May 26, 2013

On an Aristocrats Bookshelf: The Intellectual Devotional

Found on 

I both despise books like these and acknowledge their use. Perhaps, holding two opposite opinions about the same thing is a sign of maturity. Either way, it is frustrating to neither be able to outright recommend or condemn this book.

The tag line reads: "The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education  and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class." Now this appealed to my eleven year old mind who often found herself at a loss at cocktail parties when the conversation moved to the works of Francisco Goya, the Metals, Nonmetals ad Metalloids of the Periodic Table, or Shakespeare's 18th Sonnet. Intending to avail myself of this new font of information, I was reassured that soon I too would be able to revive my then decrepit mind, complete my education (and thus skipping the supposed horrors of middle and high school and the delights of then impossibly far off college), and amaze the Cultured Class of Podunk Northwest with my great command of all of human knowledge.  (Yes, I was a strange child. I clearly remember this being a goal.)

Naturally, I began in great earnest, grew bored quite promptly, and forgot the book ever existed with in a month of skipping through and reading only the Science sections. Now, upon returning home one vacation, I stumbled across the book again and read through it more avidly and critically.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, a devotional is a book, usually spiritual, which is intended to be read daily- either upon waking or falling asleep. It is a tool for personal growth by presenting one simple idea to be digested and thought upon a day. This particular version has divided the humanities into seven different topics, one for each day of the week. Monday is history, Tuesday is literature  Wednesday is the  Visual Arts, Thursday is Science, Friday is Music, Saturday is Philosophy, and Sunday is Religion. For instance in a single week a reader will read a single page on The Spread of Islam, Joseph Heller's "Catch 22," The Cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris, The Placebo Effect, Form (music), Matter/Form Theory (Philosophy), and finally Moses. An impressive array, no?

As an overview of the humanities, as a tool to show the spread of information in the world, as an introduction to topics to study in depth later on, as a starting point to the overwhelming mass of human culture that exists in the Western World- this book is great. Wonderful. I just recently read the page on Sonatas and am eager to learn more about musical theory. They didn't do a terrible job laying down the basics of epistemology.

However during a conversation about Cervantes's 'Don Quixote  I caught a member of my family quoting from the devotional. Pressing them further revealed that they had not read the book and, after reading the plot summery and a few thematic details in the devotional, considered themselves well versed enough to never need to.

And this, my dear readers, is why the idea of an Intellectual Devotional of any kind fills me with a burning rage. Because a single page summery is not a substitute for reading the book, looking at the art, studying  the subject, or listening to the music. In no way are you an expert after reading these entries.

And yet, so many people think that reading an overview, a plot summery, a brief history and being able to contribute a single interesting fact is enough for conversation and life.

It is not.

It is not even close.

Knowledge takes work and effort. Good art should change your soul, not fill your mind with trivia. Ideas should have significance rather than talking points. In the course of history, people have sweated, ached, fought and died for these ideas and they should deserve more care than a page in some pointless little book for the clifts-note culture to try and gain sophistication.

With the greatest irony, in summery: if you can use this book as a general overview, i recommend it. If, however, you would use it as an excuse not to do real work to develop your mind with great art, then don't go near it. Better to be ignorant than have pretensions of knowledge.


  1. I also have this book. Fortunately, I know exactly what it is for: read the topic. If it is something that sparks interest, head to the internet or, better, library, and learn more. For me the devotionals serve as a nice little "turn my brain down" few minutes before bed. I do agree with your review of "pointless little book," though. One can gain the same amount of knowledge on any topic by reading the opening blurb on Wikipedia.

    Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings about this as well. I want everyone to expand their knowledge, but I don't want (particularly) this book to be a replacement. Six of one; half a dozen of the other, I suppose.

    1. Yes, you are using your devotional well. (But, I suspect, this was never really a worry.) And I wish I had such a book, rather than herb flashcards, to read before going to bed. Alas.

      Another thought I had on the subject deals n the mystery of knowledge. If, after finishing such a book, are you going to feel that the world is smaller? That knowledge has been mapped out so there are no unexplored realms, only places to return to and survey more deeply? Several times in my life I have felt such a feeling and several times I have been proven completely and utterly wrong.

      But what do you think? Do books like these make the wealth of possible knowledge seem limited and graspable? Does that idea make your excited or sad?

      Either way, good luck expanding your knowledge base!