Friday, 09 December 2005

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Miriam's Hrair Limit; or, How to Shelve Intelligently to Feel More Intelligent Miriam J. shared her edifying despair with Valve readers yesterday. I have had enough despair of late (and face the possibility of more tomorrow). So tonight I offer hope. But first a pinch of despair: I read on average 50 pages per hour. That’s around a book a day (life will intervene), 365 a year. If I squeeze out another 40 years, that’s a mere 14,600 books, which simply will not do. For every classic you haven’t read and should, there are at least five new books you’ll want to read as well. So says LA Times staff writer Susan Salter Reynolds. To which Miriam responds: My mortality is never closer than when I make the mistake of thinking too clearly about the ratio of the ever-burgeoning number of books in the world, to the sliver of books I have read or am yet likely to read. Miriam has a problem. She is unable to imagine how large a number 14,600 is. That's not surprising. Not because I think Miriam deficient, mind you, but because we all have our hrair limits . If following the link clarified little, "hrair" comes from Richard Adams' Watership Down and it means "a number too large to count." In Adams' novel, the rabbits have a hrair of four. According George Miller's famous essay "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," humans have a hrair of seven . . . plus or minus two. After you hit your hrair limit, not only can you will you be overwhelmed by any novel information, you will also lose the ability to understand the information you were already juggling. That's a damn fine metaphor: Some people can juggle five balls but not six. When someone tosses him a sixth, they all inevitably hit the floor. Other people can juggle six but not seven . . . you see where this is headed. Now consider Miriam's desperation. She will only read 14,600 hundred more books in her life. That statement is approximately 2085 times her hrair limit. She would need 2085 other brains to be able to wrap her mind around her absurd fear of not reading enough. Doesn't everyone feel better already? To strike a more serious note: this anxiety can be overcome by dispensing with the "to read" shelf and creating a "have read" shelf in its place. You will be amazed daily by how much you have read instead of despairing over how much you haven't. The sense of self-satisfaction such a shelf creates positively intoxicates.

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