If you’ve been reading these posts lately you know I’ve become a bit obsessed with the idea that it’s possible to collect all human knowledge. I wrote the other day on how impossible it would be for one person to read all the books ever written in a single lifetime and then on how sharing was useless as there is no way to condense that knowledge into any form that could be shared.
The flaw in that logic is it assumes that every book adds to the collection of human knowledge. This is false. It doesn’t mean those books are without value it just means that they would be unnecessary to read if the goal was to reach some sort of understanding on all human knowledge.
What then is necessary? I have often puzzled over this when thinking about Western thought and I have concluded that all the ideas necessary to understand the Western world are contained in two books, The Christian Bible and Plato’s Republic. From those two sources strange millions of poems, short stories, political treaties, philosophy, and novels. Add the plays of William Shakespeare, a few Grimm brothers fairy tales, and the Poetic Eda and the reader would have a good grasp on the totality of Western thought.
Stories and cultures evolve much like creatures. Like all life on this planet share a common ancestor all literature does as well. There is a starting point for everything. I mention Western thought because I live in the Western world and it is what I am most familiar with. I cannot say if The Tale of Genji or Dream of the Red Chamber would be more important to understanding Eastern thought just as I cannot say if Gilgamesh or 1,001 Arabian Nights would be more important for Middle-Eastern thought.
My feeling is the way to do this would be to find the common ancestors of all cultures. Consume those stories and move slowly through time. These origin stories are what built modern society and cultures around the world, but it is a bit like studying the foundation to understand the building. Glimpsing the roots of the tree doesn’t tell us about the top most branches.
Remember it is estimated that a person can read 4,600 books in their lifetime. That is plenty of books to look back into as many cultures as one wants, touch the tips of the branches and see where those common ancestors have brought us, and then to pick a few out of the trunk. When you break it down that way it isn’t such an impossible task.
It is impossible to read every book ever written in a single lifetime, but it is also completely unnecessary. We can achieve an understanding of depth, height, and width with less than half our allotted books, and that is if we really want to try and understand all human knowledge.