Useless Knowledge   Leave a comment

When I was a boy and first encountered Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, a passage in the first of them, in which the reader is introduced to Holmes, startled me. He tells Watson (who shared my surname as well as my puzzlement) that he considered his mind a storehouse in which only things relevant to his work would be kept. This was all to explain to Watson why Holmes was entirely ignorant of matters to do with then-current theories regarding the solar system. The concept of only learning “relevant” things seemed very strange to me. It ran counter to my upbringing, raised as I was by curious folk who delighted in pointing out and naming birds and trees, and who encouraged me to read on the widest possible range of subjects. Why anyone would remain willfully ignorant of the solar system, just because it wasn’t relevant to his day’s, work left me baffled. I found many aspects of the Holmes character fascinating, even admirable, but Sherlock Holmes was never a role I wanted to inhabit for myself. I was too curious about – well, everything!

Well, almost everything. So-called physical education left me cold, but that might have been different if the “coaches” I encountered hadn’t all been so keen on whipping us into sufficient shape to march off and die in World War Three. I remember very clearly one of them explaining that the endless calisthenics were necessary if we were to be prepared for the “next war.” This was shortly before the end of the Vietnam War, and given the cultural climate of those days, it wasn’t a sentiment likely to inspire the young. It surely did not instill a love of push-ups in this one, that’s for sure!

But as for everything else, I was wide open. Even math fascinated me, though it also frustrated me terribly. (I eventually got over that, and though algebra has never become intuitive, I survived quadratic equations and such, and did so with respectable grades when I finally completed my degree, years later.) I was always most receptive to science and history, but all sorts of things in school caught my fancy, and I enjoyed school to a degree that caused me some sadly predictable social problems. I grew up in a time when being a nerd or a geek was anything but fashionable. It was not always the best of times, and there are no “glory days” memories of high school for me, but I don’t regret the mental habits that developed in my youth.

And habits they were, habits that stuck. I left school, but didn’t let mundane life stop the learning process. The curiosity never died. I can’t explain how it worked out that way. This wasn’t a deliberate effort on my part; it was just the way my brain was wired. I simply couldn’t help it. So I charged on into adult life, trying to find my path and make a living, all the while reading and making inquiries and steadily filling that mental storehouse in a way that would likely have caused Sherlock Holmes to shake his head in disgust. That’s fine, the judgment of imaginary beings having so little weight. I’ve found this life of learning liberating, and enormously entertaining. Those things alone would have kept me motivated, but it turns out now there’s something more. Because of these old but lively habits, I can write.

Or, I should say, write more effectively. All this nonessential information, this useless in day-to-day terms knowledge, “informs” my writing, though not always in obvious ways. I’m rarely conscious of it when it happens, but that lifetime of curiosity pays off when a story takes shape, and I need to give it the texture it needs to come alive. The details of the worlds I imagine, and the memories of starry nights I’ve put in print, all of these are easier to bring to life because of the time spent acquiring knowledge that had no immediate practical value. My muse carries a well-worn set of encyclopedia.

Next time I’m asked to provide an example of an oxymoron, my answer will be, “useless knowledge.”

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