Puzzled by uncommon knowledge 2015.07.01

Former Observer staff member Heather Walker still enjoys coming up with a column now and then, and giving editor/janitor David Green a break.


Mark Twain said, “Those who don't read good books have no advantage over those who can't.” While Twain’s meaning of “can’t” was probably implying a lack of ability (i.e. illiteracy), the same could be said of a lack of opportunity. I was reminded of this quote recently after finishing Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s novel, The Rule of Four.

The story centered around four Princeton undergrads in the 1990s. Tom, the narrator, studied English literature, while his best friend Paul was a Renaissance scholar. Gil, the business major, and Charlie, the medic, played supporting roles in the novel.

Paul’s studies, and the novel’s plot, hinged on a volume titled the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an actual book published in 1499 in such complicated Italian, it defied English translation for 500 years. According to Amazon the work is a “must read” by Renaissance intellectuals of art and culture. According to The Rule of Four (remember, this is fiction), the cryptic work contains a monumental secret that Paul, with the help of his roommates, figures out by solving complicated riddles, decoding encrypted text, and researching obscure allusions. 

Spoiler Alert: If you, too, have a soft spot for coming-of-age love stories that read like murder mysteries set in Ivy League humanities departments, you may want to check out the book at Stair rather than read any further. If not, continue.

According to the fictional tale, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was written to both protect and disclose the location of a crypt containing a massive collection of culturally significant Renaissance relics—relics that would offer immense knowledge to anyone who discovered them. At the time the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was written, those items were in danger of being destroyed by a despotic religious leader bent on keeping people from studying much by way of art, science, culture, etc. Thus, they were hidden away for centuries. 

The book got me thinking about knowledge, and how, throughout history, knowledge has been touted as both the “answer” and the “problem.” Knowledge is power, but what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Is it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all? The list of maxims goes on and on. The paradox that knowledge (and, by extension, experience) presents is one for the ages—literally going back to the earliest story of mankind. 

And while it may seem this discussion is purely philosophical or abstract in nature, I would argue it is both relevant and current in its application. One need only to glance at social media to be reminded that ignorance is flourishing. In a time when the world’s storehouse of knowledge is literally at our fingertips, we would rather believe, and even spread, bogus propaganda, than to seek out the truth. Why? Because carefully packaged lies fuel a false sense of indignation that makes us feel important. On the other hand, the truth is, well, often boring. Or perhaps we remain ignorant because learning could make us question long-held beliefs or traditions, as learning is bound to do. And we all know ignorance is bliss, while the truth, of course, hurts. 

While history has been dotted with periods of both enlightenment and darkness, it is ironic that the only thing keeping us from “knowing” today is our own lack of curiosity. While some of the greatest minds in history were persecuted and even killed for seeking knowledge, we aren’t even interested enough to do a Google search.

Perhaps it’s because the thrill is gone. Perhaps if the only way we could gain knowledge today were to decipher codes and solve riddles, we, too, might be interested in learning something. Perhaps it’s all just too easy and what we really need is a challenge. Maybe someone should create a propaganda campaign convincing the masses that the government is threatening to take away our right to seek knowledge, as the masses seem convinced it’s threatening to take away so many other rights. 

Then again, maybe that wouldn’t work either. Maybe we’d rather just argue over whether or not ESPN screwed up honoring a former Olympic gold-medalist turned reality TV star now transgendered Vanity Fair cover model over a double amputee war veteran turned cross-fit, distance runner and Dances with the Stars contestant.

See what I mean?