Ok. Last night I spent three hours in my garden. After the hailstorm of last Friday, I was half ready just to give up on my garden this year. In addition to that, several sections of the garden were overgrown with weeds. I felt that it would be more trouble to clear the weeds than it could possibly be worth. Still, I got down on my hands and knees and started to pull weeds. After three hours of steady work, my hands were raw and I was grimy from head to foot. But I got on top of the weed problem. Not all the weeds are gone, but they are wholly gone from the tomato patch and the potato square, mostly gone from the Jefferson garden, and the wrap-up work in the American garden will take no more than two more hours. Then, if I go out for fifteen minutes per day, I should be able to keep up for the rest of the summer.
What looked so daunting that I felt faint and listless in the face of the prospect of saving the garden, turned out to be easier by the minute once I started to get serious about pulling weeds.
There is a life lesson here.
I’m reading a book this morning about the robotic revolution. I am not surprised that I don’t know much about this subject, but I am reminded, as I am perennially reminded, that I know almost nothing about anything, even subjects I am said to be an expert in. Some days while reading I make lists of things I should know but don’t: Zwingli, consubstantiation, the Crusades, the Homeric Hymns. It is a depressing business, confessing profound ignorance.
I remember when I was about twenty reading the Life of Samuel Johnson (the world’s greatest biography) and hearing Dr. Johnson say, “I knew more at eighteen than I do now.” That seemed like literal nonsense to me then, but it makes perfect sense now. This morning, I sat for five minutes trying to remember the name of North Dakota writer Louise Erdrich. It wasn’t until I ran through a list of her book titles that I managed to get her name to pop into my consciousness. This really troubles me. This appalls me, actually.
What I want is to catch up, in the same way I got control over my garden in the last 48 hours. Here’s one approach. First, read the book reviews, particularly the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the Times [of London] Literary Supplement. This will at least cut the worst of the ignorance, because it is possible to learn the general map of things by reading virtually every book review, and then deciding which books might be worth reading in their entirety. Most books are too long: it is possible to get their essential argument by reading the first couple of chapters. Second, watch documentary films. This is the golden age of documentary films, both in their excellence and sophistication, but also thanks to the revolution in distribution on smart TVs. A documentary on the Reformation gets you a long way down the road, and usually introduces you to great “talking heads” whose books you can purchase, often instantly, online. Third, take notes. I have taken notes every day all of my life. I almost never consult those notes, but what you remember manually (by writing what you think you need to remember) has a much better chance of being retained than something you simply read once. Fourth, talk about ideas with someone who wants to talk about ideas with you. This may be the place where things break down. Not only are most people indifferent to your interests and passions, to the point of avoiding you if you persist in talking ab
out them, but the timing is almost invariably off.
That, in fact, is the tragedy of the life of the mind, and perhaps the tragedy of life. I’m reading Great Expectations or Light in August, and I come across a passage I want to discuss with my ideal best friend. But when I call him or her, even if it is during daylight hours, the best I get is, “Yeah, I should read that sometime.” And then I feel profoundly, helplessly, pathetically, miserably alone in the cosmos.
It is not possible to know enough to be interesting, but it is possible to be much less ignorant than we are. The absence of evidence in our so-called national conversations is destroying our republic. We have entered the age of the over-confident hunch, the loudly asserted gut feeling, the evidenceless opinion or even conviction. Begin with book reviews.
But I also like books that have big overarching ambitions, to explain everything. Like Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Or Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. A general history of ideas is wroth a score of tightly-argued monographs.
But who will pull the weeds from my brainpan?