On knowing things

I think there has been a major shift in how we remember. Until recently, humans relied on each other to distribute and share memory. But now, you don’t HAVE to know things, because the internet serves as a kind of external hard drive for memories. There is no reason for anyone to remember anything, because all of our collective knowledge is available within seconds – assuming, of course, that your wireless isn’t down.

No, in 2014, we don’t need to remember things. Instead, we need to remember where and how to access them.

But sometimes, I get annoyed when people act like not knowing something is normal. As if knowing something makes you strange. Joe Posnanski wrote about this a few weeks ago, and this particular paragraph stuck with me:

I have a lifelong aversion to people who don’t know things acting like not knowing is the default position. In high school, I once had someone make me feel really dumb because I had read Moby Dick (it was a fluke, I admit; I had not read any other classics as a kid) … and it affected me. It really did. It made me think it was uncool to know things. It made me embarrassed to raise my hand and say something because not knowing was cooler. That sort of downward pressure drives me nuts.

One time in second grade, my teacher asked which President was on the dime and I answered, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” And, OK, maybe it was unnecessary to say Franklin’s middle name, but I did anyway, and everyone in the class gasped and looked at me like I had two heads, including my teacher. Well, yes, maybe it was strange to know his middle name. I was seven. But I have to say, it was very embarrassing. For the rest of the year I was the kid who knew Franklin Roosevelt’s middle name.

Over the years, little moments like this have popped up, where I’ll mention something offhandedly and the person I’m talking to will be like, “How do you even know that?” Sometimes they even TAKE PRIDE in not knowing something, as if only the biggest nerd-geek of all time could know that. And they’ll make me feel weird for knowing something. Well, that really grinds my gears. Because then I feel like I can’t contribute meaningfully to a conversation. I have to censor myself.  It’s not fun.

​This isn’t a humblebrag, by the way. It can be a burden. I know a lot of inane things, and I sometimes wonder if the space in my brain reserved to the Presidents (#23 – Benjamin Harrison!) or state capitals (Carson City!) or World Series winners (1973 – Oakland A’s!) would be better served in, I don’t know, philosophy or programming or thoughts on saving the world.

There is a difference between knowing things and being a know-it-all. It is not a good idea to shove things down people’s throat for the sake of it. It is not a good idea to belittle someone if they don’t know something. But, I think, it IS wrong to act like knowing something makes you weird, or means you “have no life,” or means you’re a nerd, not that there is anything wrong with being a nerd.

Here is something I wish someone had told me. It is OK to know things. It is OK to be thoughtful. It is OK to be unironically enthusiastic about a thing, or many things, and to know these things deeply and without embarrassment. It is OK to be curious and to read and to be absolutely astonished at being alive and aware in this crazy, sprawling world. I think these are things that make us human.

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