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How Reading and Experiencing Transform Us

Updated on November 6, 2016
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"The Only Source of Knowledge is Experience."

Albert Einstein believed it. Perhaps experience is the best teacher. However, that might not be the complete picture. Jean-Paul Sartre thought:

"All that I know about my life, it seems, I have learned in books"

Knowledge improves and enriches our lives. We gain knowledge from experience and from books; yet, the two offer divergent exposure.

All that I know about my life, it seems, i have learned in books. Jean Paul Sartre
All that I know about my life, it seems, i have learned in books. Jean Paul Sartre

Books Are Knowledge?

To begin with, knowledge from experience is gained differently than the one from books.

  • Experience teaches in direct ways. This idea finds its supporter in, none other than a writer.
"Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

Oscar Wilde believed that.

A surprising statement from an author. We could deduce he valued books but not their educational role. Yet, as his life was a roller coaster of sound and poor experiences, his wisdom is trustworthy.

  • On the other hand, books intermediate knowledge. Experiencing directly might be preferable, but our lives have time limits.

Opportunities for enriching experiences might not exist.

Or, we might wish to experience what is currently unavailable, time travel, life in space, or life in the past. Science fiction and fantasy books offer adventures not yet possible.

  • How can you experience adult life as a child?
  • How does a woman learn a man’s perspective and vice versa?

Also, books are a fast way to learn how people from other parts of the world live. Experience and books adopt different paths to knowledge.

Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. Oscar Wilde
Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. Oscar Wilde

How Knowledge is Gained

Next, experience and books differentiate themselves through the amount of effort and time you have to put in to arrive at knowledge.

  • To transform into thorough knowledge, experience requires extra effort.
"It takes time to live. Like any work of art, life needs to be thought about."

This is a quote from Albert Camus. Usually, the more experiences we accumulate and the more time we dedicate to a certain subject, the more our knowledge improves. We get wiser.

Author Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers that it takes around 10.000 hours of practice to reach mastery in a field. Guided experience can teach more, yet guides don’t always exist.

  • Contrary, knowledge from books is at our fingertips.

Books show how others already did something, what worked and what did not. They ease our efforts to live better. We have the privilege of learning from others’ failures. Books might, also, offer the possibility to avoid mistakes. To quote Carl Sagan:

"The library connects us with (...) the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history..."

All in all, experience and books are different in the way they impact this two resources: time and effort.

It takes time to live. Like any work of art, life needs to be thought about. Albert Camus
It takes time to live. Like any work of art, life needs to be thought about. Albert Camus

Knowledge Without Wisdom

Another difference between the two sources of knowledge is the way subjectivity affects experience and books.

  • Perceptions shape knowledge gained from experience. It is decisive who we are when we experience.

Having confidence and being self-assured are laudable qualities. Yet, as open minded as we try to be, knowledge viewed only from one viewpoint is imperfect. Experience, by itself, might not transform knowledge into a diamond shaped, multifaceted treasure.

Furthermore, our brains adore to confabulate, to create explanations, no matter how wrong they are. They do this to replace the information that is not available.

  • Oppositely, books offer more than one point of view.

Books come from those that have had the time to meditate on issues, to document themselves, and to overcome the subjective viewpoint. Authors create a number of other character’s viewpoints.

Likewise, subjects, especially important ones, have already been tackled, by different authors, in contradictory ways. This provides a large exploration field for the curious.That is why subjectivity affects experience and books differently.

 The library connects us with ...the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history Carl Sagan
The library connects us with ...the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history Carl Sagan

Knowledge With Love

You see how both experience and books teach.

What experience teaches is more direct, less thorough, more subjective. However, it is burned into the memory.

Books allow access to knowledge in a mediated, thorough, and unbiased manner. Books might not be able to replace experience, but they enhance it.

Experience can not replace books, on the contrary, it is better savored with books.

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