers Grimm is a crooked road—it’s an uncut diamond; and, per Schopenhauer, the uncut diamond is more valuable than the polished gems derived from it (lots of polished gems at Harvard and Oxford, not much wisdom).


And don’t you range about the place, rather unwisely? Only in a superficial way, since I went to university to study politics and philosophy and that is all I have ever studied and written about—and I went to study that because I wanted to know what is the right action; and now I know, it’s an austere singular rule—never tell a lie; not even Ten Commandments, just one.


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