Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Pursuit of Useless Knowledge

There’s no doubt that Mary , my wife, has a sense of humour. So when she presented me with a book called “The Know-it-All” the other day it did cross my mind that she was having a subtle – or maybe not-so-subtle – dig at me. To be fair , we’re within 10 months of celebrating our silver wedding , and she knows how much I love my quizzing, and she is remarkably understanding about it. Not necessarily understanding the obsession itself, just understanding that I’m obsessed. That’s enough.

If you haven’t encountered the book, its written by A.J.Jacobs, an American writer who’s been one of the editors of Esquire magazine. To give a rough idea of the subject of the book, he describes how one day he decided that he was going to read the whole of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and try to retain as much of it as possible. This isn’t a novel – it’s a true story.

And why did he decide to do this ? In his own words "I used to be smart. . . Then in the years since graduating from college I began the long, slow slide into dumbness . . . If things continue at this rate, by my fortieth birthday, I'll be spending my days watching 'Wheel of Fortune' and drooling into a bucket."

Ouch – that one hit home a bit. I’m sure we all have our different reasons for embarking upon our pursuit of quiz knowledge, but I have to admit that as I was reading AJ’s self-effacing, self defeating and highly amusing account of his quest for (mostly) useless knowledge, I couldn’t help wincing from time to time as I read passages about cringe making behaviour that I myself have been guilty of in the past. Not that AJ was driven to read the whole of the Britannica in order to win quizzes. What he wanted was merely to become, and more importantly, to appear smarter.

It’s a warm, amusing and clever book, and would make a nice little stocking filler for the quizzer in your life. But it actually does make serious points about knowledge – the acquisition of it, and the uses of it. I found myself asking just how much of the stuff I’ve picked up for quizzes and from quizzes over the years has ever had any real practical application. Well, other than enabling me to win other quizzes. I’m sure it does me no credit that, deep down, I think that this is actually a perfectly good reason for picking up the stuff in the first place.

1 comment:

drgaryegrant said...

Several million years later, I've retrieved my Google account details so can actually comment on, rather than just read, this blog. Just to say I've picked up this book for just £1.50 from a charity shop and will give it a whirl this week.
Unfortunately, one of my schoolteachers said "all knowledge is worth having" and that has kind of stuck. But are some things just too obscure to bother to learn? And if you learn 'facts' for quizzing does that mean that you have to exclude whole other spheres of knowledge, like philosophical arguments, or the ins and outs of particle physics, just because you can't make quiz questions out of them? Is a good 'quizzer' someone who is really knowledgeable, or just someone who can remember a lot of irrelevant facts?
Should I just get out more?