Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Straight Lines versus Random Walks

Self-directed Learning always involves a tension between focusing in on a topic and selecting a different topic. There has been a general sense during the last century to favor a specialist approach, exemplified by the saying "Jack of all trades and master of none." My preference has been more eclectic, as one can see from the books I wish to read at the moment (see previous post).

I finished reading "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" last night and this morning I went to the amazon.com web site to see what else I could find on T. E. Lawrence. This quickly moved to a more general search for books on a history of the middle east. Should I buy a biography of T. E. Lawrence, or one on the Ottoman empire, or one on Islam, or one on the overall history of the middle east? Or none of the above? The goal yesterday was to complete Lawrence's book and then move on to a couple of books on China. I know of no formula for making such decisions.

The hour just spent viewing descriptions, excerpts and reviews of a variety of books is itself a valuable activity, one that has only become possible in the last decade with the creation and evolution of the web (thank you Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau).

While there is a strong feeling of leaving unfinished business, I have decided to move to the two books on China by Jung Chang. Yesterday I commented that books like "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and "Wild Swans", while clearly non-fiction, could easily be considered novels. However in organizing some the piles of books in my office this morning I noticed a book I purchased in the Calgary airport while waiting for our connecting flight to Lethbridge. This was after about 26 hours in planes and airports so it is no wonder that I forgot that I had bought it. The book, "The Master" by Colm Toibin was a 2004 Man Booker Prize finalist. It is a novel about the life of the writer Henry James.

To summarize: I now have two history books on my list of readings (the two books by Chang) and have a novel that I want to begin, which falls under the category of Literature. I hope to begin both "Wild Swans" and "The Master" today.

Returning for a (brief) moment to the phrase "Jack of all trades and master of none", I tried googling this phrase and found a number of fascinating web sites. Here is the first one, on instructional design: http://www.gdrc.org/info-design/jackofalltrades.html

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