Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia

I used to read a lot as a kid, though it never occurred to me that it was anything unusual. If I ever seem more intelligent than anybody else, it can usually be boiled down to the fact that I’ve probably read more than them.

I used to have a collection of books called “Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia- Super Questions and Answers and Amazing Facts”. I still do! There are 15 volumes- from “Your Body” to “Space Travel”, “Electricity and Magnetism”, “People Around The World”, and my personal favourite- “Stars and Planets and Plants”. I didn’t think much of it back then, but on hindsight those books broadened my horizons and provided me with a substantial amount of general knowledge, perhaps significantly more than my peers.

I learnt, at about 6 or 7, that our bodies were made up of cells, that there were billions of stars in the galaxy, that dinosaurs roamed the Earth 65 million years ago, that there were plants that ate insects. I learnt how solar and lunar eclipses worked, how planes were invented, about ships, televisions, pigmentation, different holidays and cultures around the world, mountains, lightning, skeletons, gravity, the seasons and photosynthesis. I remember how I learnt about sperm cells and egg cells and fertilization, but I had no idea then about how it would actually happen- the book had tactfully left the fun bits out.

I might not have completely understood everything, but it was a fairly impressive amount of knowledge for a young child (I only know this now after interacting with young children who aren’t very much interested in anything) and I developed an effective framework with incredible breadth- and this allowed me to assimilate knowledge more easily later on.

Later in life, I often found myself having remarkably accurate hunches about things, and on hindsight this was probably because I’d been exposed to a lot of valid information earlier- and much of it lingered in my subconscious- I am certain of this, because I can flip through any volume of these encyclopedias and every page strikes me as incredibly familiar. This may have played a role in shaping my personality and attitude towards learning- I was used to being right all the time.

Perhaps most importantly, I was intoxicated by what Richard Feynman describes as the pleasure of finding things out. I loved understanding things, learning about how they worked, developing a sense of awareness about the world around me.

I can’t think of many things more fundamentally important than a love for learning, and I can’t think of a better way to develop that than through reading- through conversation with a superior mind that is patient and understanding.

The Book Project

Books have always been a huge part of my life. I haven’t always been reading, though- I read a lot as a child, and then it sort of tapered off in my teens, and I recently got around to picking up the habit again as a young adult. (I’ve explored this before in an earlier post, but I can’t seem to find it.).

I owe a lot of my mind, my ideas, my worldview, everything- to the books I’ve read. It’s nice to think about how the authors who wrote those books would probably say the same thing- so we’re all part of this huge process that persists through time and space, that was around before us and will be around after we’re gone. I like to think of it as a great well of human knowledge, like a sort of massive city, but more than that. It’s quite literally the greatest thing about humanity- the development of human knowledge as a self-organizing entity at a massive scale, emergent from books, conversations, art, everything. If you can visualize it as something real (even though you can’t actually touch or feel it), you’ll find that it boggles the mind, and humbles the individual. We’re all servants to this greater Being that is our knowledge- we’re like ants or termites building and being built by our Hive. The symbiosis is elegant and beautiful.

It’s also fun to think about how Knowledge went through massive leaps with the development of the printing press, and now the Internet- Wikipedia, YouTube. It’s fair then to say (for more reasons than this specific one, actually) that we live in the most exciting time of human history. Because it no longer takes decades or centuries for a powerful idea to slowly spread from a few wise people to others- all of that has been flattened, compressed, simplified- most of our limitations- time and space- have been greatly diminished. A lecture a hundred a years ago could have inspired a hundred people- today it can inspire millions. Progress is about to accelerate faster than it ever has before. (One can only hope that this will also apply to our heuristics- that we will learn to resolve our problems in a more sustainable and effective way.)

That said, it’s hard to figure out what our roles are in such a massive system. It’s so easy to feel irrelevant and inconsequential- the world most certainly goes on without you. It feels like we’re individual cells- maybe a flake of skin, a single neuron, a single ant or bee in a hive. Except that those particular bits aren’t exactly self-aware- they don’t really have the time to ask themselves if there’s any point doing what they do- they don’t really have a choice in the matter. So human beings really have the most interesting, complex and challenging opportunities on this planet. That’s self-evident, sure, but how many of us go about each day thinking of it that way?

But explored a little further, we’re not actually like single neurons or ants- we’re obviously somehow more than that. Because individual ants and neurons are limited in their roles- they can only ever do so much. They don’t have the freedom to decide for themselves what they’re going to do. Ants and neurons live in Mediocristan (Nassim Taleb’s idea), where life is boring, simplistic, predictable. We, on the other hand, live in Extremistan- a single individual could go on to change Humanity as we know it. Every one of us has the potential to transcend our circumstances (which appears to be a uniquely human opportunity), to hold the universe in our hands and to grasp infinity in an hour. There is hope, there is possibility. Again, in our weakness lies our strength, our greatest gift is shrouded shabbily in fear and terror.

Back to Earth. Books are a huge source of knowledge and wisdom- they’re like crystalized elements of the Lifestream (a Final Fantasy VII concept). If everybody spent a little more time and effort reading good books- and really reading them, having conversations with them- I believe it would change our collective behaviour for the better, at least marginally. I believe that I’ve read a pretty unique mix of books that have contributed substantially to my worldview, and if I could get those of you who come here regularly to be interested in reading them as well, I would be a step closer to my ideal- an enlightened, civil world. It’s not spectacular, but it’s something- it’s a start.