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The Freedom to Know

For the Mathematician

who is also a late bloomer

Habent sua fata libelli

quoted by Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

I never read a book much more buy one until I was twenty-one.

Of course there were book reports to be done and standard textbooks to be skimmed through all throughout the formative years of this life; yet, they do not really qualify as reading. For in real reading, a certain kind of liberty is at play: the freedom to choose one book from thousands and thousands available to you, and the decision to read here and now inspite of the possibility of reading another or any other.

I always give my students the experience of choosing a book in a library as an example of the absurd freedom we have -- absurd because such a freedom participates in the infinite and the finite (Buber). There is an inumerable quantity of books displayed before your very eyes, spanning rows and rows of shelves on floors upon floors in the library, all waiting for your tentative fingers to pick them and for your dizzy eyes to browse through them; at this point, through the sheer possibility of being able to choose any book, you participate in the infinite.

But absurdly (and here's the catch), when you choose one book (even two or three for that matter), borrow it and take it home, you can only read one lonely book at a time, go through a single paragraph at a time, struggle with a single line at a time; this is when, by leaving the Proust volume or the Baudelaire tome on the side so as to read your Thoreau, you realize that you are so limited in that the possibilities at times overwhelm the capabilities of the finite human who can only read this one book at a time.

This is why to be human means to be finite, that is, to be in time. Yet it is important to remember that even if we can only know and learn some one thing at a time (finitude), something comes prior and therefore is primordial. As Buber says in "What is Man?" (Between Man and Man):

...indissolubly connected with the finitude which is given by the ability to know only this, there is a participation in infinity, which is given by the ability to know at all.
If you were not free to choose a book to read, the limitation of being able to read only one book would not be put into play to begin with. More importantly because even more primordial, freedom comes first; even before the ability to choose this or that possibility. Choosing is only secondary, what you chose de facto is tertiary. Freedom comes first because with the sheer ability to know we are able to choose this or that and finally read this one at this or that time.

I never freely read a book because I never entered the library or browsed through the shelves of a bookstore before I bought my real first book after graduation (a dusty and ambiguous From Socrates to Sartre by T.Z. Lavine). But before that moment of enlightenment, freedom was still at play: a negative freedom which made it possible for me to not be open to the possibilities books contain in their leaves, so as to not be able to choose this or that volume and to finally not be able to read this or that one at this time.

That is why it is only now, unlike others, that I am starting to put this freedom to know into a glorious play. It is only now that I am finally building my own library.


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