My guest today is Paul Cooper, who spends his days exploring ancient and modern ruins.
Ruins are special. They freeze a moment in time forever. They remind us of the shortness of life and the inevitable entropy of history. Paul's book, River of Ink, is predicated on the idea of bringing ancient cities back to life in a fictional context.
In this episode, we talk about the academy in the internet age, compare functional and sacred architecture, and dream about time travel. We explore the strange and perplexing history of the Roman Colosseum and investigate letters written on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia. And now, I invite you to enjoy this journey through space and time, as we explore the many shades of human history.
Note: Since I enjoyed this podcast so much, I wrote a short blog post about it.
1:00 How Paul’s childhood, surrounded by castles in South Wales, inspired him to study ancient ruins
1:53 Paul’s first novel, River of Ink, depicts a fictional story of the events that could have taken place during a real thirty-year gap in Sri Lankan history
3:31 Paul’s most surprising takeaway from his year living abroad in Sri Lanka
4:07 Paul is captivated by the spark in imagination that occurs when walking through ancient ruins, a passion he shares with his 39,000 Twitter followers
5:29 Paul questions the transition a building undergoes from functioning structure to ancient ruin
7:26 Why are there flowers in the Colosseum that don’t exist anywhere else in Europe? Paul explains the answer botanist Richard Deacon discovered explaining the ancient mystery
10:38 Ruins: A place where the future is spontaneously canceled. Paul’s observation on ruins and their story as a place where the future was spontaneously canceled
12:34 Paul explains the tension between a building’s first few years and the inevitability that one day it will have to be torn down
15:14 Paul asks: "At what point can you say a ruin is "finished" and it’s permitted to destroy it?"
25:32 Paul talks about the invention of writing and how it has shaped ancient architecture, philosophy, and mathematics
28:24 Get a short peek into Paul’s second book, set in the Assyrian Empire
29:33 If Paul could travel back in time, what would he see? These are his top three choices
31:29 Paul explains the similarity between ancient ruins and ghost towns
39:32 Paul talks about the interplay between ruins in time and what they represent today, explaining how these structures feel oddly static when you enter them
41:40 Paul’s eerie story of a haunted church in Norfolk and why he believes these stories exist
43:55 Paul’s realization that for thousands of years, each person visiting a ruin has brought a different perspective, causing a continuous variation from the truth of ancient structures and historical stories
45:42 Paul’s opinion on what people in the year 5,000 will find the most interesting about today’s civilization
49:57 How the Internet is reshaping academia
53:03 Paul’s observation of the new self-education movement
To listen to other episodes or learn more about the North Star, you can connect with me directly at perell.com and you can always reach out on Twitter at david_perell. And if you enjoyed this episode, you’ll like the episode with Tyler Cowen, a columnist at Bloomberg who writes about economics, history and culture. In the Two Blundering Fools episode, Tyler shares seriously counterintuitive points on travel, the millennial generation and how he thinks about the future.
“Every ruin is a place where a physical object was torn apart and that happened because of some historical force. If a building is ruined, an economic ruin, a closed down factory, it’s been blown up by a bomb, or it’s been abandoned because people moved away-It’s because huge historical forces have washed over it. Each ruin shows a place where the future was just suddenly cancelled. The next day didn’t happen, it was just a ruin. So, each one is a window into a particular historical moment where something changed. That’s what really fascinates me everyday about them.”
“Writing is such an incredible thing. It restructures the way we think. Once you know how to read, it’s impossible not to. If I showed you a page of words and said don’t read this, you wouldn’t be able to. Your brain has been forever changed by being taught the ability to read. The ability to store information outside of our brains suddenly frees us up to do a whole load of incredible things. A pre-literate society has a certain amount of knowledge passed down from the ancestors, who have gathered that knowledge very carefully. And we have to expand so much effort to keep that knowledge together. We have to put it in lists, make it rhyme, do it in patterns. All of these things simplify and help us remember the knowledge passed down from the ancestors. Once we can write down on clay or paper and make the material remember for us, we’re freed up to do a whole load of interesting things like examine philosophy or mathematics.”
“When people in previous ages have looked at ruins, what they see is what we’ve been describing. There was a cataclysmic event, something went wrong here, and they try to tell stories about why that might have happened…Ruins don’t mean anything by themselves. They seem like a kind of place that slightly resists meaning. People try to give meaning to them. They try to tell stories about them that make sense about what must have happened.”
“Everyone who comes to a ruin brings a different perspective and a different story and a different meaning. And all the time, the ruin is just sitting there, kind of meaning nothing. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. It needs somebody to come along and give it meaning. And so in that way, the ruin forms a battle ground. Everybody is in this five way tug of war about what this crumbling mass of bricks in the desert means and that’s what makes them incredible places to study.”