By the Book*

A friend of mine who has been following my posts of late has been anxious to remind me that fencing is not something that you can learn by reading a book. In his words: "Fencing is so 3-D and reactive it is impossible to articulate into book learning." Rather, it is something one learns only by doing, more particularly, through the physical lessons that we have with our coach: "Everything you will need to learn about fencing he will teach you. There is no need to look elsewhere."

Fencing, of course, is not the only activity to suffer this limitation. Tennis, knitting, singing, playing a musical instrument, walking, speaking a language, prayer: none of these activities is accessible to us in any way other than through practice itself. Far from being able to teach us "how to", books of themselves cannot even teach us how to read, as any one who has gone to a library and picked up a book without knowing the relevant conventions of translating phonemes into script can attest. Is it any wonder, therefore, that books cannot teach us how to transform our bodies such that they become capable of moving and acting on the exterior world in disciplined and complicated ways, never mind how to transform our interior selves so that they become less anxious or more focussed as our bodies engage in these actions? And yet, there are bookstores full of books promising to do just that: teach us "how to".

The question to ask, surely, is why do we bother. If you are reading this, I suspect you, like I, have more than your fair share of such books by your bedside or on your bookshelves. I have already mentioned a few of the ones that I have at home. Here are some more from the shelves in my office: St. Louis Mary de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary; The Way of a Pilgrim; The Philokalia compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth; Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises; the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali; William Zinsser, On Writing Well; Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear; Kieran Egan, Teaching as Story-telling; Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life; Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research.

Predictably, some of these, especially the ones on writing and teaching, I acquired early in my days as an assistant professor; others I have acquired more recently for the purposes of my research. All of them, however, regardless of object (writing, teaching, prayer, fencing) have this in common: while written by experts with years of experience in their particular discipline, they are, by and large, intended for beginners (as I was as an assistant professor or am now as a young fencing bear) who do not yet have this experience. You may say, but, of course; it is the beginners in a practice who are most hungry for advice. The problem, as anyone who has tried to learn anything from a book knows, is that much of what the books say make no sense while one is a beginner. Indeed, it is only now, as a practiced writer and teacher, that I can actually appreciate much of the advice in the majority of the relevant books. But whereas when I first bought them but could not yet understand them, I kept them close to hand, now I have to climb up to the very highest shelves to get to them, so long has it been since I had occasion to refer to them. I may finally understand what they were trying to teach me, but I no longer read them because I have achieved their lessons in my own experience.

Venerable as it is (even the ancient philosophers participated in it), the "how to" genre has arguably long been recognized as doomed or, at the very least, severely compromised. As Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) once famously remarked of the Song of Songs (the "how to" par excellence of love), "Only the touch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning. Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely to learn about it."[1] While it is one thing, as Bernard would say, to read in Song of Songs 1:1, "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth," it is wholly another to know what it is to receive such a kiss: "I think that nobody can grasp what it is except the one who receives it."[2] Why, then, should anybody else read the book? In the monastic tradition out of which Bernard was writing, of course, nobody did, at least not until he had spent years working through all of the other books of Scripture. The Song of Songs was emphatically not for beginners, but only those, as Origen of Alexandria (d. ca. 254) put it, quoting Hebrews (5:14), who "have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil." Once again, it would seem, those who would seem to need the book most because they have not yet had the experiences it describes (here, in Bernard's reading, being rapt up in the love of God and receiving the mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ) may find the book not only inexplicable but dangerous, while those who are, in Origen's words, mature enough in their practice already to risk such instruction arguably no longer need it.

Perhaps Socrates was right to insist that written words can do nothing more than "remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with." From this perspective, the wise man writes "only by way of pastime, collecting a store of refreshment both for his memory...and for all such as tread in his footsteps," without, that is, expecting anybody who has not already so tread to understand what he has written.[3] In the Phaedrus, Socrates, like my friend, goes on to argue that true education takes place only in the face-to-face interaction of a teacher with his student. But how, we must ask, can education take place even then? Socrates invokes "the intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner" imparted thereby by the dialectician, "who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them."[4] I don't know about you, but to me this sounds like so much handwaving, even as a defense of personal instruction. What do "planting" and "sowing" have to do with coming to an understanding of the "just and good and honorable" that the dialectician has set out to teach? It is telling that Socrates himself cannot describe the changes that take place in the interior of a soul without invoking a metaphor. Even face-t0-face, never mind reading a book, it is a mystery how we in fact learn something of which we have no previous experience.

Gallwey (the book I was reading and likewise the one my friend was reacting against) credits Self 2 as the agent in this process. While Self 1 spends her time judging present experience against past and future events, Self 2 is always only in the here and now, watching and absorbing. Gallwey argues that the way to learn new habits (such as how to make an attack in tempo or parry without moving one's point off the line of target) is to quiet Self 1 enough to allow Self 2 to do her stuff: attending to what she is interested in, not trying to follow Self 1's instructions about what to do. But, and here is the catch, how does Self 2 know what to watch? Gallwey almost, albeit not quite, suggests that it doesn't really matter: if allowed to follow her interest, Self 2 will be drawn to notice the details that matter most, often things of which Self 1 was never consciously aware. So, for example, Gallwey notes that he almost always plays better after watching a match between more highly skilled players; somehow, he argues, Self 2 has absorbed elements of the players' movements and, if left to her own devices, can now reproduce them. To be fair, Gallwey also notes that one needs to learn how to watch in order for this learning to take place, but I cannot tell you the number of times, typically at big national meets, that I have gone on to fence worse after watching some of the top fencers fence. Clearly, there is watching and then there is watching.

Why read "how to" books? Not because they alone can give us the instruction we need in order to reproduce the myriad muscular or cognitive movements we need in order to extend our arm at the just the right moment while holding a foil or to find just the right turn of phrase to pose a question to a class, but because they hint for us at what is possible and therefore encourage us to learn. As, indeed, Gallwey would agree: we can use other's experience to guide us in the discovery of our own optimal technique. To be sure, optimum learning takes place in the here-and-now give-and-take of actual human interaction; this is true as much for intellectual and spiritual pursuits (see above on Aristotle) as it is for more bodily, mechanical and artistic ones. Nor, of course, can one, simply by reading a book, acquire the estimated 15,000 hours of practice at an activity (other than reading) necessary for the development of true expertise.[5] Moreover, even to attempt many activities (swimming, gymnastics, fencing, cooking, prayer) without immediate guidance is to risk not only body, but, as the hesychast authors of the Philokalia made clear, sanity and soul.[6] And yet, even they wrote books on "how to" pay attention to God.

The key here is paying attention. As William James, the father of modern psychology, put it: "Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German."[7] The difference between beginners and experts, as the cognitive psychologists who have devised experiments to test these things have shown [8], is that experts are better at paying attention, by which the psychologists mean, they are better at processing the available information coming at them at any particular time, e.g. in reading the above passage from James or in observing an opponent about to make an attack. More simply put, experts, unlike beginners, know what to pay attention to. They are more focussed not simply because they are better at willing themselves to "pay attention" but because they have learned, through experience, which objects in their immediate environment are relevant to the task at hand and which they can ignore. This is why experts seem to be able to respond so fast to particular stimuli
in comparison with beginners. It is not because their synapses or muscular contractions are somehow speeded up but because they are not spending time filtering. Conversely, a beginner may actually see more (in the sense of "attend to stimuli") in the same period of time [9]; the problem is that not all of it may be relevant and so she "wastes time" trying to figure out what to respond to, at which point her coach says: "Couldn't you see that she was about to attack?" To which the beginner responds, quite honestly: "No!"

So far, so good, but how did the experts learn what to focus on? James points to a very interesting paradox here. While it may seem that we can pay attention to whatever we want simply by looking (physically or cognitively), in fact, "the only things which we commonly see are those which we preperceive, and the only things which we preperceive are those which have been labelled for us, and the labels stamped into our minds. If we lost our stock of labels we should be intellectually lost in the midst of the world."[10] More simply put, in order to see something at all we must already be prepared to see it; otherwise, like my opponent's preparation to attack, it will be literally invisible to us. I hope by now you can see where I am going with this. For all their limitations, the one thing books are particularly good at is putting labels (a.k.a. words) to things, better, perhaps, even than speaking because, after all, books (or blogposts) are durable. We can refer back to them in order to recall what they say and so, hopefully, fix the labels that they provide more firmly in our minds. I may not yet know what it is like to receive the mystical kiss of the mouth of Christ or how to be aware of my opponent's sword without looking at it [11], but now that I have a label for the experience, I am more likely to be able to attend to it if and (hopefully) when it happens. The temptation to avoid is believing that having the label is the same thing as having the experience, but it is just as important to recognize that without the label, we would not be able to have the experience--in the sense of attending to it--at all. It would be simply one of the many things that happen to us that we do not know how to interpret and, therefore, that we ignore. [12]

Books, of themselves, cannot teach us to fence or to pray. What they can teach us, if we read them, as Miyamoto Musashi said of his own Book of Five Rings, "personally...taking the principles as if they were discovered from [our] own mind,"[13] is how to attend, so that when our opponent offers us her blade--or God offers His mouth--we are in a position to notice and, therefore, respond.

[1] On the Song of Songs 1.11, trans. Kilian Walsh, Cistercian Father Series 4, p. 6.
[2] On the Song of Songs 3.1, trans. Walsh, 16.
[3] Phaedrus 275D-276D; cited by Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (1990), p. 30.
The irony here, of course, is that we would not know Socrates had said this if Plato had not written it down. The question is, can we ever understand it without being able to speak with him? Socrates (Plato) would seem to say not.
[4] Trans. Benjamin Jowett
[5] Fact. See K. Anders Ericsson, "The Acquisition of Expert Performance: An Introduction to Some of the Issues," in The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, ed. K. Anders Ericsson (1996), pp. 1-50. In real terms, this translates into four hours of concentrated practice a day, seven days a week for ten years. Given that I practice only 2-3 hours a day, three days a week, it will take me somewhat longer to achieve expertise in fencing, but even then only if I practice with the appropriate attention. Graduate students take note.
[6] St. Gregory of Sinai, "On Prayer," in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 279, 284-85: "If someone's experience of praying derives from hearsay or reading he will lose his way, for he lacks a guide.... If some have gone astray and lost their mental balance, this is because they have in arrogance followed their own counsels.... But if you are presumptuous and follow your own counsel you will readily fall victim to delusion."
[7] The Principles of Psychology (1890), vol. 1, p. 403.
[8] Sorry, I have graphs in my notes to this effect but can't find a reference. Maybe I learned it verbally in class and not from a book. Oh, no, here it is in James (pp. 427-32), but without the graphs. I'm still not sure where I got those.
[9] That is, if she is actually allowing her attention to fall on the objects at hand. Sometimes, of course, beginners don't really attend to anything because they are so overwhelmed. More on this above.
[10] The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, p. 444.
[11] Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, trans. Thomas Cleary (2003), p. 27.
[12] The consequences of this observation with respect to prayer are particularly intriguing: if we have no way of naming God or refuse to do so in the first place, will we notice when He calls?
[13] Book of Five Rings, trans. Cleary, p. 24-25.


  1. Wonderful piece.

    I'd be curious to know what you thought of Josh Waitzkin's recent (3-4 years?) book, "The Art of Learning." Have you ever seen "Waiting for Bobby Fisher"?

  2. Thanks! I loved Waitzkin's book, very inspiring. I should write something about it, thanks for the encouragement!


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