Thursday, January 22, 2015

Don't Bother Me

A recent full-page ad in the New Yorker promoted a new book called 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die. One of the blurbs in the ad exclaimed that these are foods we “need to try, urgently.” I will admit to loving bialys (one of the foods mentioned on the depicted book cover), but since the the book also promotes something called “stinking bishop,” I'm not sure I'll venture into sampling the other 999 foodstuffs. 

1,000 Foods is only the latest of formulaic books that have emerged in recent years ordering us to do this or that before we croak. A hundred of this to visit or read, a thousand of that to listen to or see. Besides the inherent bossiness of the authors (who the hell are they to tell me what to do with my life?), what gets my goat is their smug (pretense of) superiority: “I have done all these things, and you haven't. But the best that you can do is to match my achievement—never to surpass it.”

I can't say for certain when this “must do” phenomenon originated, but I do believe that a major spiritual godfather of the movement was E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who, in 1987, on the heels of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (alleged by some to be the opening salvo of the so-called “culture wars”), published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know. A bestseller (like Bloom's screed), Cultural Literacy contained--according to the book's cover--“5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts.”

Since Hirsch put together his 5,000 “essentials,” he obviously knew them all. And you didn't! So who's the smart guy? As mentioned above, the best the reader could do was to match Hirsch's knowledge, not surpass it (even if he did have all 5,000 memorized).

This “no one can know more than me” business is really the opposite of the statement of Socrates (I know one name; only 4,999 to go) that the Oracle of Delphi (only 4,998 to go) claimed that “no man is wiser than Socrates.” For, said Socrates, he knows that he knows nothing, while other men brag of their knowledge of justice, piety, etc.

So, I'll sit here on my own little chair not traipsing off to Timbuktu--reading what I want to read, listening to what I want to listen to, and knowing that if I strained my mind a bit, I might come up with 5 or 10 “essential” bits of knowledge that those “must do” guys don't have a clue about.

And nosh on a bialy.

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