I sometimes believe that I am having an original thought. I recently had that feeling while working on an article I was looking forward to publishing. Putting on the finishing touches, I sought out a book I hadn’t held in my hands for a few years. I found what I was looking for. And I also found more.
There, on page after page, I saw those compelling assertions that had piqued my curiosity when I first bought the book and very much of what I was putting forth in the upcoming essay could be found right there— more eloquently phrased and more thoroughly argued, of course. ‘Oh yeah,’ I slapped my forehead, ‘my thinking had to come from somewhere.’
That experience has caused me to see my expanding book collection in a new light. I bought all those books for a reason. Each one had something to offer me: insights, tools, a narrative I could follow, a style that pleased me, a message that shook, rattled or otherwise disturbed my peace. All those books, those pages, those stories, anecdotes and arguments — all of them have served some purpose in my life.
I continue to buy books in addition to collecting all manner of digital output which feed me and expand my curiosity to not just know more but to hear more from different voices, from different perspectives, in different formats at different stages. Originality emerges when I connect my own experience to these texts, when I apply my unique filters to interpreting what arises from the page. No one else in this movie is cast as me. I have no understudy. And how I read any text will always have quite a bit to do with me — who I am at this moment in whatever role and in this given context. That will influence what I make of the text before me.
I have rarely worried about originality. I have never felt inclined to copy anyone else’s work and claim it as my own. What I do find interesting now is to think about the origins of our “original” thoughts. Where does political consciousness come from? On what basis do I determine my own level of expertise and authority to write about a given topic? Whose contributions have deeply influenced my own thinking in this area? These are the questions which allow me to delve into understanding the makings of my unique biases, to see the twists and turns in my own journey up to this point.
As I age and supposedly become “more set in my ways” taking stock of these guideposts of influence will likely become increasingly important. The capacity to step back and realize that my zoomed out perspective comes not from having doubled my size, but because I have placed myself on the shoulders of giants who also stand on other giants’ shoulders. We like to forget that we are products of our past which can seem so dusty, dark and stale. We tend to paint our futures as if we had made all this headway on our own — independent, strong, and uncompromising.
That’s the way I would love to see myself in my writing, but nothing could be further from the truth. The contributors up to this point have been so numerous and diverse. Many giants with many shoulders have lifted and supported me and also nudged me forward. With my eclectically curated library I have assembled several of those giants into one space. I have lined them up next to each other and then allowed their ideas to have boisterous cocktail parties in my head. The next time someone asks me about where I studied, I may say “My living room, primarily bookshelves 2 and 3.”