Saturday, December 6, 2008

Victorian-Style Scholarship: Not Just for Rich Dead Guys Anymore

Random thoughts on a stack of books:

Sometimes I catch myself getting all angsty and existential. You know: who am I? What does it all mean? What is my purpose in life? Then I walk into a library or a bookstore and suddenly, it all becomes clear. I am the person who has read these books, who is going to read these books. Maybe most importantly, who wants to read these books. As I'm drawn to one volume instead of another, the picture of myself becomes clear.

Then that makes me wonder: to what end? I don't know why, all of a sudden, the idea of utility should occur to me. If I'd thought about the ends of means a long time ago, I'd be in a better position in life. I've basically done everything for its own sake. But now, I feel like I don't want all this knowledge to go to waste. I mean, why didn't I carry on and become a professor? (Well, because that would suck). Why didn't I discipline myself, and become a real expert in something, so I could write books about it that would contribute to the storehouse of human learning? (Because specialization would have cut off so many fascinating areas of interest, and I didn't want to do that).

That kind of thinking is exactly how I got to this confused point in the first place. I feel like a Ms. Causabon... For those of you who were never assigned Middlemarch, Mr. Causabon is an old Victorian scholar, who sits in his study reading and planning a book that he believes will integrate all the world's knowledge. I don't have a nice Victorian study -- my books are mainly piled up in my messy living room -- and I don't have any lofty scheme behind my course of study. But I do appreciate that Victorian gentleman-scholar attitude, from the time when members of the more leisured classes would study, say, archaeology, or folklore, just because they wanted to.

Of course, I'd rather do it without the imperialism and the class divisions and the superior attitudes toward women, etc. And that should be possible. With the technology at our disposal, the common folk (like me) now have access to more books than the wealthiest people of prior generations did, so there's no reason for academic snobbery. Almost anyone can practice impractical scholarship as a leisure activity, so long as they're inclined. We don't all have to be professionals, and we don't have to be specialists. God forbid, actually.

I feel like I'm on the verge of a thesis statement. But not quite.

1 comment:

SpyGirl said...

"(Because specialization would have cut off so many fascinating areas of interest, and I didn't want to do that)."

I've actually been thinking of writing about this same topic.