Saturday, September 24, 2011

Deep or Wide

Before she decided to use pig farms as the villain in one of her books, I enjoyed reading Martha Grimes' murder mysteries.  Though an American writer, Ms. Grimes is an Anglophile; her milieu is England; her characters recognizably British, or at least literary British, meaning they exist only between the covers of a book.  There is sufficient romance, angst, atmosphere, and irony to make these adult entertainments slightly less fluffy than the food equivalent of key lime pie.  The stereotypes come with a twist, like reflections in an antique mirror. But they all have a redeeming sense of humor and don't take themselves too seriously.

This is not a review of Martha Grimes' writing though.  Rather, one recurring minor character keeps popping into my mind.  This gal dresses elegantly, is coiffed beautifully, and is described as a natural at the art of the cocktail gathering.  Diane DeMorney knows a little about everything.....literally.  She can participate in a conversation about any subject............for a sentence or two.

Superficial?  Shallow?  Well, maybe.  But, in a way, I'm rather envious of Diane DeMorney.  She may only grasp a factoid or three, and perhaps knowledge this narrow does not truly constitute knowledge at all, but she does know something.  Like the Peggy Lee song, ' I know a little bit...about a lot of things....', this gal is all surface and no depth.

'That wouldn't make you a shallow person, would it?'  Lyle Lovett putting thoughts into words.  How much knowledge does it take to exceed the epithet  superficial?  Is it a sin to know 'a little bit about a lot of things?'

I stand tonight in defense of factoids, trivia, and anecdotes.  We can't all be PhDs.  I can't know it all.  But I earnestly desire to be 'a jack of all trades' even if I'm a master of none.   I eagerly participate in the lyrics game between Lee and Ben, whenever it comes my way.  Next line of a song, show tune or country.....let me think on that a bit....and I'm not above Google.

I 'll never win at sports trivia; I don't love all sport.  But I want to recognize the birds of the air and the blooms of the field where ever I roam. (I know a bit about biology).  I am frustrated because I don't remember the winter constellations.  I want to recognize basic geology (I'm a little gem at geology) whether fossil, glacial, or tectonic.  I want to name names.....

When the kids were in school, they memorized the countries of Africa (thanks, Mrs. Schneider) and the kings and queens of England (thanks, Mrs. Schmidt).  We memorize the books of the Bible and the Apostles' Creed. Elementary school kids are responsible for states and their capitals and the United States Presidents.  We learn the names of dinosaurs, clouds, continents, bones, and Indian tribes. We follow the Pilgrims across the Atlantic, Custer to Little Big Horn, and Grant to Appomattox. This is our common culture, our common knowledge.

Maybe I have this name fixation because I have an eight year old grandson.  The four year olds ask 'why' of subjects equally serious and absurd (the time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...of shoes and ships and sealing wax.  Of cabbages and kings.)  But Aaron can exceed his grandmother's cognizance on more than one front...machines for instance.  Thank goodness for grandpas, I say.

Google is my co-pilot on this quest.  Ask me about Nevada, Missouri (it burned to the ground in 1863 during the Civil War), Tillamook, Oregon (those are blimp hangars from WWII outside town), or Dumbarton Oaks (the owners commissioned Igor Stravinsky to create music for their thirtieth wedding anniversary).  Did you know the Beatles took a day off in Oregon county, Missouri during their first US tour?  Hey, maybe all that staring at cell phones is part of an ongoing search for knowledge!!

I wish I knew more. I wish I remembered what I once knew.  Why?  I can't tell you, beyond a desire to take advantage of God's beautiful world and the life of the mind.  I am reading a Kathleen Norris book about her months as oblate in a monastery . I envy the depth of their immersion in Scripture even as she describes their renunciation of individuality for the good of the community.  William Least Heat Moon's book PrairyErth is an example of a non fiction 'deep map' of a limited geographical location, including, by one definition, archeology, folklore, memories, weather, natural history and interviews.  Wendell Berry espouses the same devotion to a place through time in his novel, Jayber Crow. The protagonist in this story tries out the rest of the world before settling down for the remainder of his life in the town near his birthplace.  He has decided there is nothing of value from the outside world he cannot find in his geography, narrow in span, but spiritually deep.

As denizen of a small place; as occupant of a home with a past; as part of a family with ties to the same wet spots and dry hills, I am sympathetic to this view.  But it strikes me that this mindset confines our wandering minds and adventurous spirits. When I was a child.....I read the same beloved books over and over.  These days,  I am exquisitely attuned to the volumes on my shelves I have not cracked, much less the tantalizing tales and untapped knowledge in the electronic world.  I tend to make the tried and true treats over and over, even though a new recipe might be a new favorite.  Thankfully, I seldom have to choose where to travel.  The decision between a known, beautiful and fascinating quantity and trails unfamiliar is too much.  

Do I go deep....or wide?  Anecdote or monograph?  In the end, I guess no one is keeping score.  Diane DeMorney or Jayber Crow? 

Not a Renaissance man; not a polymath. I'll have to hope I can remember more than I forget.

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