The Pitfalls Of Excessive Book Knowledge (And How To Avoid Them)

“End sagacity; abandon knowledge. The people benefit a hundred times.”

– The Tao Te Ching

“The blind pursuit of learning leads to excessive desires—the more you see, the more you want. Excessive desires, in turn, lead to anxiety and misery.”

– Derek Lin

As you may know, I’m a huge book lover. I love books so much I could gay marry them. But it was only recently that I learned that loving books too much can be dangerous.

You see, in the past, I found myself always seeking to acquire more and more knowledge to quench a thirst for it—but, still, no matter how many books I read, I was always left feeling thirsty.

After reading a new book, I would get all these cool new epiphanies.I would get so excited by this that I would rush over to the next book without taking a breather in between.

After I read the second book, again, the light bulbs would go off. But before I could take it all in, and implement anything I had read, I was on to the next book. After each new epiphany, I would have a wonderful moment of bliss; but, soon after, the magic would wear off and I would be right back at the beginning:  looking for another book to feed my growing addiction to knowledge.

(Who knew I had become a knowledge addict, right?)

But then, one day, the madness stopped.

It stopped when I came across the The Tao Te Ching, which, in its unique and gentle way, finally put me in my place.

The Tao Te Ching Strikes Again

The Tao Te Ching is unique among all the ancient wisdom teachings in that it’s the only teaching that says that excessive book knowledge is a bad thing.

I know what you’re going to say:

“Saw whaaaaaat, Ollin? But isn’t ‘knowledge power?’ Isn’t more and more education the answer to everything? Say whaaat? Whaaaat? Wha-wha-wha-wha-wha-whaaaaaaaaaaat?”

No. Knowledge isn’t always power. Sometimes the blind pursuit of knowledge can weaken us and put a stint to our progress.

Yup. I know. I was just as shocked as you were to finally realize this.

Revising The Notion That Knowledge Is Always Power

Look, I’m not saying ALL book knowledge is bad.

Of course, without book knowledge, I wouldn’t be able to write this blog post, and you wouldn’t be able to read it—so, in that respect, book knowledge is absolutely necessary.

So, no, I’m not saying book knowledge isn’t necessary. Of course it is.

What I’m saying is that excessive book knowledge can be dangerous.

I know, it’s hard to see how it can be dangerous. So, let me help you out by going over some of the common traps we fall into when we pursue book knowledge excessively:

The 6 Pitfalls of Excessive Book Knowledge (And How To Avoid Them)

Here are the 6 pitfalls of excessive book knowledge and how to avoid them:

Pitfall #1: You Become All “Theory” And No “Practice”

Sometimes we read a bunch of how-to books, self-help books, and blogs about how to improve our writing (or our life), but then we never implement any of the advice that has been give to us. So, when the advice doesn’t end up working for us, we blame the advice itself, and not on the fact that we haven’t really made an effort to take the advice seriously.

How To Avoid This Pitfall

Whenever you read a new article, blog post, or book, take a break afterwards. During that break, implement at least one thing you have learned from all your reading.

If you have implemented what you’ve learned, and the advice still doesn’t work for you, then allow yourself to pick up another book and learn more. But don’t let yourself pick up another book unless you have actually implemented at least some aspect of what the book has taught you.

Pitfall #2: Your Mind Ceases To Be Empty and Open, And Instead Becomes Cluttered and Blocked

There is a great story about a group of Westerners who went to visit a wise monk. When the Westerners finally arrived at the monk’s home, the monk offered them some tea. But as he poured the hot tea into the tea cup , the monk kept pouring and pouring until the cup overflowed and the tea spilled all over the floor. The Westerners told the monk to stop, but he wouldn’t. Finally, the monk explained that the teacup represented the minds of the Westerners themselves: so full of knowledge that any new wisdom the monk might add would “spill over” and be rejected.

This story teaches us a very crucial lesson: when it comes to acquiring new book knowledge, we must first empty our minds—or else it’ll be impossible for us to learn anything new.

How To Avoid This Pitfall

Before you read a new book, clear your mind first.

If you approach every new book with the belief that you already know everything it has to say, then obviously you won’t learn a thing, and you’re just wasting your time. So, instead, wait until you’re ready to be open to what the new book is trying to teach you before you read it.

Pitfall #3: The Acquiring of Book Knowledge Becomes An End, And Not A Means To An End

We tend to forget that reading a book is always a means to an end. NOT the end itself.

We are meant to either apply what we read, teach it, or debate with it. We are not meant to just read a book and be done with it.

The same goes for fiction: we are meant to read a story, be entertained by it, and then, hopefully, be inspired to write our own fiction story. Or, if we are no writers, we are meant to be inspired to have the kind of adventure that the character in the story has had.

When fiction reading is not a means to an end, our lives can become hollow and colorless, and we can become spiteful of the very thing we used to look forward to: reading.

How To Avoid This Pitfall

Allow a work of fiction to inspire you to change your life. If a character in a story stands up for herself, try to do something similar in your own life: stand up to your own demons.

In this way, you will never become spiteful of a fiction or non-fiction book. Instead, you’ll allow the book to enrich and change your life for the better.

Pitfall #4: You Read What Others Create, But Don’t Create Anything Yourself

The knowledge shared in books is meant to be part of an ongoing conversation where nobody has the last word.

You are really not meant to read a book and then say:

“Well, that’s it! Nothing more can be said on the subject. This author has settled it!”

No. You are meant to contribute your own insight, opinion, or point of view to what you have just read. You are meant to add to the conversation. You are meant to be inspired to contribute something yourself.

The author’s creation is meant to inspire you to create.

How To Avoid This Pitfall

After you a read book, don’t read another book unless you have created something yourself.

You don’t have to write a whole novel, but maybe you can write up a brainstorm of a new story you’ve been inspired to create. If you’re not a writer then paint a painting, draw a drawing, sing a song, dance a dance, sculpt a sculpture–be creative in some other art form.

Whatever it is, make sure it’s something you create.

Pitfall #5: You Just Read About Life, But You Never Live Life

It is easy, especially for writers, to hide behind reading as an excuse to not live life.

We might say:

“I have to read a lot so that I can become a great writer. So, if my life suffers because of it, I can’t really help it.”

Wrong. You can help it.

How To Avoid This Pitfall

There’s a great story by Jose Luis Borges in which the character in the story is deeply engrossed by a book he’s reading. But then, instead of reading on, the character closes the book and chooses to just live life. In that moment, Borges is also inviting the reader to depart from his story and just live life, too.

This is something you can do to make sure that reading doesn’t replace actual living: whenever a book gets so engrossing that you feel like you can’t pull away from it—close the book.

Then, just live life for a moment.

Once you’re done living life for a while, you can return to the story.

Pitfall #6: You Can Convince Yourself That You’re Not Capable Of The Greatness You Read About

People in fiction books often live adventurous and interesting lives that you can only dream about, right?

Wrong.

Writers of non-fiction books often engage in fascinating research that you can only be envious of, right?

Wrong.

Who’s to say that you cannot accomplish the same greatness as others can?

Reading great books and never writing a great book leaves us stuck in our own imagined mediocrity. Reading about great lives, and never living a great life, makes us feel that there’s no way we can get out of the misery of our ordinary, underwhelming, everyday living.

But we tend forget that what we read isn’t so “out there” as to be impossible for us to re-create in our own lives.

How to Avoid This Pitfall

After reading a great book (or reading about someone else’s great life) make sure to take a break.

Then, in that break, make a move towards making your own life great.

This will ensure that you’re always making progress and not just falling into the innocent (but deadly) trap of excessive book knowledge.

much love,

Ollin

Do you agree or disagree with me: is excessive book knowledge dangerous? Or is knowledge NEVER a bad thing? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. (Please don’t make me the last word on the subject.)

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24 comments on “The Pitfalls Of Excessive Book Knowledge (And How To Avoid Them)

  1. Patrick says:

    OMG. Perfect timing! Thank you, Ollin!

  2. Arisa says:

    Nice article. I agree and I’ve fallen into the pitfalls myself. For example reading a self help book and doing none of the exercises and then wondering why the book didn’t help.
    Maybe it’s because the American self help books don’t really resonate with me? Or I feel I don’t have the means to do the exercises?
    Still it makes reading the book completely useless.
    I also think that sometimes it’s because fear is stopping us to deal with our lives and implement that knowledge. After all your comfort zone, is quite comfortable.

  3. I have found this to be true as a reader AND as a writer. I have fallen into the trap of “the pitfalls of excessive research” which becomes avoidance to the risk of recording words on paper.

  4. Book knowledge becomes harmful when it’s all “know” and no “do”.

    However, my experience with craft books is that the inner voice in my head rejects a fraction of the advice and refuse to change its mind.

  5. Fantastic post! I’ve experienced these pitfalls at various times in my writing life.

  6. fairfieldwriter says:

    Keep up the good work! This is Adair Heitmann writing to you today. I nominated your blog for a Versatile Blogger award. http://fairfieldwriter.wordpress.com/

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Better to get our hands dirty with the work than keep our minds perfectly stocked with impeccable theory, huh?🙂

  8. allegrazzurra says:

    …this post should be titled ‘the writer’s zen’…’nuff said!

  9. Yvette Carol says:

    The innocent but deadly trap of excessive book knowledge (great way of putting it!) is killing my brother’s marriage dead. And I can say that because he’s not into computers in a big way so he’ll never know!! His wife is busy getting her degree; their relationship is failing at an equal rate. I agree Ollin, this trap can have all sorts of unexpected, and irreversible devastating effects. However to balance the argument…then you have the eldest in our family, one of my sisters, her pursuit of knowledge has enabled her as a single mother of three to own her own house and travel the world!

    • Ollin says:

      I think it’s the “excessive” part of it that is important. Pursuit of knowledge in itself is not a bad thing, it’s the blind pursuit of knowledge that is.

  10. merce says:

    Great post! I simply can’t understand those who challenge themselves to read a number of books per year.
    As Epictetus once said on The Art of Living, ‘Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a discriminating and reflective person. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.’

  11. Katie says:

    so true that we have to strike a balance. i think it’s easy to fall into reading, reading, reading and thinking it’s a good thing but it just ends up screwing us over. pitfall #4 is the kicker for me. thanks for writing this, ollin! love it. as always. blah, blah, blah. (:

  12. KJ says:

    Thanks so much for this, Ollin! I am also a book lover, and I have been noticing my own tendency lately to read a book that makes a profound impression on me, but then I rush right to the next book without giving it time to really settle in and create the kind of change in me that I am wishing for. Your post has me actively considering ways that I can do a better job at taking the time and space to process my reading before moving on. I’m grateful for the nudge to work on this. Thank you!

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