The Ladder Theory of Meaning
I once read a book that shattered my core. It was beautiful, effectively breaking down and building up my model of the world. Without hyperbole, how I viewed my place among others changed such that many of my life perspectives before this book seem adolescent.
Naturally, I became a That Book evangelist, telling everyone I knew about how good the book was. It was long, yes, but be patient — it’ll change the way you see the world.
I won’t tell you what it was, the reception was less enthusiastic. “Boring”, “long winded”, “obvious” were all mentioned. “This is just repackaging X’s ideas, missing most of the important nuance”, “Modern historians have a very different interpretation”, “I didn’t get the point”.
Did they read something different? Was I missing something?
They may have been right. But, the book was meaningful to me. And the critiques didn’t really matter to what I took from it: a meta-model of seeing the world. Maybe they were right, that it was just repackaging ideas. Did it matter? The book intercepted me exactly where I was, unaware and receptive to its ideas. It helped me develop my thinking by craftily offering new ways of seeing the world. It was a ladder, leaving me in a new place than I started.
The film Everything Everywhere All At Once split the internet. Some regarded it as a metamodern piece of art that is this generation’s The Matrix, confronting the big philosophical challenge of our day. “I’m certain this is the most important piece of art made in my lifetime”. Others thought it was grotesquely overwhelming, confusing, and contrived. A close friend called it “fine, and too long”.
It shook my world.
This has happened to me in reverse, of course. Look around Twitter for books that changed someones life. If they were all effective, you could subscribe to an IV drip of “life changing”. This obviously doesn’t work. I’ve read several highly recommended, they-will-change-your-life books that were… fine. Perhaps I wasn’t ready, perhaps what it was offering I didn’t need, perhaps I had climbed that ladder years prior. Perhaps it’s just not for me.
Atomic Habits? Ehh.
In life, we find ourselves in a vast landscape of ideas and perspectives. There is no destination, per se. No objective, besides those we set. But we travel across this landscape. First quickly, and then over time we grow fond to nooks that we rest more in. We find others that like similar nooks. We can never see beyond our immediate surroundings, but some of us make a habit of adventuring, learning more about the landscape we find ourselves in. It’s a very odd situation.
All content, whether it’s a book, movie, poem, conversation, lecture, and so on, serves as a ladder from one place to another. They exist as an offering of an established path we might take, one that the creator had to find their way through. We’re always welcome to walk the long way and discover the path ourselves, but might not be able to. To take the ladder requires being at the bottom, and willing to climb. It’s not always clear where it goes, or if we’ll like it there.
This is resonance: something that intercepts you exactly where you are, in the mode you’re already in, and takes you along its path. But if you’re not at the base, it’s just noise. If you’re not in the right place already, it will fail to resonate with you and will be largely meaningless.
Sometimes being in the wrong place is because of lack of experience. Or too much experience. Or just the wrong timing. And perhaps, the place a creative work takes you from and to isn’t useful to you.
In grade school, we package the Required Reading Cannon so that we build Good People. Or at least, expose our people to the ideas that shaped culture. I assume that’s the idea. As a culture—or, whoever designs required readings lists, I assume there’s a committee or something—we regard this as important and age appropriate. Never mind most of us won’t care about it. Perhaps we want to give a vaccine against Marxism. Or develop an aversion to Nanny States. Or embrace that everyone is a bit phony, at the perfect time when our senses of individualized self are forming. But nothing that actually challenges the status quo; that would be bad. We try desperately to resonate with people to take them where we want them to go. Sometimes it hits, sometimes not.
I first read Animal Farm 19 years ago, and also this year. It was better this year, though I’ll admit that I lied: I read the cliff notes for Animal Farm 19 years ago, wrote an essay about it, and got an A. That’s how I got through all required reading in high school, because the bar was low. We might have wanted kids to be exposed to radical ideas, but what we actually did was develop a system that tested content. And I could learn that quickly. The system never cared where I was and what I needed.
You can’t force someone to be at the bottom of your ladder. You may be able to nudge them, but they can get the first rung or can’t. The beauty of Shakespeare, unfortunately, is lost on most middle schoolers.
Some of the best, most timeless content pulls a trick: it’s understandable at many levels, effectively building several different ladders. The Bible offers truths and metaphors intermixed in a way that’s useful to a wide array of people. I’ve read Plato many times, and taken very different things from it each time.
This is why Plato is one of the foundations, not only because of his ideas, but as we’ll see there is an inexhaustibleness to Plato and his writing. We can come back to Plato!
As a culture we come back at different times and see things we did not see before that are transformative and as individuals—myself personally—you can come back to Plato at different times of your life and Plato speaks to you in ways he did not speak before.
— John Vervaeke, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis: Plato and the Cave
Let this be an offering that not everything should hit. You may be far beyond where Sapiens is helpful, or just plain not like it. Douglas Hofstadter will forever be influential to how I view the world, and has provided so much metaphysical comfort. You may find him insufferable.
And for “great” things that missed, perhaps your timing was off, and you should try again. Screwtape Letters is devastatingly beautiful, Brave New World’s soma is our modern day lack of information diet, and David Whyte knits a tapestry of words together to reach into your soul.
Or not, I just happened to be there.