Columns » Bob Lancaster

Squirreling lore


The young man who has won a million dollars on Jeopardy! has shamed us all by his great breadth of general knowledge and his ability to recall it quickly and to phrase his answers in the form of questions. If Rome had had more people like him, instead of deadbeats like Caligula and Nero, it would still be an empire today instead of a nothing little town in Georgia. Too bad he wasn't on the program last year instead of this year and there wasn't a Double-Jeopardy "WMDs in Iraq" category. Much embarrassment and many lives might've been saved. What I don't understand is how could somebody half my age could know twice as much stuff as I do. I mean, I've been storing up arcana (Your Hit Parade lyrics, ball card stats) for an awful long time, squirreling it away against the day when I'd get my shot in the isolation booth. I remember one intense stretch there when I resolved to master the whole shelf, as Aristotle did, if for no better reason than being sick and tired of our friend Carolyn Greenberg smoking me week after week after week on GE College Bowl. How could she know so many obscure things about so many obscure things? It wasn't fair. It wasn't natural. That bitter experience of chronic quiz-show seconditis - actually in that foursome it was usually thirditis, or lastitis - was traumatic, warping, but I got over it (well, OK, I didn't), and it's not like I subsequently gave up the knowledge quest, or, as Lonnie Walls claimed happened to him, went the next 40 years not paying any attention. It wasn't like with R.V. Winkle or Bonzo's twilit bud, with the lore just streaming by. Or maybe it has been like that. I do watch a lot of TV ball games, and take no small number of these so-called power naps, but these are mostly during sermons and when C-SPAN is on. In other words, when no great amount of data is being taken aboard anyway. I could be more conscientious in this regard, certainly, like Thomas Wolfe, the author of "Look Homeward, Angel," who, on entering the library at Harvard College, took down the first book on the first shelf he came to, and said he meant to keep reading until he'd read them all. A bold proposal since there were more books there than stars in our galaxy or peas in a bushel of purple-hulls that you have to shell all by yourself. I'd bet he wound up reading maybe 100 of them, and even those wouldn't have been of the variety to help him snap off the names of state capitals or of potent potables. Even if he read a thousand, say, his life was still gloomier than George W. Bush's, who, by his own admission, during all the time he spent at Yale, managed to read only one book. And even of that solitary tome, W. never said that he read it ALL. The ones with good parts, you can just skip the leading-up-to and afterwards. All of which just shows to go you, I guess, that hoarded knowledge either is or isn't the big wup, can be but isn't necessarily: It can win you the bigs on Jeopardy!, but you can get to be president not knowing Jack Squat. Knowledge may be power, but it's something other than knowledgability that we've got in there right now. It isn't knowledgability that undumpsters a John Ashcroft and puts him to monitoring people's library reading. Or it may show to go you this: That while a little learning may be a dangerous thing - I think that's the moral of the Eden apple story, and also the one about Lot's wife, Salty - too much learning can be even more obnoxious. It can turn an otherwise tolerable person into a quibbler, the sort who finishes your sentences for you or who rings in before Alex has finished reading the question that's in the form of an answer. President Truman's evaluation of Sen. Fulbright as "an overeducated son-of-a-bitch" wasn't uncalled-for, while one of the most companionable people I've ever known was as learning-resistant as if his brain had a Teflon coating, and in his case the upstairs vacancy was absolutely no hindrance in his meeting and exceeding his career goal of becoming Arkansas's all-time leading commode salesman. In the great Charles Portis novel "The Dog of the South" there's an insufferable character named Ray Midge, a newspaper rim man who aspires to teach high school algebra. As teaching practice, he devises written algebra tests and makes his wife Norma take them sitting there at the kitchen table. She looks up the answers in the back of the book and hands in her paper almost immediately with a cheerful, infuriating "There you go, Midge." He knows she's cheating, and she knows he knows it, and he gives her a zero on her paper every time, and she doesn't care a bit. Inevitably, they drift apart. Midge becomes the sort who might go on Jeopardy! and win a nice little bit of prize money, but surely Norma gets the best of the deal, settling into the house trailer with a lowlife named Guy Dupree, not one to give tests but who, if he did, would automatically mark A-plusses on them all.

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