Everyone has at least one minority taste — a love of some obscure discipline that the vast majority of the public find uninteresting or unimportant. It could be stamp collecting or motocross racing. The majority watch popular shows on TV, listen to Top-40 music and read best-sellers. But pick any individual from such an audience, and you’ll find at least one out-of-the-way obsession. Surfing, perhaps, or Civil War re-enacting.
For those lucky or persistent enough, this may turn out to be a vocation: Universities are full of those who have turned their love of Medieval linguistics or non-Newtonian physics into a meal ticket. In fact, this is where we expect to find these eccentrics. It is their niche.
But there are a few of us, a benighted few, whose lives are made up entirely out of the odder corners of life, who have almost no popular tastes and have not turned our weird fascinations into a job. We are the outcasts who love all those things that normal people find irrelevant, and we bury ourselves in the obscure, arcane, esoteric, hermetic or recondite.
I cannot speak for others of our brotherhood (and sisterhood), but I’m afraid I was born that way. It was not a reaction to anything — no childhood traumas drove me away from things popular; no deprivations led me to seek fulfillment in those oddments of culture I find so absorbing.
From as long back as I can remember, my interests were not those of my peers. I heard classmates complain about school, having to learn things they didn’t feel they would ever need to know in life. And I admit, it is very seldom I have ever needed to calculate the area of a circle. But I loved school from first grade on.
In the early grades, I adored diagraming sentences. I spent free moments between classes in the school library. I never found sports persuasive. I was in dire peril of losing myself in something as abstruse as lepidoptery or studying the history of bottle making. In third grade, I could tell you anything you wished to know about the Mesozoic Era — rather more than you would wish to know, really.
I grew up just outside New York City, and spent many fine hours at the American Museum of Natural History, in its darker recesses, and at the Hayden Planetarium.
As a teenager, when everyone else was listening to Paul Anka or Chubby Checker. I was listening to Leonard Bernstein. My Four Seasons was Antonio Vivaldi, not Frankie Valli. My make-out music was Stravinsky. Honestly; I’m not making that up.
I am not claiming special merit for my tastes. There is great value in the best pop music, and some of our classic authors were best-sellers in their own time. So I’m not making a case for being high-brow, but rather confessing my own weirdness, my own unfitness for human society.
Not all my minority tastes are so high-falutin’ as Orlando di Lassus. I have in my bones more specialized knowledge of 1930s B Westerns than should block up any segment of a person’s long-term memory bank. Do you know the difference between Ken Maynard and his brother, Kermit? Can you name even one of the cast line-up of the ever-changing Three Mesquiteers? I can. The same for science-fiction movies from the 1950s. They are all there, clogging my brain-case.
As I take inventory of what is boxed up in my brain-attic, I find any number of things most people don’t care about. In fact, what most people don’t care about pretty well defines who I am.
When visiting France, I never went to the Eiffel Tower, but did drive through all of the north, visiting Gothic cathedrals. I’ve been to Chartres three times, and in Paris, Notre Dame was practically a second home. I cannot remember how many visits to it. So, yes, my tastes are not the normal tastes.
On weekends, I watch C-Span’s “Book TV.” I search YouTube for college lectures. I have a huge collection of Great Courses DVDs.
When it comes to movies, I love them slow and arty, preferably with subtitles. I have all of Tarkovsky on DVD, all of Almodovar, and all that are available of Robert Bresson, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. And tons of Bergman and Herzog and Renoir. I would have a bunch of Marcel Pagnol, but there isn’t a bunch. Nor is there much of Guy Maddin available, but if you ever needed bona fides as a weirdo, a confessed love of Maddin’s films is proof.
Then, there’s classical music. If I had to lose a sense, I would ask for sight to go before hearing. I need music. Nothing else so precisely both describes and evokes the most profound human emotions. My insides swell up when I listen to the greatest music. Pop music does an excellent job of pumping up energy and cheerleading for the happiest emotions. But classical music is needed to speak for grief, transcendence, fear, anxiety, love, power — and even more, the interplay between all these feelings. The virtue of popular music is its simplicity and directness; that of classical music is its complexity and depth.
But even amidst the classical repertoire, I find myself drawn to the outskirts. Yes, I love my Beethoven and Brahms, but I also love my Schoenberg, my Morton Subotnick, my Colin McPhee. And even when dealing with Beethoven, I’m more likely to pull up the Grosse Fuge than the Appassionata.
Then, there’s my reading. The authors I most often re-read are Homer and Ovid. I collect Loeb Library editions. I have seven translations of the Iliad on my shelves behind my writing desk. Five Odysseys.
And not just Greek or Roman lit. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been over Beowulf. There’s the poetry of Rumi and Basho. I’ve read two different translations of the Indian Mahabharata. I am currently reading two very different translations of Gilgamesh, one is a line-by-line literal translation of the extant fragments, the other is a re-telling from all the varied bits of the epic that have survived, into a single version. Comparing the two gives me a better handle on Mesopotamian thought and literature. These current two now join the two earlier translations that I had previously read.
I have often wondered why I am so out of step with my fellow beings. Any one of them might well enjoy any one of the things I’ve mentioned, but the concatenation of them defines me. You can see the wide range of things I write about in this blog.
My late wife used to say I’m “the man who can’t have fun,” and laugh at me because I cannot bear musical theater, don’t dance, don’t listen to pop music, don’t read popular novels, and lord save me from theme parks. I shudder. But I respond that I have lots of fun with my oddments. I get tremendous pleasure from string quartets or visiting art galleries or reading multiple translations of German poetry.
If we are what we eat, we are also what we read, see and listen to. It all goes into us and feeds us, body and soul, and fashions who we have become. For better or worse.
Cartoonist Reg Manning said you could take in all of Arizona in three great bites. Manning was the Pulitzer-Prize winning political cartoonist for The Arizona Republic from 1948 to 1971. And he wrote a book, What is Arizona Really Like? (1968), a cartoon guide to the state for newcomers (he also wrote a cartoon guide to the prickly vegetation of the state, What Kinda Cactus Izzat? Both required reading for any Arizonan.)
Anyway, his introduction to the state bites off three large chunks: the Colorado Plateau in the north; the mountainous middle; and the desert south. It is a convenient way to swallow up the whole, and works quite well.
I spent a third of my life in Arizona and I traveled through almost every inch of the state, either on my own or for my newspaper, and I never found a better explanation of the state (and state of mind) than Manning’s book. Admittedly, the book can be a bit corny, but its basis is sound.
But my life has been spent in other parts of the country as well, and I came to realize that Manning’s tripartite scheme could work quite as well for almost any state.
I now live in North Carolina, which is traditionally split in three, with the Atlantic Coastal Plain in the east; the Piedmont in the middle; and the mountains in the west. The divisions are quite distinct geologically: The escarpment of the Blue Ridge just up from the Piedmont, and the coastal plain begins with the Fall Line — a series of dams, rapids and waterfalls that long ago provided the power for industry.
But that is hardly the only example. I grew up in New Jersey, which could easily be split into the crowded suburban north, where I grew up; the almost hillbilly south, which is actually below the Mason-Dixon Line, and where the radio is full of Country-Western stations (and who can forget the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos?); and finally, the Jersey Shore, a whole distinct universe of its own.
And when I lived in Seattle, Washington state was clearly divided into the empty, dry east; the wet, populated coast; divided by the Cascade Mountains. Oregon was the same. It divided up politically the same way: a redneck east, a progressive west, and a mountain barrier between.
So, I began looking at other states I knew fairly well. South Carolina and Georgia follow North Carolina with its mountains (“upcountry” in South Carolina), its Piedmont and its coast. Even Alabama does, although its coastal plain borders the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida has its east coast; its west coast; and its panhandle — all quite distinct in culture. Michigan has its urban east, its rural west and then, hardly part of the state, the UP — Upper Peninsula. There’s lakefront Ohio, riverfront Ohio and farmland Ohio.
Maine has a southern coast that is prosperous and filled with tourists; a northern coast (“Down East”), which is sparsely populated and mostly poor; and a great interior, which is all lakes, forests and potatoes.
Massachusetts has its pastoral western portion, with its hills and mountains; its urban east, centered on Boston; and then there’s Cape Cod, a whole different universe.
Heck, even Delaware, as tiny as it is, has its cities in the north, its farms on the Delmarva Peninsula and its vacationland ocean shores.
Go smaller still. Draw a line down the center of Rhode Island and everything to the west of the line might as well be Connecticut. For the rest, Providence eats up the northern part and south of that, Rhode Island consists of islands in Narraganset Bay.
Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and its eastern farmlands, separated by the sprawling Denver metropolitan area.
But I don’t want to go through every state. I leave that to you. Indiana has its rural south, its urban midlands with Indianapolis, and that funky post-industrial portion that is just outside Chicago. Oy.
Yet, as I looked at that first state, defined by Manning’s cartoons, I realized that each third of Arizona could be subdivided into its own thirds. This was getting to be madness.
The Colorado Plateau is one-third Indian reservation, both Navajo and Hopi; one-third marking the southern edge of northern Arizona in what might be called the I-40 corridor of cities and towns from Holbrook through Flagstaff and on through Williams to Kingman; and a final third that encompasses the Grand Canyon and the remote Arizona Strip.
The mountainous middle third of the state includes the Mogollon Rim and its mountain retreats, such as Payson; another third that is the Verde Valley; and a finishing touch the Fort Apache and San Carlos Indian reservations.
Finally, in the south and west, there is the urban spread from just north of Phoenix and continuing south through Tucson and that nowadays continues almost to Nogales and Mexico; there is the Chihuahuan Desert portions in the southeast, from Douglas through the Wilcox Playa; and in the southwest, the almost empty desert including the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, the Barry Goldwater bombing range, and up to the bedraggled haven of trailer parks that is Quartzsite. And no, I’m not forgetting Yuma.
It’s a sort of “rule of thirds” applied to geography. It seems almost any bit of land can be sliced in three. Phoenix itself, as a metro area, has the East Valley, including Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe; central Phoenix (which itself is divided into north Phoenix, the central Phoenix downtown, and the largely Hispanic south Phoenix), and the West Valley, which nowadays perhaps goes all the way up through Sun City to Surprise.
Here in North Carolina, the Coastal Plain runs through the loblolly pines and farmland of eastern North Carolina; into the swampy lowlands of marshy lakes and tidal rivers; and on to the Outer Banks and the ocean. Another tri-partite division. The Piedmont has its 1) Research Triangle; 2) its Tri-city area of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem (extending out to Statesville and Hickory); and 3) the Charlotte metro area; and the mountains include first the northern parts of the Blue Ridge, around Boone and Linville Falls; second, the Asheville area, which is a blue city in a red state; and finally the southern mountains around the Great Smokies. Thirds, thirds, thirds.
Even Asheville, itself, comes in three varieties: East Asheville (where I live); downtown (where the drum circle is); and West Asheville (where the hippies live). West Asheville is actually south of downtown. Why? I dunno.
You can go too far with this and I’m sure that I have. After all, it’s really rather meaningless and just a game. But you can divide California into thirds in three completely different ways.
First, and too easily, there is Southern California; central California; and northern California. Each has its culture and its political leanings. But you can also look at it as desert California, including Death Valley and Los Angeles; mountain California, with the Sierra Nevada running like a spine down the long banana-shaped state; and populated California north of LA and in the Central Valley.
Finally, you can split California into rural, farming California, that feeds the nation from the Central Valley; wilderness California with deserts and mountains; and entertainment California, from Hollywood and LA up through San Francisco and Skywalker Ranch (and all the wine) that keeps America preoccupied with vino et circenses.
The U.S. as a whole is often looked at as the East, the Midwest and the West. The East then subdivides as the Northeast, the Middle Atlantic States and the South; The Midwest has its Rust Belt, its Corn Belt, and its Wheat Belt. The West has its Rocky Mountain States, its Pacific Coast states and, well, Texas.
And, I suppose if you look at the world in toto, you have the West, including Europe, North America and Australia; you have Asia, or the East, which includes China, Asian Russia, and most of the Muslim nations; and the Third World, which comprises most of the rest. You can quibble over Japan as Asian or a First World Nation; and India seems caught between, with growing prosperity and growing poverty at the same time.
These distinctions are coarse and could well be better defined and refined. And I mean nothing profound — or even very meaningful — with this little set of observations. It is an exercise in a habit of thinking. If anything, I just mean it as a counterbalance to the binary cultural prejudice of splitting everything up into pairs. There is a countervailing cultural pattern that prefers threes to twos. I wrote about this previously in a different context (link here).
We think in patterns, and well-worn templates. But the world doesn’t often present itself in patterns. The world lacks boundary lines and the universe is a great smear of infinite variety. The mental template allows us to organize what is not, in reality, organized. The most pervasive template is the binary one, but we are entering an increasingly non-binary culture. Of course, thirds is only one alternative pattern. Perhaps best is to ignore patterns and look fresh at evidence.
The patterns are roadmaps for thought, and we can too easily take the easy route and fit the evidence to the pattern rather than the reverse.
The Seventeenth Century produced in Europe giants of science and philosophy and brought to birth the beginnings of Western Modernism. Their names are a pantheon of luminaries: Francis Bacon; Galileo Galilei; Thomas Hobbes; Rene Descartes; Blaise Pascal; Isaac Newton; Johannes Kepler; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz; Baruch Spinoza; John Locke — names that mark the foundations of the culture we now live in.
But during their lifetimes, their pioneering work remained the province of a rare sliver of humankind, those others of their intellectual gift who could understand and appreciate their thought. The mass of European population remained illiterate, and subject to centuries-old traditions and institutions of monarchy and religion. It wasn’t until the next century that the dam broke and the results of rationalism and empiricism made a wide splash in society, in a movement that self-congratulated itself as The Enlightenment.
And in the center of it all, in France, was Denis Diderot, one of the so-called “philosophes,” a group of writers and thinkers advocating secular thinking, free speech, the rights of humans, the progress of science and technology, and the general betterment of the human condition.
Among the philosophes were Voltaire, Montesquieu, Abbé de Mably, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Jean d’Alembert, the Marquis de Condorcet, Henri de Saint-Simon, and the Comte de Buffon. They wrote about science, government, morals, the rights of women, evolution, and above all, freedom of speech and freedom from dogma. They advocated the expansion of knowledge and inquiry. And they didn’t write merely for other intellectuals, but for a wider, middle-class literate readership. It was a blizzard of books, pamphlets and magazines.
Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in the Champagne region of France, the son of a knife-maker who specialized in surgical equipment. His father expected him to follow in the family business, but Diderot first considered joining the clergy before studying for the law and by the early 1740s, had dropped out to become a professional writer, a metier that paid little and brought him into conflict with the royal censors with notorious frequency.
He translated several works, including a medical dictionary, and in 1746, he published his Pensées Philosophiques (“Philosophical Thoughts”), which attempted to reconcile thought and feeling, along with some ideas about religion and much criticism of Christianity.
He wrote novels, too, including in 1748, the scandalous Les Bijoux Indiscrets (“The Indiscreet Jewels,” where “jewels” is a euphemism for vaginas), in which the sex parts of various adulterous women confess their indiscretions to a sultan who has a magic ring that can make vaginas talk.
His most famous and lasting novel is Jacques le Fataliste et son Maître (“Jacques the Fatalist and his Master”), from 1796, a picaresque comedy in which the servant Jacques relieves the tedium of a voyage by telling his boss about various amorous adventures.
But Diderot is remembered primarily for his work on the Encyclopédie, which he edited along with Jean le Ronde d’Alembert, and for which he wrote some 7,000 entries. It was published serially and periodically revised from 1751 to 1772 and mostly published outside of France and imported back in — censorship was strict and many books were published in the Netherlands or Switzerland to avoid French government oversight.
In fact, Diderot spent some months in prison for his work on the Encyclopédie.
There had been earlier attempts at encyclopedias, including Ephraim Chamber’s Cyclopedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences published in London in 1728, and John Harris’ 1704 Lexicon Technicum: Or, A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Explaining Not Only the Terms of Art, But the Arts Themselves. The 18th century wallowed in long book titles.
Among the projects of this age with an appetite for inclusiveness was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language of 1755.
And the idea of binding all of human knowledge up in a single volume goes all the way back to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder in the First Century CE.
But none of these were as compendious in intent as the French Encyclopédie, which initially ran for 28 volumes and included 71, 818 articles and 3,129 illustrations. It comprised some 20 million words over 18,000 pages of text. It was a huge best-seller, earning a profit of 2 million livres for its investors.
In his introduction, Diderot wrote of the giant work, “The goal of an Encyclopédie is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.”
In the article defining “encyclopedia,” Diderot wrote that his aim was “to change the way people think.”
Their goal was no mean or paltry one, but to encompass everything known to humankind. So that, according to Diderot himself, if humankind descended once again into a Dark Age, and if just one copy of his Encyclopédie survived, civilization could be reconstructed from reading its pages.
A good deal of its content concerned technical issues, such as shoe-making or glass blowing. But other articles addressed political and religious ideas. These are what got the Encyclopédie contributors into legal trouble. The Catholic church and the monarchy were not happy about the generally deist and republican leanings of its authors.
And there were a lot of authors. Most of the leading philosophes wrote one or another of the entries. Louis de Jaucort wrote some 17,000 of them — about a quarter of the total. Each of the contributors wrote about his specialties. D’Alembert, who was a mathematician, wrote most of the math entries. Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton took on natural history. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about music and political theory. Voltaire on history, literature and philosophy.
All under the editorship of Diderot and d’Alembert, and, after 1759, by Diderot alone.
Diderot divided all of human knowledge into three parts: memory; reason, and imagination. In his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, d’Alembert explained these as “memory, which corresponds with History; reflection or reason, which is the basis of Philosophy; and imagination, or imitation of Nature, which produces Fine Arts. From these divisions spring smaller subdivisions such as physics, poetry, music and many others.”
In fact, d’Alembert asserts, all of human knowledge is really just one big thing: a unified “tree of knowledge,” which if we could grasp, would explain everything with a single simple principle, which rather prefigures the unified field theory of modern physics.
It would be hard to overemphasize the influence of the Encyclopédie in the 18th century and in the political changes of France up to and through the Revolution. The Encyclopédie disparaged superstition, of which they counted religion as an example, and it saw the purpose of government to be the welfare of its people and the authority of government to be derived from the will of its citizens. The king existed, they said, for the benefit of the people, and not the people for the benefit of the monarchy.
It’s no wonder, then, that the church and the aristocracy tried to suppress parts of the Encyclopédie, and that many of its authors spent time in prison.
Its successor, the Enyclopedia Britannica, wrote of Diderot’s labors, “No encyclopedia perhaps has been of such political importance, or has occupied so conspicuous a place in the civil and literary history of its century.”
Beyond the Encyclopédie, Diderot continued as a freelance writer, as an art and theater critic, a playwright, novelist, political tract writer and freethinker.
But despite his fame and productivity, Diderot never made much money from his work, and when Russian empress — and groupie to the philosophes — Catherine the Great, heard of his poverty, she offered to buy his extensive library, paying him an enormous sum for the books and as salary for his employment as librarian to his own collection.
In 1773, Diderot traveled to St. Petersburg to meet Catherine. Over the next five months, they talked almost daily, as Diderot wrote, “almost man-to-man,” rather than monarch to subject.
Catherine paid for his trip in addition to his annuity and in 1784, when Diderot was in declining health, Catherine arranged for him to move into a luxurious suite in the rue de Richelieu, one of the most fashionable streets in Paris. He died there a year later at the age of 70.
Despite her admiration for Diderot and his revolutionary ideas, Catherine ignored all of them in her own autocratic rule of Russia. But Diderot and his Encyclopédie pointed the way to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the triumph of democracies, and even the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
According to philosopher Auguste Comte, Diderot was the foremost intellectual in an exciting age, and according to Goethe, “Diderot is Diderot, a unique individual; whoever carps at him and his affairs is a philistine.”
“On doit exiger de moi que je cherche la vérité, mais non que je la trouve.”
“I can be expected to look for truth but not that I should find it.”
—Denis Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques (1746)
When I was a young man, more than a half century ago, I had a simple ambition: To know everything. I suppose I was thinking mainly of facts; I would have no inkling of anything that couldn’t be named and catalogued. I wanted to read everything, name every bird and wildflower, every tree and understand every philosopher. I read all the poetry I could find, listened to all the symphonies and quartets and attempted to ingest all of astronomy and physics and history. Yes, I was an idiot.
As early as the second grade, I believed that when I got to college, then I would finally have access to everything. And so, when I went to Guilford College in North Carolina, I couldn’t wait and in my first semester, I signed up for 24 credit hours of courses. I had to get permission from the dean for the extra hours above the normal 18 that for most students was a full course load. I grabbed Ancient Greek language, astronomy, Shakespeare, the history of India, esthetics, music theory — and over four years, everything I could think of.
To my surprise and disappointment, not all of it was as edifying as I had hoped and not all the professors as brilliant as I had imagined. Still, it was a lot better than high school.
What I sought was knowledge that was encyclopedic, encompassing all there was to know. Yes, I know now that all this was silly. I was young, naive and idealistic. Always a poor combination.
The match that ignited this quest was probably the first actual encyclopedia I had. When I was in grade school, our next door neighbor, who worked for Doubleday publishing in New York, gave us boxes of books, mostly old, and that included a full set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia — probably the set our neighbor had when he was a boy. It dated from the 1930s and had great imagination-burning articles on such things as “The Great War,” dirigibles, and steam locomotives. The endpapers of each volume included illustrations of such things as elevated roads, autogyros, and speedboats.
It didn’t matter that much in the set was out of date. It was a multi-volume key to unlock a whole world.
Later, our parents bought a more up-to-date Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia, purchasing a single volume each week through a promotional deal at the A&P supermarket. It was a much cheaper production, on cheaper paper, with blank endpapers, but at least it included the Second World War.
All through my childhood and adolescence, I would grab a volume and randomly read entries. I would pore over its pages, reading it all for fun. When I had to write a term paper in high school, I did my research in our Funk and Wagnalls.
I can’t say I read every article in the whole encyclopedia, but I may have come close.
And as I grew, my ambition grew: I wanted, more than anything, to own the two great compendia of all human knowledge: The Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Both were well out of my price range, but I lusted, the way most boys my age lusted after Raquel Welch.
Years later, after college, the OED was published in a two-volume compact form, with microscopic print and a magnifying glass to read it, and I managed to get a copy through signing up for a book-of-the-month club. I still have it, and I still browse through it to find random words, their histories and the curious way language changes over the years.
The Britannica took longer. The Encyclopædia Britannica, or, A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, compiled upon a New Plan, was published in Edinburgh first in 1768, as an answer to Diderot’s Encyclopédie. At first, it was bound in three equally sized volumes covering: Aa–Bzo; Caaba–Lythrum; and Macao–Zyglophyllum. There have been 15 editions since, but each edition was continually updated, making the Britannica a constantly evolving entity. It was briefly owned by Sears and Roebuck, and eventually migrated to the University of Chicago. Currently it is privately owned and only available digitally. They stopped printing it in 2010.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, when working as a teacher in Virginia, I found an old used set of Britannicas at a giant book sale held annually in the city’s convention center. It was an 11th Edition version — still the standard as most desirable edition. I felt like Kasper Gutman finally getting his hands on the Maltese Falcon. But when I unwrapped my prize, it was, in fact, the real thing.
It sat, in pride of place, on my bookshelves, more as trophy than anything else. And when we moved to Arizona, I had to give it up in the great divestment of worldly goods necessary to truck our lives across a continent. I hated to give it up, but had to admit, I wasn’t using it as much as I had expected. I had an entire library of other books that I could consult.
Then, in Arizona, I came across a more recent edition of the Britannica for sale at Bookman’s, a supermarket-size used book store in Mesa, Ariz. It was the version divided into a “macropedia” and “micropedia.” I bought it to replace the earlier version I had once coveted.
I have never warmed to this version of the encyclopedia — a smaller set with simpler, introductory articles about a wider range of subjects, and a longer set with in-depth scholarly articles about a smaller range of more commonly referenced subjects. It felt dumbed down — and worse, confusing, because you could never quite tell if you should first consult the micro- or the macro- section of the series.
But at least, I still owned a Britannica, and felt that somehow, I possessed, if not the actual knowledge of the universe, at least access to it.
The end of Britannica was also the end of my obsession with it. With the advent of Wikipedia, I no longer needed to shuffle through pages of multiple volumes, sort through indexes, or cross-reference material. In researching a story for my job as art critic with the newspaper, I could just go online and get the birth date of Picasso or the list of art at the Armory Exhibit of 1913. Wikipedia was easier to use, and for my purposes, just as accurate as my beloved Britannica.
And so much easier to use. I cannot now imagine being a writer without Wikipedia. If I need a date or check spellings, it is instantly available.
And just as I spent time as an adolescent swimming through my Compton’s or Funk and Wagnalls, reading random articles for the fun of it, I now spend some portion of my time sitting in front of my computer screen hitting the “random article” button on Wikipedia to read about things I wouldn’t have known to be interested in. Lake Baikal? Yes. Phospholipidosis? It is a “lysosomal storage disorder characterized by the excess accumulation of phospholipids in tissues.” De Monarchia? A book by Dante Alighieri from 1312 about the relationship of church and state, banned by the Roman Catholic Church. I know of some politicians who might profit by reading Dante.
It’s fun picking up random bits of information like this. But it also demonstrates why my interest in owning all the world’s knowledge in book form has evaporated.
First, the cosmos is infinite and packing 20 volumes of an encyclopedia with information about it is really like taking a teacup to the ocean. Second, knowledge keeps changing and growing. What we thought we knew a hundred years ago has been replaced by more complete data and theory — and so knowledge is not so much a teacup as a sieve.
Then, there is the even more knotty problem, that knowledge isn’t even the most important part of understanding. Facts are good, and I wouldn’t want to be without them, but infinitely more essential is the interrelationship between them; the complexity of human mind as it interacts with what it knows, or thinks it knows; the moiling stew that is the mix of thought and emotion; the indistinct borders of learning and genetic inheritance; the atavistic tribalism that seems to overcome any logic; the persistence of superstition, magic and religion in how we understand our Umwelt; and ultimately, the limitations of human understanding — how much more is there that we not only don’t know, but cannot know, any more than a goldfish can understand nuclear fission.
The reality of our existence is both infinite and unstable. Trapping it in print is an impossibility. It swirls and gusts, churns and explodes. Any grasping is grasping handfuls of air. We do our best, for the nonce, and must be satisfied with what we can discern in the welter.
I think of Samuel Johnson’s heartbreaking preface to his 1755 Dictionary, which every thoughtful person should read and lock to mind. “To have attempted much is always laudable, even when the enterprise is above the strength that undertakes it: To rest below his own aim is incident to every one whose fancy is active, and whose views are comprehensive; nor is any man satisfied with himself because he has done much, but because he can conceive little. … When I had thus enquired into the original of words, I resolved to show likewise my attention to things; to pierce deep into every science, to enquire the nature of every substance of which I inserted the name, to limit every idea by a definition strictly logical, and exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that my book might be in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical. But these were the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer. … I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.”
I have no belief in ghosts, spirits or ouija boards and I don’t believe that the past hangs on to the present to make itself palpable. But I have several times experienced a kind of spooky resonance when visiting certain famous battlefields.
The thought re-emerged recently while watching a French TV detective show that was set in Normandy, and seeing the panoramas of the D-Day landing beaches. I visited those beaches a few years ago and had an overwhelming rush of intense sadness. It was inevitable to imagine the thousands of soldiers rushing up the sands into hellish gunfire, to imagine a thousand ships in the now calm waters I saw on a sunny day, to feel the presence in the concrete bunkers of the German soldiers fated to die there manning their guns.
The effect is entirely psychological, of course. If some child with no historical knowledge of the events that took place there were to walk the wide beach, he would no doubt think only of the waves and water and, perhaps, the sand castles to be formed from the sand. There is no eerie presence hanging in the salt air. The planet does not record, or for that matter, much note, the miseries humans inflict on each other, and have done for millennia.
But for those who have a historical sense, the misery reasserts itself. Imagination brings to mind the whole of human agony.
Perhaps I should not say that the earth does not remember. It can, in certain ways. Visiting the woods of Verdun I saw the uneven forest floor, where the shell craters have only partially been filled in. Once the trees were flattened by artillery, leaving the moonscape littered with corpses. The trees have grown back, but the craters are still discernible in the wavy forest floor.
This sense came to me first many years ago visiting the Antietam battlefield in Maryland. There is a spot there now called Bloody Lane. Before Sept. 17, 1862, the brief dirt drive was called the Sunken Road, and it was a shortcut between two farm roads near Sharpsburg, Md. All around were cornfields rolling up and down on the hilly Appalachian landscape.
The narrow dirt road, depressed into the ground like a cattle chute, now seems more like a mass grave than a road. And it was just that in 1862, when during the battle of Antietam Creek, Confederate soldiers mowed down the advancing Federals and were in turn mowed down. The slaughter was unimaginable.
You can see it in the photographs made a few days after the battle. The soldiers, mostly Southerners, fill the sunken road like executed Polish Jews. It was so bad, as one Union private said, “You could walk from one end of Bloody Lane to the other on dead soldiers and your feet would never touch the ground.”
Even today, with the way covered with crushed blue stone, the dirt underneath seems maroon. Perhaps it is the iron in the ground that makes it so; perhaps it is the blood, still there after 160 years.
Antietam was the worst single day of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded. They were piled like meat on the ground and left for days before enough graves could be dug for them. There were flies, there was a stench. The whole thing was a fiasco, for both sides, really.
But all these years later, as you stand in Bloody Lane, the grassy margins of the road inclining up around you and the way lined with the criss-cross of split-rail fencing, it is painful to stand in the declivity, looking up at the mound in front of you, covered in cornstalks in a mid-July day. You can see that when the Yankees came over the rise, they were already close enough to touch. There was no neutralizing distance for your rifle fire to travel, no bang-bang-you’re-dead, no time, no room for playing soldier. Your enemy was in your face and you had to tear through that face with lead, the blood splattered was both Federal and Confederate, in one red pond among the furrows. In four hours on 200-yard stretch of Bloody Lane, 5,000 men were blown apart.
It is difficult to stand in Bloody Lane and not feel that all the soldiers are still there, perhaps not as ghosts, but as a presence under your boot-sole, there, soaked into the dirt.
It is almost, as some cultures believe, as if everything that happens in a place is always happening in that place. The battle was not something that occurred before my great-grandfather was born, but a palpable electricity in the air. You can not stand there in Bloody Lane and not be moved by that presence.
A similar wave of dismay overcame me at several Civil War sites: Shiloh; Vicksburg; Fredericksburg; Cold Harbor; Petersburg; Appomattox. Always the images rise in the imagination. Something epochal and terrible happened here.
Visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, there are gravestones on the slope below the so-called “Last Stand,” but you also look down into the valley where the thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne were camped.
I’ve visited Sand Creek and Washita. And Wounded Knee. That was the most disturbing. You travel through the Pine Ridge Reservation and the landscape is hauntingly beautiful, then you pull into the massacre site and you see the hill where the four Hotchkiss guns had a clear shot down into the small ravine where the victims huddled. The sense of death and chaos is gripping. The famous image of the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot glowers in the imagination. It feels like it is happening in a past that is still present.
This sense of horror and disgust wells up because of the human talent for empathy. Yes, I know full well that there are no specters of the victims waiting there for me, but my immediate sense of brotherhood with them resurrects them in my psyche. I am human, so I know that those dead were just like me. I can imagine myself bowel-loosening scared seeing my comrades to either side being blown to pieces and an enemy who I’ve never met and might have been friends with races toward me with bayonet stretched in front of him, eyes wide with the same fear.
History is an act of the imagination. The most recent may be memory, but for me to know what my father went through in France and Czechoslovakia in World War II requires my identification with him, my psyche to recognize the bonds I share with him — and with all of humanity.
So, when visitors are shaken by visits to Auschwitz or stand on the plains of Kursk, or the shores of Gallipoli, they well may sense that history as more present than past. I have had that experience. The ghosts are in me.