Are We Prejudiced Against Books Just When We Need Them Most?

There is book learning and then there is real-world learning, and we tend to think that learning in the real world is more valuable and genuine. As Ishmael boasted in Moby-Dick, “A whale ship was my Yale college and my Harvard.”

But I believe this is prejudice of the worst kind. Even those of us who love books frequently underestimate their power to teach us nearly anything we might want, or need, to know.

I’m one of my own converts. Books taught me the most unlikely of lessons: the counterintuitive physical movements required to safely enjoy three water sports. This is just the kind of learning we might think would come only through doing.

Here’s what I learned not through doing but by reading first — and then doing.

Lesson No. 1: If you run out of air, exhale.

Like many other humans, I’m certified to breathe pressurized air under water. In fact, being a slow learner, I got SCUBA certified twice — first with the NAUI method and then with the alternative PADI method. Whenever I learn a new sport, I make it a point to ask myself, “What’s the absolutely worst thing I could do?” (This is a pertinent question in my case since I do not possess what Tom Wolfe would call the Right Stuff, and must do everything wrong first.)

As it turns out, the worst thing you can do while scuba diving is precisely what would be quite natural if you found yourself under water with no more air. Your instinct would be to hold your breath and try to get to the surface as quickly as possible. If you’re scuba diving and you do this, you might well get yourself killed.

When you breathe under water, you’re breathing compressed air. It feels like a normal breath, but it’s not. And if you rise to the surface while holding your breath, this air will expand and your lungs can burst. Funny thing is, you won’t feel it because your lungs don’t have nerves.

I’m happy to report that I didn’t learn this by doing. I learned it by reading my scuba books.

(In case you’re curious about what you should do in such an emergency, after your last breath of pressurized air, gently hum as you make your way up to the surface, to make sure bubbles escape from your mouth. I hasten to add that I haven’t actually tested this, nor do I recommend you do. But if you’re interested in knowing how even the most experienced divers can meet or escape disaster, I recommend the riveting and true book Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson.)

Lesson No. 2: If you want to come up, stay down.

After enjoying kayaking for many years, I decided I should learn how to do an Eskimo roll. That’s the neat maneuver of capsizing and then righting yourself. It’s a necessary maneuver for whitewater kayakers, which I am not (see lack of Right Stuff, above), and a nice trick to know for ocean kayakers, which I am.

Now I ask you, if you found yourself upside down in a kayak, what is the first thing you’d want to do? If you said, “Get my head out of the water,” you would be quite normal. And also quite wrong.

Turns out there are three necessary actions to perform:

  • Position your paddle at 90 degrees to your boat, with the blade near the surface. (You’re under water, remember.)
  • Pull down strongly while flicking your hips.
  • Keep your head as close to the submerged deck of your boat as possible, to keep your center of gravity low.

The surprise is that you’ll only be able to roll back up if your head is the last thing that comes out of the water and into the blessed air.

I learned this not from a book exactly, although plenty of kayaking books describe it, but in a catalog produced by San Diego kayak maker Seda.

Only by knowing what I was supposed to do and why — and then practicing in my pool with my sons taking turns rolling their flailing father back up if he didn’t manage it himself — did I succeed in learning how to do an Eskimo roll. Then I helped them learn to roll, and we’ve since been able to impress our friends and exasperate their ever-suffering mother.

Lesson No. 3: If you need a life raft, read a book.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. My deranged adventure buddy Rob had already gotten me into cycling, and I’ve jogged all my life. So why not try a triathlon? “All it adds is swimming,” he said. And I’m from San Diego, and a pretty good swimmer.

Well, I learned why not the hard way. In my first triathlon, with the swim in the ocean near my home in Delray Beach, Florida, I nearly died.

Before I made it to the first buoy, I was gasping like a wild-eyed wildebeest. All these guys were kicking and clobbering me. I flopped over on my back and just tried to keep afloat.

I would have signaled to one of the lifeguards leisurely paddling their boards nearby, but the effort of waving my arm was too much. I was just concentrating on gulping air and moving in the general direction of finishing. I prayed the other swimmers wouldn’t splash too much water into my panting mouth as they went by.

It was scary as well as mortifying, since I thought I could swim well enough. I made a promise to myself that, should I live, I would never, ever do this again.

After my near-death experience, someone told me about a swimming course called Total Immersion. I Googled it and found they sold a book with the laughable title Triathlon Swimming Made Easy, by Terry Laughlin. It reminded me of something Wile E. Coyote would order from Acme.

But order it I did, and then I read it with amazement. It was a revelation, and is now one of my favorite how-to books of all time, right up there with Strunk & White.

One of the counterintuitive things I learned in the little book reminded me of Eskimo rolls: Don’t try to lift your head out of the water. That will just force your body down. Instead, allow the water to push up your head so you can breathe. Voila!

I’ve since done more than a dozen triathlons, and I thank Terry Laughlin for his talented on-the-page coaching of misfit swimmers like me.

Bonus Lesson No. 4 — the most important one of all

It should be obvious from the three tales above that I am no athlete. What I am is inquisitive, stubborn, and a lover of books. But even I have to remind myself when I’m curious about something that there must be a book for that. Are you like that too?

The smartest thing our species has done is to become literate, and the best of literacy is contained in books. Books, it turns out, have all the Right Stuff.

Isn’t it time to slough off our age-old prejudice about book learning and revel in it? Shouldn’t we expect to learn surprising truths from past authors, and critical new truths from the writers of today?

In The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, the author gives a startling and disturbing account of our oceans. Understanding our oceans and their role in our survival is just one of many critically important things our species must learn quickly — things we cannot learn from real experience ourselves, but only from the virtual experiences made possible by our literacy.

My question for you…

How about you? Have you learned something from a book that you thought you could learn only from personal experience? I’d love to hear.

  • art

    Very good article.

    Don’t we all know the importance of learning from mistakes? We do. But then it should be obvious that reading books will let you learn from somebody else’s mistakes rather than yours. And the mistakes Steve Leveen uses in his examples could cost you everything.

    Again, very good article. It smashes the sham according to which street smart is more valuable than book smart. How about being smart both street and book.