I’m going away on vacation soon. I was asked to find out more about things to do at this place. I googled it, like any mere mortal. And I spent the entire morning learning about its history, geography, administration, politics, economy, sports…just about everything Wikipedia has to offer on the subject. I still don’t know what I’m actually going to do there, but there are factoids I’m bursting to drop when and where I get the chance.
It all started when a six or seven year old attended a mostly adults’ Antakshari game. Antakshari is a popular Indian game where you sing a song, and then the next person has to sing a song starting with the last letter of the previous song. Say, you end with the word ‘feel’. Then the next person has to sing a song that begins with a word starting with ‘L’, say ‘love’. Sounds simple enough, but boy, can it get heated. You can get such a buzz if you get the songs right, faster than most people. Hey, you might even win second prize, which just happens to be a general knowledge book.
And then you keep coveting this indefinable thing called ‘general knowledge’, even becoming the youngest member of one of the quiz teams at school, where you get repeatedly auditioned (and ignored even at the finale, despite getting several answers right), because nobody wants to believe you’re that smart. And your quizzing career ends, when they don’t even inform you about the next year’s try-outs. But, even as an audience member, you still keep getting a buzz anytime anything quizzy happens. You even correctly identify the chemical name of Viagra at a boys’ catholic school quiz, where adults are appalled, but rightfully tut-tut the quizmaster, and not you.
When I got ill last month, one of the few things I actually liked doing was watching University Challenge on YouTube. I had heard of the show, as there’s a great book centered around it called Starter for Ten (also centered around Kate Bush and an unwanted quiz team member. Hence, one of my favourite reads.). I was mostly blank when it came to the questions at this very dry, very serious quiz, maybe getting four or five in episodes that must have around thirty questions. I was completely hopeless with the music round, for it was mainly classical music, though I took some comfort in the fact that most of the contestants aren’t well-versed on the subject either. Therefore, I died of excitement and kept screaming at them in one episode when they could not identify Roxy Music. I felt validated somehow, that my pop obsessions were not completely useless in the real world.
And useless knowledge, is where this essay properly begins. It is interesting how trivia and trivial come from the same root (I, of course, went down an internet rabbit hole and looked it up) meaning useless or unreliable knowledge (as does factoid), originating from the Latin for crossroad. It is an interesting image, one I wouldn’t have correlated with the everyday, rather slothful quest for knowledge (‘rabbit holes’ are more appropriate in this age of web-links). But, you do feel like you have several roads open to you, and you keep going wherever you are drawn to, with no end in sight or mind, like a moth to a flame. Finding things out, more than learning them, is a beautiful thing.
Even if it results in mediocrity. My attitude to knowing things is pretty much the same across any form of learning. If my curiosity is piqued, I’ll keep going through endless doors, stopping and reflecting where I like, and quitting when I like. It was the case when I was five, it is the case when I am, uh, a little older. But, in a world where you can only succeed by doing things in solid, usable chunks, my stubborn exploration of one area, to the exclusion or vague ideas of the rest mean that, in the end, it doesn’t amount to much.
Not that it has to amount to anything, for that is the beauty of the pursuit of knowledge – you don’t know when the treasury is full. Of course, I do have the need to be found knowledgeable, which, apart from a few cases, I mostly have been. More than I deserve. The frustration lies in the very nature of this desire, especially when you look at it externally. It’s like when you’re lost in admiration over someone, and they’re even comfortably in your life. It’s so much better to be lost, than to be looking at it from someone else’s point of view, and trying to put a stamp of rationality on it.
Knowledge has caused a disproportionate amount of grief to me. I’d have to pay you to be my psychologist before I bore you with all that, but much of my failures can be credited to this helpless vulnerability when it comes to knowledge, the worst of which was, perhaps, being unable to finish a research degree due to researching too much and not having enough time to put it all together. I’ve been craving to go back, to go in search of something again, but I admit, I am properly terrified.
I guess that’s why I love poppy things so much. I like the anti-intellectualism of it. This is where you go to have fun. To throw your cares away. But, even six-year-old me did intellectualize it with the singing game. And rediscovered it fifteen years later when she spent a semester drowning in Madonna studies (a topic she can never get enough of). Madonna is the key, really. To the enchanted garden of everything we have been in the last thirty years.
What do you like to know more about?