LAPL – a year of great books!

Ah, the Los Angeles Public Library!  What a grand system!  With a mission “to provide free and easy access to information, ideas, books and technology that enrich, educate and empower every individual in our city’s diverse communities“, LAPL is one of the great institutions of Los Angeles.  The beautiful and vibrant Central Library is buttressed by 72 neighborhood libraries, and you can reserve any book in the system and LAPL will send it to your nearest branch at no charge.  More generally, public lending libraries are one of the United States’ most noble and democratic concepts, reducing financial barriers to learning, and more recently, helping to narrow the digital divide.

A successful experiment

In 2009, I stopped buying books and started borrowing regularly from LAPL.  I made it my goal to read more, and to learn from sources that are available to others, regardless of income.  I told myself that for every great book I checked out and read, I’d donate $5 to the LA Library Foundation.  This has worked out to $155 for 2010 (31 books I enjoyed from a total of 41 checked out).  In 2009, I spent about $370 for 19 books.  Glancing at my bookshelf, it appears I have given away at least 80% of the books I bought that year.  All in all, the borrow/donate system has been a great success: more books for less money, while supporting LAPL.

The only possible downside to the system is that I may be giving less money to authors.  Although the LAPL pays for the books it lends and authors would thus receive their normal 15-or-so percent of that amount, the total number of books purchased is fewer than if every borrower bought their own copy.  On the other hand, one could argue that libraries buy books without regard for commercial success, and might be increasing revenue to authors of more obscure books.  Certainly, calculating lost revenue based on borrowing habits is misleading: people borrow books more readily than they buy.

Looking at my actual consumption numbers for 2009, and again assuming that authors make about 15% of the cover price, I paid about $50 to authors that year.  So to make this new system best for everyone involved, my new, additional goal will be to donate $50 to one or more authors every year.  Let me know if you have any suggestions of authors I should check out!

How to donate

The Library Foundation of LA raises funds in support of LAPL.  They have a great website and making donations is easy.

2010 book reviews

The most inspiring book of the year for me was David Cope’s Virtual Music, but there was great stuff across a wide range of topics. Thank you to all these authors and the LAPL!

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6 Responses to “LAPL – a year of great books!”

  1. Brandon Martin says:

    Kris,

    Sounds reasonable, but you might want to consider reserving a small percentage of your donation to contribute directly to specific authors based on your unique tastes, which are valuable and worth expressing. This might be particularly worthwhile if you want to support rare self-published writings or foreign language works not appropriate for LAPL or likely to be acquired by the library, but well-worth supporting.

    People in the United States used to build great private libraries, which reflected their own unique and sometimes quirky interests and were/are an intellectual historian’s treasure. If memory serves, when the nation’s capitol was burned, Jefferson donated his private collection including unique copies of books in different languages and personal marginellia to become the basis of the first Library of Congress. Private, philanthropic libraries, which have been made virtually extinct by state run public libraries, helped save some writings that the consensus or library committees of the time didn’t find valuable then, but that we enjoy and treasure today. Outside of the admittedly excellent LAPL, most small and mid-size community public libraries (IMHO) are boring collections of titles that discriminate heavily against non-elite-consensus interests and thinking… actually I’m pretty convinced selection is based not on what people would like to read themselves or even what they think other people should read, but what they think other people think others should read or want to read. Growing up, I could never find Michael Polyani at a public library, but locals would display the great philosopher and chemist who is to consensus liberals what holy water is to vampires in private collections at the county fair! My preference would be that a small amount of your funds went to support writings that you find valuable just because you love them… even if no one else would get why it is great except for you or it isn’t in the public interest or the author was religious or something else that might not be good for others. Plus, if I were an author, it would certainly make my year to get a personal letter enclosing a few dollars with the explanation that the work was so great, you wanted to pay for it even though you don’t own the physical book! If that’s too complicated, though, it’s still great that you’re contributing to LAPL.

  2. kris says:

    Hello Brandon! Thank you for the thoughtful input. After reading your comment, I agree that I shouldn’t stop merely at “supporting authors directly”, but should push myself to “support authors directly, whom I appreciate”. Better still if my support might step in to help otherwise unrecognized and unfunded creators, and could encourage the library to carry books that represent my unique world-view.

    Thankfully, it looks like the library system has improved with respect to Michael Polanyi. They have the following for checkout. Any you recommend?

    The Tacit Dimension
    The Logic of Liberty : Reflections and Rejoinders
    Meaning
    Scientific Thought and Social Reality; Essays
    Knowing and Being: Essays
    Full Employment and Free Trade

    • Brandon Martin says:

      Kris,

      In re: Polyani, I’d probably start with ISI’s intellectual biography of him, then determine what aspect of his thinking, if any, really interests you. Then go to original writings as need be. Polyani was a great thinker… as for being a great writer — not so much. I’ll give you the Polyani nutshell and then I’ll email you suggesting something that’s probably better reading for you… or more Kris-like, at least.

      Polyani was at the center of a struggle to save science in Europe during the rise of collectivism or socialism last century. At the time, the smartest guys in the room argued that those with the greatest understanding should use the state to control scientific resources so that work wasn’t wasted on unimportant matters and so that the increasingly evident power of science would be used to achieve the public interest and community goals rather than any individual scientist’s success or fame. Polyani was what we today call a “pure scientist” and when the governments of Europe began mandating that all scientists should only work on practical projects for social or government-approved benefit like curing cancer or building weapons, Polyani seriously resisted and lost much because of it (e.g. his relationship with his brother and his reputation amongst elites). The theory Polyani developed to defend individual perspective and initiative in science involved a notion of “spontaneous order.” Wikipedia has him quoted as saying: “Any attempt to organize the group [of scientists] … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their cooperation.” When challenged by an intelligent communist graduate student at the time to defend his “anti-social” thinking, Polyani assigned his class to do some practical science or engineering: They were to create a shipping container for potatoes that allowed a shipper to arrange potatoes to maximize the available space. Students took a couple of weeks measuring potatoes, doing advanced math, and building structures. Polyani’s ideal solution, however, was the traditional potato bag. The potatoes natural properties of size, shape, and indentations spontaneously interact with one another in a bag to create a very space effecient solution after they settle. Students realized that trying to substitute their organization for natural interactions of the individual potatoes with each other seemed easy, but was time-consuming and difficult… and that was with limited variables and complications involved in shuffling potatoes, but what student would try to organize the countless variables and bits of information — both known and unknown — in the development of knowledge through scientific inquiry by scientists with different backgrounds, perspectives, and insights? One “pure” insight might interact with another and be built upon by a third insight stemming from the unique perspective or interest of a third scientist– perhaps from an unheard of scientist in another country — and then, maybe, even yield a practical science solution that couldn’t have been planned for by even the smartest of committees or uberscientists given prior knowledge. Basically, the success wouldn’t have been possible without knowledge gained from the *uncoordinated cooperation* of scientists pursuing individual rather than collective or public benefit goals. Polyani’s views on epistemology are still very, very important, but so contrary to the way we think today that they are difficult to grasp. He wasn’t a liberatarian by any means, but while today’s libertarians occasionally mention him, traditional academics in the hard sciences are rarely exposed to him (or any good philosophy of science for that matter.) He was Jewish and not particularly religious, but his biggest defenders today are traditional, paleo-conservative Catholics (See ISI) who love his epistemology and philosophy of science. Not really clear what Polyani would think of his place (or non-place) in science today, but his story would make an excellent screenplay or historical novel and I’ve often thought of indulging in a creative project like that myself!

      Anyway, that’s all the Polyani that you really need as much of him is not really Kris-like and I wouldn’t want it to be. I’m always thinking of things that you’d enjoy, so I’ll send you an email with some suggestions for reading that you might actually connect with and enjoy.

      • kris says:

        Wow, this was fascinating! Thank you, Brandon! If you don’t mind another follow-up question…

        How is Polanyi’s (isn’t that the proper spelling?) epistemology so different than our current thinking? His concept of freedom for the scientist to explore her own interests seems in keeping with scientists’ thoughts today. Most people would attribute the great rise of internet creativity to the kind of free individualism Polanyi’s potato challenge describes.

        • Kris,

          I agree that Polyani would love the internet and that “spontaneous order” or “uncoordinated cooperation” are great metaphors for why the ‘net is valuable.

          Polyani’s beef was with scientists who believe that the development of knowledge must come exclusively from some combination of sensory data and reason or risk being spoiled by irrational belief, cultural bias, religion, and emotion. Polyani opposed them because he believed that great leaps often came as the result of people honestly pursuing and testing beliefs that come from a non-expressly rational process. In a nutshell, he was rigorous in testing his hypotheses, but some of his greatest insights, which once subjected to hypothesis testing became great leaps in our scientific body of thought, were the result of something we’d call personal-bias, vague introspection, or intuition…. and he believed he was not at all alone in this regard. He loved science, but felt that human acquisition of knowledge and its interrelated “scientific advancement” is much bigger than positivist and materialist sources. Much of “scientific” knowledge is gained through this process of “tacit understanding” and only then defended through the method. Consequently, he was much more open to great thinkers participating in fields outside their own… and he himself published in fields far from his expertise in Chemistry.

          I’m not sure if you’ve ever taken a critical reasoning class where you’re taught to tear down and shred beliefs left-and-right, particularly those beliefs that do not rely only on the numbers and expert-conducted studies or some accepted piece of evidence, but you’ve probably noticed that it is *way* easier to tear down or rip apart ideas than it is to form brilliant insights using those diagramming symbols from your “intro to logic course.” — particularly if you are dedicated to a 100% completely conscious, rational, thought process… if that’s the case, you are probably not going to get anything original and just forget brilliant. Polyani is not so eager to tear down ideas that may be true because they are non-scientific in their origins or presentation, he’s much more eager to test ideas that ring true to see if reality agrees and he believed that many great scientists were great because they had the same orientation. Basically, in the pop cultural language of our times, he’s the anti-Richard Dawkins!

          There’s no way I can summarize Polyani’s theory of tacit knowledge — what I mean by his epistemology — in a comment here because (1) I don’t fully understand it and (2) it’s complex. Just understand that he had a theory about how people come to understand things in a not-expressly rational way and he believed that this process of tacit knowledge can account for much of the useful body of knowledge as well as the growth of the body of scientific literature and the path of evolution of scientific theories, meta-theories, and models. For that reason, a contemporary scientist who belittles religious people because they don’t derive their beliefs from scientific literature might seem like a fool to Polyani. Both the scientist and the non-scientific thinker take part in a greater system of knowledge-building in which both inputs may play a role and advance societal knowledge. He was *by no means* a religionist or supernaturalist or anything, he was just too open-minded for today’s scientific culture.

          • Kris says:

            Very interesting, indeed. I look forward to reading some of his essays in February (after I get back to LA from tour). Thank you for all this good stuff, Brandon! Happy holidays, amigo!

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