Unlawful Common Knowledge

I’m no historian. I’m just a guy who reads books with a layman’s ambition of being well-rounded.

I can give you a brief overview of Ferdinand de Lesseps’ attempt to cut through the Isthmus of Panama without considering the mosquito problem and can suggest, without Googling, David McCllough’s The Path Between the Seas as a good book on the subject. I can tell you about why H&R Block does most of its business in January and why the working poor is terrified of filing 1040s on their own — this, well before reading David K. Shipler’s heartbreaking book on the subject. I can tell you how the umbrella came about and why men have Jonas Hanway to thank for keeping their heads dry.

I could also quote almost any line of The Big Lebowski, sing any Beatles song with pretty solid accuracy, and tell you who directed some random Val Lewton-produced film from the 1940s.

My intention here is not to boast, but to point out that there are just some things that happen to stick and that should stick. Shards of common knowledge that are the average Joe’s duty and responsibility to remember.

Lest the reader think that I am flexing my achievements here, I should also point out that despite several years of Spanish and some time knocking around in Germany, I’m a hopeless monoglot. I’m terrible with remembering first names, even when I use the name in a responsive sentence. Great with identifying sounds and voices, but sometimes the intimate contours of faces don’t always match up, even though I can tell you how a lighting scheme for a stunning shot in a movie works, can negotiate your couch through a tight crevice and tell you whether or not your car will fit into a curbside parking spot.

And I should point out that I often come up with idiotic conclusions, many of which are posted here. I also change my mind on a regular basis.

Seasoning my mind with bits of minutiae has always been a priority for me. Probably has a good deal with the way I was brought up (which was without a whole lot) and my overwhelming need to know things. Some shit, I just pick up. Other things like intricate swing dance moves (working on it) or the correct pronunciation of multisyllable words, not so easily. (In fact, not so long ago, I learned that, despite spelling it correctly on paper, I was pronouncing “mischievous” MISS-CHEEVE-EE-US. How’s that for ineptitude?) But despite the wide swath, I am, by no means, an expert.

But I’m wondering right now, after a pleasant though slightly disheartening breakfast in a diner, just how effective our current system is at turning out well-rounded folks.

Picture your humble narrator reading a book, grooving to Janis Joplin being played over the speakers, nursing a cup of coffee and digging into a fantastic chicken pesto crepe, and doing his best to resist the potatoes with sour cream. (Damn you, starch!) Suddenly, I feel two pairs of eyes seering into me. I don’t look up. But I hear a father talking with his kid, “You see, he’s reading a book.”

I use my peripheral vision to scope out Allen Funt. Not there. Oh yeah. He’s dead.

Is this a recreation of the famous Bill Hicks wafflehouse joke? No. Because reading has taken neither a positive or a negative impression.

“That’s what happens when you go to school,” continues Daddy-O. “You learn how to read and you read books! And you’ll be reading just like him.”

The father’s tone is encouraging. I dig any parent willing to get such a young child reading. The father apologizes. I tell him it’s no problem and scoot up to the edge of the booth, beaming a broad smile to the kid, “And in twenty-five years, another child will be looking at you as you’re reading a book in a diner.”

Nervous laughter, apologies. Really, it’s no big deal, I say. Just part of the natural human cycle that will go on into perpetuity. We are all the richer because of it. I’ll do the same thing myself if I ever have kids.

We start talking. The guy’s all right. This youngish father is there with his mother. To keep the excitement rolling for the kid, I note that Theodore Roosevelt would read a book in one night, starting at a late hour, and was then fully prepared to discuss it with his staff the next morning. The conversation shifts to U.S. Presidents.

The boy’s grandmother is a big Jefferson fan. “Oh,” I say, “have you read Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx? Great book on Jefferson’s character.” She’s read a few books on Jefferson but can’t remember the names or the authors. “Jefferson still lives,” I say.


“Did you know that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day?”

I figure this would be common knowledge for anyone interested in Jefferson, let alone anyone who has ever taken a U.S. history class. That Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other, Adams croaks, “Jefferson still lives” just before meeting his maker, and that, to seal one of the greatest historical coinicdences in human history, the two die on July 4, 1826 — exactly fifty years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But they don’t know this. And while they’re delighted to know, I’m a bit mortified. The young father is a history major. What’s more, David McCullough spoke at his commencement. I rattle off three McCullough books I’ve read, but the history major hasn’t read any McCullough.

Then there are more titles of books, more facts, more things that come to mind (which apparently is a lot) — all in the interests of historical boosterism. I talk briefly about Jefferson’s second catastrophic term as president, about Abigail Adams’ “remember the ladies” letter to Jefferson, and several other things.

“You must be a historian!” says the dad’s mother.

“No,” I say. “I’m just a guy who likes pesto.”

The funny thing is that, as several of my teachers may attest, history was never really my strong suit in high school or college. Even though I could bluff my muddled memory of historical facts in essay form.

But I’m thinking to myself that if these two adults, who are very nice and conciliatory, and who are everyday people, think I’m a historian, then we are in very big trouble indeed.

I’m not trying to smear these three people. They were very grateful for the titles they loosened from my tongue. And they had fantastic things to say about our founding fathers, based on what they could remember. They showed a keen interest and curiosity in the ways that our national quilt was knitted.

But the distinction here is that they had no real grasp on the details, even when, in one case, history was the primary base of knowledge.

This cultural stigma goes far beyond mere facts. I had a conversation with an acquaintance the other night and I mentioned the tea ceremony at the Asian Art Museum, which I was honored to attend last weekend. This acquaintance told me how she couldn’t possibly attend because she was mortified that only educated folks would find the ceremony interesting.

Nonsense, I replied. I knew almost nothing about tea ceremonies and Asian art. But I pointed out the atmosphere, some of the limitations, and the rules that I could remember, pointing out that my pulse rate was halved just by sitting down, taking in the relaxing rites.

When our motley group was strolling around the museum, I was audacious enough to call the artist behind one fantastic piece of chiaroschuro papyrus “the Aubrey Beardsley of Korea,” which didn’t sit so well with one self-appointed “expert” who thought that such comparisons were uncouth. Uncouth? I was just trying to remember. Who knew there was an unspoken code of acceptable associations?

I wonder if this “expert” (or any educator, for that matter) has any idea that strangling an individulal’s curiosity or telling someone how they should talk about culture is what leads to people like the history major who can’t remember basic details. I wonder if the experts are truly cognizant of the unnecessary chasm that separates the layman from the cultured. The strange stigma behind an enjoyable book like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which sets out to explain a good deal of science to a popular audience.

What we are seeing, I think, in this age of reactonary and results-oriented education, is a nation that is creating or pepetuating a knowledge class system. The disparity between the knows and the know-nots.

And it kills me to see the mad rush of curiosity suffering such an unnecessary crib death. Really, our countrymen are better than this.


  1. I agree with what you’ve said, though I think it’s not just that “knowledge class system” that’s stifling curiosity. I think it’s hitting us from nearly every angle. I’m regularly amazed at how odd people think it that I read on a regular basis and that I try to read something besides bestselling thrillers. I wish I could say that we’re better than that, but these days I wondered. Our appetites are so easily sated by bite-size pieces of insignificant information.

    In fact, while not surprised to hear how the man you encountered didn’t know much about the things you discussed, I’m just happy to see a parent encouraging a child to read, which should be much more prevalent than it is.

  2. Lots contributes to what you call the knowledge class system not the least is the acid bath of marketinginitiatives and branding strategies (this, the most prescient of Wallace’s barbed insights in Infinite Jest)that ooze and belch forth from the relentless fucking globalized consumer engineódefining people as units of consumption makes their education and such irrelevant More ipods, more SUVs , more ginza knives,yeah.

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