Useless Information

THE other night, as I sat reading the Variorum Shakespeare, I was moved to apostrophize the poet as follows: —

‘O mighty reservoir of useless information! Nothing about thee is more wonderful than this, that thou daredst to remain uneducated. Who shall say that thy supremacy among men is not due to thy being the most uneducated great man that ever lived? At a tender age, thou escapedst the clutches of the specialists, and took to reading and looking at whatever was handy, hoarding up the largest collection of useless information ever inclosed in a single head. No one seems to have told thee that this is no way to form a mind. If anyone ever did tell thee so, thou probably only smiledst and wert still. So vast was thy accumulation that it has kept an army of experts busy ever since, trying to identify, arrange, label, and pigeonhole it. Thou hast given heart to thousands of unmethodical and indolent scholars, hast given to thousands of methodical and industrious scholars a pleasant and innocent occupation. Others have praised thee for everything else under the sun; but I will praise thee for this: that thou hadst the courage to know everything that was useless, and the address to make it all useful!’

I closed the book, but continued a train of thought which its perusal had suggested. A mind, thought I, that is full of useless information has a mellow complexion, like a fall pippin; while a mind that contains nothing but useful information must be as raw, acrid, and savorless as a green apple. Why is this? Evidently one is a fine, fat, comfortable, and hospitable mind, which has its doors always open to any waifs and estrays that may be looking for a night’s lodging; while the other is a thin, suspicious, critical, and calculating mind, which admits nothing that cannot show its credentials. No wonder the latter impresses us as exiguous and adust.

The hospitable mind, nevertheless, seems nowadays to be not quite respectable, on the one hand, or just a little shabby-genteel, on the other. A mind that is not quite respectable gathers its information from newspapers, magazines, and light fiction, or, like Miss Dartle, by asking questions; while a mind that is shabbygenteel seeks its treasures in books that nobody else reads, in the discourse of its cronies, and in out-of-the way nooks and crannies of thought and experience. The one is ‘enamored of contemporaneity,’ the other of antiquity.

In these bustling, opinionated days nothing could be more futile, however engaging, than a mind that never asks whether information is useful, but simply whether it is interesting; that seems to be guided in its collection of knowledge by no purpose, but merely by love of knowledge for its own sake. What anout-at-the-elbow, down-at-theheel sort of mind this is, which reads books of science, history, philosophy, for fun, accepts its facts as gratefully from a novel as from a treatise, and prefers those authors who have been most like itself in storing up knowledge, not because it is important, but because it is picturesque.

Herodotus, the elder Pliny, Petronius, Apuleius, Rabelais, Dante, Ariosto, Montaigne, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Browne, Aubrey, Burton, Fuller, Sterne, Scott, Peacock and, among moderns, Anatole France — these are some of the favorites of the mind I have called shabby-genteel. The not-quite-respectable mind has no favorite authors, though it has favorite departments in the newspaper. The former is also a great reader of forgotten books, and of Bayle’s Dictionary, Brand’s Antiquities, Disraeli’s Curiosities, Hone’s Everyday Book, Southey’s Commonplace Book and Doctor, the Biographia Dramatica, Genest’s English Stage, and all the quaint compilations of John Timbs, Jacob Larwood, George Daniel, Cordy Jeaffreson, and the like, who have passed an industrious but cheerful life among the rubbish-heaps and dustbins of literature. A textbook, if it is fifty years old, will hold it for an hour, and an almanac half a day. Even old magazines— unilluminable catacombs, as Max Beerbohm calls them — do not scare it; and it has been known to chuckle over a town directory, after all the inhabitants were dead. An invitation to contribute to the Journal of Philology would fill it with alarm; but it has always been the mainstay of the Gentleman’s Magazine and Notes and Queries. In short , anything of the sort that our grandfathers used to call the ‘quaint, curious, or quizzical’ delights it, and it is as likely to be finding it at any moment in one of Mr. J. S. Fletcher’s pleasant detective stories as in Saint Jerome’s Commentary on the Book of Job.

I have been specific about the shabby-genteel mind, because its knowledge is so typically useless. Facts that are current may have some conceivable utility, but facts that are out of date are fairly safe from such imputation. To a practical man or a scientific specialist such a mind as I have described is nothing but a cabinet of curios, amusing perhaps, but haphazard and therefore negligible; and yet the sympathetic observer can find something to say for it. It at least has carried over into manhood, bravely and with a fine ignoring of current educational theories, an impulse, which we all know in childhood, to stow away any information that looks interesting. A child’s taste in information is not scientific, indeed, but it is poetic, and may be more worthy of respect than nowadays we are willing to grant.

A man who has kept his liking for general information fresh and untainted by considerations of utility may still be guided in his collecting of facts by an absorbing interest in human nat ure, such as has always guided the poets. If he is particularly taken with the weaknesses of human nature, — its illogicalities, credulities, whims, and humors, — that may be because he has discovered that its strengths are best discovered by delimiting them. Some would say that his interest in human oddity and credulity is a kind of humanism gone to seed; and, doubtless, it sometimes is so. He may be only a frivolous person or a learned trifler; but he may, on the other hand, be potentially a poet. The poets seem always to have agreed with him that it is a mistake to examine too rigidly what is permitted to enter the head, and to have doubted whether anyone but the owner of the head can tell what kind of information is best for it.

It is for this reason that so many poets have run away from college. Even the owner, they would say, is likely to make mistakes if he approaches this problem too solemnly; for it is hard enough to determine what kind ol special or professional or useful knowledge one should collect , in order to earn one’s daily bread: to carry the same circumspection into the domain of general information is to be merely morbid. They have all been careful, at any rate, to provide their brains with a thick padding of useless information which serves variously as ballast, ferment, color, filling, and ornament for their thought. It is desultory, discursive, unsystematic, and of no discernible practical value; it is, notwithstanding, characteristically and intrinsically theirs.

But all well-appointed heads carry about a quantity of odds and ends, picked up without thought or conscious intention during the journey of life, as we collect burdock-burrs and beggar-ticks on an autumn ramble, — half-remembered quotations and allusions, anecdotes minus their heads or tails, snatches of statistics that have gone wrong, stray items of history and geography, names that have no family connections, fragments of science, superstition, and folklore, — trivial enough now, but vestiges of an unconscionable amount of reading, observation, and experience.

We are wont to deplore the waste of effort that shows so little permanent acquisition. It is like the waste of nature, which permits the incubation of millions of eggs or seeds to secure the survival of two or three. And we try to comfort ourselves by saying that nothing we learn is ever lost, but is lying in the unconscious, whence it may emerge if we have brain fever. This would seem to me a poor consolation, if I needed any; but I could never see much reason for deploring the loss of that which was so uninteresting that we did not take the trouble to remember it. I am more interested in what we remember, even though it bear the same proportion to the original intake that the surviving toe-bones of a megathere bear to the whole carcase. It is an interesting speculation, why the toe-bones survived, while the sparry architecture of the colossus fell into dust; and it is not without interest, why we remember one trifle and forget a thousand.

I suppose that certain items are taken in, or survive, because they have a peculiar fascination for our particular kind of head. One person, for example, likes hard facts, another soft fancies; just as, of two persons taking a walk, one, to be happy, must pick flowers, another, pick up pins. And so we stow away and preserve our pet items, as a squirrel its nuts, not because we can see any immediate use in them, but because we like them, because they look meaty and suitable for filling a cavity. They give us a feeling of comfort, such as the squirrel must have in a well-filled pouch or cold-cellar. It may be that like him we hope some day to use them; but it is certain that, also like him, we collect far more than we ever can use. Whatever our motive, they satisfy a hunger of the mind, as his nuts a hunger of the body.

This hunger of the mind we call curiosity, and, like hunger of the body, it is instinctive, and its satisfaction gives us pleasure. Special or useful information we acquire because we think we ought to, but general or useless information we collect because it is pleasant to do so. Hence it is that a man’s general information is the true key to his personality.

We may go even further and say that general information is a mark of humanity: for the information of animals is all special, and no human specialist has ever achieved the singleness of purpose of a bee or a beaver. To know one thing is an attribute of the brute, to know everything, of the god; and man, set between, has always been, as regards information, a Mr. Facingboth-ways. Of late years, however, he has inclined more and more to look upon the emulation of deity as foolish, and has tended to look down and in, rather than up and around.

Our remote forefathers chased knowledge, so to speak, through the heavens and over the earth on a hippogriff, and they doubtless wasted a good deal of time; but they enjoyed a fine exhilaration, beyond any they could have got in chasing it down a rat-hole like a weasel. An occasional voyage through the empyrean hurts no man, and is likely, if nothing more, to give him some idea of the real dimensions of his hole in the ground.

General information is also the salt of conversation, because, when the facts exchanged are all useless, one is as good as another, there is no chilly atmosphere of shop, and talk circulates freely; but special information is always aristocratical and hierarchical. A mind that is full of the data of ethics, for example, is supercilious toward one that is full of the data of millinery; but, as general information, fashions in hats may be even more significant than fashions in morals. It should be remembered, too, that a man who is rich in general information is not at all the same as a ’well-informed person.’ The latter always fills us with alarm, outside the classroom or lecture-hall, because he has never admitted anything to his mind without first testing its validity and timeliness, and then connecting it with matters already there. The consequence is that we feel vaguely that he is unsportsmanlike. He has attempted to carry over into general information the rules that govern special. This will never do. It is professionalism tainting an amateur sport, — conversation, — which should always be lightly impressionistic, sketchy, neatly skipping over the sharp stones of fact. Here, however it may be elsewhere, ‘the truth,’ as some great. Frenchman or other has said, ‘is always a matter of nuances.’ Here is no place for browbeating and dogmatizing. In conversation, a man who is always sure of his facts has the rest of us at a disadvantage, and we quail before him as pupils before a pedagogue.

And, speaking of pedagogues, educational theorists are always quarreling about the relative rank and importance of this and that ‘subject,’ but no one ever heard them quarreling about general information. Somehow it has escaped their attention, and only today are they beginning to look at it, and to be shocked over their past neglect of it. Indeed, they have suddenly become quite excited about it, and are devising all sorts of tests for it; and if we do not look out, they will be trying to reduce it to a system, to make general information special. It is a project against which we should set our faces sternly.

For at best (or worst) they can only make our boys and girls well-informed persons, morbid creatures, who conceive as a duty what should be a joy. Let us have at least one part of our brains from which the pedagogue shall be excluded; let us reserve at least one large section free from scientific farming, one tract of wild woodland with plenty of underbrush, where commercial fertilizers shall be unknown, and humus, or leaf-mould, blown in from the four corners of the earth and the interstellar spaces, shall form a rich deposit in which the native sprouts can germinate, take root , and flourish. So long as education is as it is, it is inevitable, I suppose, that most brains shall be thin, nervous, and circumspect, and that fine, fat, umbrageous brains shall be rare; but let us at least not tamely submit to any movement that may be impending, to teach general information. That is one thing that cannot be taught. A man must get it for himself, like happiness and religion.

The freely hospitable mind ends by being crammed like a boy’s pocket, in which even the owner can make surprising discoveries. Under the flotsam (to change the figure) of detached facts on the surface of consciousness is a veritable deep-sea ooze of facts that may float upward at any moment into the light of day. Here is this Shakespeare, for example: think what astonishment must often have been his, when some odd little fact popped up in his head just at the right moment— something picked up years before in a Latin grammar at Stratford, or under a haystack near Oxford, or in a back alley in Southwark, and tucked away and forgotten ever since. Needing a phrase, he dips down into the ocean of his mind, so full of queer fish, pulls up a fact, some poor little smelt or whitebait of a fact, and salts it down in a metaphor; and the generations gasp at its aptness and beauty.

In his day men were not self-conscious about their minds, as we are. They let their minds grow: we cultivate ours. They seem even to have neglected their minds on principle, relying on curiosity to supply both the incentive of learning and the nutriment. This was very careless of them, and would be horrifying to the modern educational expert, who can tell you how to put a mind together as one would a salad. Even their formal education, which seems rather insane to us, had its good points. For one thing, while it kept the mind busy, it also kept it comparatively empty. It fed the mind dry husks in school, but the mind was therefore properly hungry outside, and foraged for itself. As a friend of mine puts it, they never let their lessons interfere with their education. The Renaissance man would be astounded at the thought of an American child sitting in a classroom five hours a day, five days a week, for sixteen years, while an army of devoted teachers fed it on a scientifically selected diet. Small wonder, he would say, if, after a sufficiently protracted schooling, the average American is interested only in business and play.

It is certainly true that, as children, we like general information, and would amass quantities of it if we were encouraged ; but adults early impose upon us their conviction that we must, learn, not everything or anything, but something. The something they pick out seems to us a strange choice, often enough, but ‘that monster. Custom, who all sense doth eat,’ soon fastens his claws in us, and we succumb. Before long, most of us have so little mind left of our own that we would study anything, if it were demanded of us. Gone are the happy days of infant depravity, when Life went a-maying with Nature, Hope, and Poesy; when every new fact was a new joy, and the quest for information was the finest adventure in the world. Knowledge has become simply something we learn in school, for reasons not wholly clear; and we learn so much there, that natural curiosity dies.

There are already signs that we are beginning to perceive that the uses of information are more mysterious than we have realized. We are beginning to discover that the choicest grist of our selecting may be all chaff to the recipient, and that he, following his native inclinations, may turn what seems chaff to us into pure grist. The main thing seems to be to restrain our longing to be forever putting spokes in the wheels of his mill. It is his mill, and he must run it.