Building a Knowledge Base

A friend recently asked me how I choose what books to read in the course of this project, whether I enjoy them all, and commented that an inherent weakness of most algorithm-based recommendations is that they simply recommend more of the same, and don’t recognize when you might want a change.

I admit to sometimes being drawn in simply by a cover/title of a book on the shelf, and I certainly haven’t enjoyed every book I’ve read equally, but I have observed a few trends in what I gravitate towards. First, I try to find books that touch on subjects that I feel I know little about. I don’t have as much of an interest in refreshing my memory as I do in filling in a few of the many gaping lacunae in my knowledge. Secondly, within those subjects, I tend to pick ones that have a tangential connection to other things that I’ve read or consider myself at least somewhat knowledgeable about. Though I want the information to be new to me, I would also like to have an anchor for it- some connection that will help me remember a bit about what I read even after substantial time has passed and I’ve read many other books. Thirdly, as I’ve continued to work through this project if there are multiple books that interest me that meet those criteria, I’m trying to make sure that I get a mix of primary and secondary sources. Sometimes it’s more helpful to read someone’s interpretation than to read source material (I made that mistake when I read an un-annotated version of Joyce’s “Ulysses” a few years ago), but it seems to me that in the internet age there are far too many people who are convinced that they know what a particular text says even though they’ve never read it because of how it’s been quoted by others (Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” is a prime example of this).

The books I’m writing about now are ones that I read slightly over two years ago, and my selection process was slightly less developed at the time. Perhaps un-coincidentally, I remember very little about the book “Sacred Space and Holy War” by Juan Cole. ( I remember picking it up because I know/knew little about the Shi’a- Sunni distinctions which have had such an impact on contemporary geopolitics and hoped to get more educated, but I may not have had enough reference points to anchor the information to for them to stick well. I had been vaguely aware of Shi’ite majority in Iraq, but had not realized that many Indian Muslims are Shi’ite as well.  Cole’s thesis is partly that Shi’ite countries were profoundly influenced by the threat of invasion/conflict with the Sunni Ottoman Empire.

I’ve never accepted a distinction between “useful” and “useless” knowledge, but I find myself particularly drawn to stories or information that connect to my personal and professional interests, particularly:

  1. What gives a life meaning or value? Honor societies are particularly interesting, as they can have such different interpretations of what is/are the sources of honor.
  2. How do people or societies weigh competing interests? Where do they draw the line in tradeoffs between freedom and safety, efficiency and self-sufficiency, generosity and accountability?
  3. What are successful strategies for individuals and organizations to thrive and manage risk?
  4. When (and why) do people make “irrational” decisions? More specifically, what have people’s experiences been with violence, both international and interpersonal? In addition to this project I have been reading back-issues of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, both to learn techniques of some martial arts that I have not been able to train in, but also to understand how various practitioners define and describe their practice and ascribe meaning to it.

In light of d), it is always shocking to me to learn of catastrophic violence that we don’t discuss. Contemporary American society has been extremely safe relative to historical eras, notwithstanding school shootings and ongoing military activity. I had not recalled learning anything about the Siege of Karbala in Iraq, but in 1843 (less than 200 years ago), the Ottoman army killed ~ 5,000 people in and around Karbala, or 15% of the population, in a battle in which they lost only 400 soldiers. The city’s defense was largely led by civilians. As a share of the world’s population and the city’s, this would be roughly equivalent to a 2001 assault of the city of Chattanooga that killed 30,000 people. The September 11th, 2001 attacks have continued to affect policy and discourse over 15 years later- I’d argue that it’s not particular evidence of being “stuck in the past” that violence on 10x the scale still has an effect on a nation’s or city’s identity. Our histories shape how we understand the world and what we particularly fear, which is part of why I believe that this reading project is worthwhile. I won’t become an expert on anything, but maybe I’ll gain some perspective on factors that have shaped many communities and be a more nuanced communicator and thoughtful person as a result.

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