Are Books Bad?
Today, we talk about whether or not books are bad and how solar desalination affects education for women in Asia and Africa.
Listen to the Episode
Today's reading is from the complete works of Chang Tsu:
“Men of the world who value the Way all turn to books. But books are nothing more than words. Words have value; what is of value in words is meaning. Meaning has something it is pursuing, but the thing that it is pursuing cannot be put into words and handed down. The world values words and hands down books but, though the world values them, I do not think them worth valuing. What the world takes to be value is not real value.”
A lot of Westerners who come across passages like this from Chang Tsu and Lao Tsu interpret this as Taoism being anti-books or anti-learning. But Chang Tsu is not saying that books are bad here. He's saying that books are just words, which have no value other than meaning. This is true from a linguistics perceptive - our language and the words we use to describe our experience are abstract and symbolic. The meaning isn't in the word itself but in what the word points at.
What Chang Tsu is getting at is "real value". For a Taoist, accumulating knowledge may be a beneficial task for some of the activities we do in life, but it is not the goal. A traditional Taoist may see an academic's book in the same way they see a carpenter's blade. Tangible, useful, and necessary for the change the user seeks to make in the world. But just as a blade cannot carve a block of wood without a carpenter, words are nothing without people to read and apply meaning to them.
What is real value then? Both Lao Tzu and Chang Tsu advocate for slowing down, being silent, watching the world. Just as Lao Tzu says that without leaving your home, you can know the whole word through meditation, here Chang Tsu seems to imply that the places we typically think to go for learning may not be the most effective way to answer the big questions in life, like why we are here and what we should do with the time we've been given.
By meditating and paying attention to the world around us, we're cultivating wisdom. And Chang Tsu is right. Knowledge can be passed down through books. But wisdom can't. It has to be cultivated in the self. And I think we can all agree, in a world where we now have access to basically unlimited knowledge but are faced with many of the exact same problems as before (if not even more), that wisdom is real value.
Quote of the Day
This consideration of wisdom and whether or not it can be transferred to words is not exclusive to Taoism. Our quote of the day is from Hermann Hesse, a German-born poet, novelist, and painter. "Real value" and the transference of wisdom is one of the central themes of his novel Siddhartha:
“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else... Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”
This is why in many of his verses, Lao Tzu points us not to his own words, but to our own ability to be attentive and intuitive.
It is estimated that half of the world's population will live in water-stressed areas by 2025. But the nonprofit GivePower is debuting a new solar powered system that converts salt water into drinking water. This is a massive breakthrough, because though the process has been attempted for years now, it is not usually very cost effective. This invention opens up the possibility of pulling out water directly from the ocean. In Kenya, where the system is being tested, can create 75,000 liters of fresh water every day, enough for 25,000 people.
Not only does this make water more accessible for the community at large, it is helping girls make it into school. In some of these communities, fresh water is so scare that residents have to wash their clothes in salt water, which leaves sores on their skin. Women and girls across Asia and Africa walk an average of 3.7 miles a day to fetch potable water, and that takes up valuable time that could be spent traveling to school and attending class. This new technology has the power to transform these communities and extend the reach of education to everyone.