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The Act of Creation
All Books, All the Time
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I have Sleepwalkers on my reading list but haven't read beyond the intro. Why am I opening with a description of this book instead of jumping right into The Act of Creation? Because it sheds light on the probable motivation and source of the rich content in the latter. When I first read AOC I was blown away by the depth of knowledge the author had of so many great discoverers. I did not expect a famous novelist to be such a student of the history of science and art. When I went digging into Koestler's life I discovered a fascination with luminary mold-breakers like Kepler and Galileo. His historical work on Sleepwalkers doubtless made Koestler curious about not just how external cultural influences shape major breakthroughs, but how the internal mental process works.
Five years after Sleepwalkers, in 1964, AOC was published. It is a masterpiece. I'm baffled by why the book is out of print and why it is so little known.
I first stumbled upon a tattered copy in a closing library giveaway pile. I was drawn to the book's description by my growing frustration with math envy in the social sciences. I had a hunch that path-breaking work comes not from those with the best “hard” skills, but from those with the best paradigmatic innovations. The best work seems to come from seeing the world differently, constructing theories from the new lens, then running some numbers to see how they look from the new vantage point.
This bit about seeing the world anew has never been more profoundly communicated to me than in AOC. Koestler sets out to reveal general rules of creation that apply across media – from the creation of a joke, to a work of art, to a technological invention. It is a stunningly informative and ponderous work.
Koestler describes worldviews as matrices of thought; well-worn knowledge and assumptions that we carry along with us and use as shortcuts for understanding our world. The eureka moment – the burst of laughter in a joke, the flow in the making of a sculpture, the sudden insight that unlocks the innovation – comes when two separate matrices intersect. Koestler calls this intersection “bisociation”, and sees it as a kind of relieving of tension as two paradigms moving in what appears to be unrelated directions suddenly converge.
A poignant example in the book is Archimedes’ discovery of how to measure the purity of gold in a crown. Archimedes knew the weight per volume of gold vs. other metals, but he could not melt the crown down to figure out its volume. The thought matrix relating to weights, volumes and metals was completely unrelated to Archimedes afternoon bathing. Yet as he slipped into the tub and noticed the water level rise, matrices collided and the bath solved the measurement problem of the crown. It was not new, fancy calculations that resulted in this breakthrough on determining purity in oddly shaped gold items. Instead, it was a bisociation of existing knowledge on water displacement with that on metallic weight.
Not only is creation about seeing familiar facts in new ways, it’s about allowing oneself the time and mental play to do so. Some of the greatest eureka moments have come upon waking from a dream, going on a long walk while the mind wanders, or taking an explicit break from the problem at hand. It is true, the great innovators have been versed in the science of their craft. But what separates creators from specialists is not better technical expertise, but new eyes that generate new ideas.
Think big. Explore. Don’t let a lack of mastery keep you from probing the mysteries that fascinate you. Pick up a copy of AOC and it might inspire you to engage not only your conscious, but subconscious mind in the act of creation. It's well worth the price.
I'm keeping this book as a go-to read when ever i'm in a creative cup-du-sac. A must read, a must resource, a must way of thinking for stimulating creative writing, art, invention, thinking, speaking . . . having been written in the 1960's, it seems archaically written and referenced, and that seems to be a great asset to think in this new way about the timeless classics.
A great example of how books should be written, with extensive notes and references for all who would like to check out the sources. Like all of Koestler's works, this is a great thought provoking book and for me, his greatest (nonfiction) work..