Books by the Foot

Knowledge does not come through osmosis

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In one of my middle school classrooms I remember that there was a poster on the wall of Gardfield sitting on a pile of books with the caption "Learning through osmosis". Of course this is the sort of joke that only a middle school science teacher would laugh at because they could look forward to explaining to their students that osmosis is the process of solvent molecules passing through some membrane which allows them to enter into cells and things. The joke of course was that while a cell could fill itself with spray cheese particles by just sitting on spray cheese, Gardfield cannot fill himself with knowledge by just sitting on a pile of books. Unfourtunately it seems that many people failed to understand that this was a joke and that owning a bunch of books is not how you gain knowledge.

Today I read this article from Not the Bee which talks about a company called Books by the Foot which, as its name suggests, sells books by the foot for decorative purposes. I actually first heard about this company sometime last year when I read a few articles about how old hardcovers had become the latest interior design fad and that people wanted to have shelves of books that were all the same color so Books by the Foot would collect all these old hardcovers, glue them together, then ship them to the upper class customer so that they could have thier shelf full of yellow books to compliment the yellow quilt on the bed of their third guest room. While I believe this fad still exists Books by the Foot has found a new set of customers and thier purpose for the books is much worse. While I'm sure that at least a few of these customers understand that they can't learn through osmosis, they all understand that you can at least look smart through osmosis.

This new set of customers highlighted in the Not the Bee article primarily live in and around Washington DC, these are the sort of people that will make appearances on cable news programs with things to say. The article talks about how these people are used to broadcasting from a newsroom with a fancy set and interesting things in the background, but because of the global pandemic they had to abandon their studios and go live from their homes. I really like how the author of this article put forth the idea that the only way that these people could prove that they belonged on TV was throuh props and that because they had all lost their prop filled studios they had to get their own props to make them look smart so that the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect doesn't wear off of their viewers.

Of course all of these people are going about it wrong. Books by the Foot exists because there is a surplus of books (either new or used) that people don't actually read, the company buys them cheap so that they can sell them cheap. This didn't matter to their old customer base because anyone who looks at a shelf filled with sky blue hardcovers that have been glued together will know that the owner of those books never actually pretended to read them, but the people who buy books to look smart are. These new customers also have another dissadvantage they are Washington DC people so they think that people actually read and care about the books that politicians write, so they'll specificaly request them. Now I've spent a lot of time in the book section of various thrift stores and used book stores building my library and by far the most common type of books there are the ones written by politicians that are only relevant for three months and are only ever printed once. Sure, thousands of people will go out and buy a book by Hillary Clinton* but very few will actually read them.** So when people tune into cable news and see all these reporters and anylists standing in front of shelves full of Hillary Clinton books it should be obvious that the person is not as well read as they would like to appear because their shelves are full of books nobody actually reads.

Of cousrse I'm sure that media personalities are not the only ones doing this. With the increase of people working from home and holding video conferences there are a lot of people trying to set up a background to impress the people that they meet with. We live in a world where it is fashonable to look smart and informed. Even world famous athletes are doing it, earlier in the year Lebron James did an interview holding Malcom X's autobiography but when a reporter asked him about his favorite parts he froze up and was unable to say anytihng that wasn't incerdibly generic. Lebron James didn't read the book, he just wanted to look smart, unforutanatley for him there is a big difference in looking smart and being smart.

Contrast the act of trying to look smart by using books as props to the actions of people who actually are smart. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of a few rather insightful books, has a daily livestream (I've only ever watched one of them but it was quie good) that he does sitting in front of an empty bookshelf. Scott Adams does not need to try looking smart because if you pay attention to what he is saying you can tell that he actually is smart. If you want to look smart and well informed then you should work to become smart and well informed, do your own research on topics that you are interested in don't fall victim to the Murray Gell-Mann Amniesia Effect, don't act like you know what you're talking about when you don't, and if you are going to buy a book at least have an intention of reading it.

* Note that I am not picking on Hillary Clinton for any political reason, you can substiute her name for that of any politician from any political party in any country and my point will still hold true.

** Not only are the books by polititians the most common in these stores but they are always in the best condition, further proving that they were never read.