Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Depth Or Breadth

I've now spent what seems like an absurdly long time in grad school, an occupation that requires one to learn a lot about one very specific thing. I've also, in my life, spent an absurdly long time in libraries and bookstores, an occupation that makes me desperately want to read a little bit about a very broad range of things. And I've decided as a life choice I prefer the latter (if the choice of verbs above didn't give me away).

Sure, there's some satisfaction in being an expert on something. Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy being a know-it-all. But you can only every be an expert in one thing, or maybe two or three if you are very good. And no matter how terribly terribly interesting that one thing is, think of all the interesting things you are missing if you have your head stuck way down in that one thing, year in and year out!

(Plus, if you are good at it and careful to check that the people you are talking to aren't experts, you can be a successful know-it-all about topics you really only know a little about. If there's one thing grad school has taught me, it's how to take the only three facts I know about a topic and cleverly insinuate via tone and demeanor that these three facts are really, only scraping the surface of the vast oceans of things I know about the topic. Honestly, it's quite a valuable lesson. Six years well spent I'd say.)

In the last year I've read, among other things, two books on voodoo, two books on tuberculosis, a biography of Fitzgerald and a book about the writing of The Great Gatsby, a couple of Shakespeare plays, three books about the American space program, a history/memoir of life in Soviet Russia, two novels by Graham Greene, two novels by John Galsworthy, a book about the ruins of Pompeii, a book about George Eliot, and a couple Pulitzer prize winning novels. I read a bunch of other stuff too, and some of it was crap, but most of it was valuable in some way, even if was just a single clever turn of phrase.

In the time it took to read those, I could have read literally hundreds of articles on plant biology. But I would be a less interesting person as well as a person who was less interested in the world. My thesis may have been slightly better (though honestly, I doubt it would have improved much beyond the quality of the citations in the introduction) but I would be a lot more soul-crushed.

I want to be the consummate cocktail party hostess, able to talk to everyone with intelligence and interest. I don't have the passion of the great scholar. I don't want to dive into the depths of any particular intellectual field of endeavor, with the cold and the dark and the every present threat of sea monsters. I'm happy to dabble in the shallows. It's warm here and there are lots of interesting fish and the beach is right there with deck chairs and drinks with little umbrellas in them. A different metaphor: the ivory tower seems cold and lonely, the bar next door is much more entertaining.

It's only after writing this many words on the subject, however, that it occurs to me that it might just be an elaborate justification for the fact that I spent an embarassingly long portion of the afternoon obsessively reading Vanity Fair's Golden Globes coverage.

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