Doing the real work

The illusion of work, versus the act itself

A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap: as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is, before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies. There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.

Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis, pg. 125

There is a crucial distinction between the illusion of work, and work itself—a situation Eco calls “the alibi of photocopies”. Mistaking the former for the latter makes it easy to lull ourselves into a false sense of accomplishment, even as the real task still lies ahead.

I also enjoy Eco’s suggestion that to really know something is to own it. The books that adorn my shelves sit as a visual reminder of some of the knowledge at my disposal—both knowledge that’s already owned, and potential future acquisitions.