Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Factoids ≠ devotions

At Borders the other day I came across a display for something entitled The Intellectual Devotional.

Back copy:
Millions of Americans keep bedside books of prayer and meditative reflection--collections of daily passages to stimulate spiritual thought and advancement. The Intellectual Devotional is a secular version of the same--a collection of 365 short lessons that will inspire and invigorate the reader every day of the year. . . . Impress your friends by explaining Plato's Cave Allegory, pepper your cocktail party conversation with opera terms, and unlock the mystery of how batteries work. . . . Offering an escape from the daily grind to contemplate higher things, The Intellectual Devotional is a great way to awaken in the morning or to revitalize one's mind before retiring in the evening.
Subtitle:
Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class.
If there's such a thing as "the cultured class," you and I, dudes, surely belong to it. But whether there's a large number of people who believe that they do not belong, but who wish to (or even just want roam alongside us occasionally), I'm in more doubt.

Now, I went to the kind of college where people said--often laughingly, but in all essential seriousness--that a good reason to take Art History 101 was that it would allow you to make cocktail-party conversation someday. The exact set of circumstances whereby I might find myself at a party where suddenly everyone was talking about chiaroscuro were no more clear to me than why I would stay if they did--but, like my peers, I took the possibility seriously. In high school or college I might even have bought this book or given it as a gift to a friend.

But if anyone searching for the book's website has landed on this post by mistake, lemme tell ya: no one cares if you've read Ulysses, or know exactly what an aria or nuclear fission is--and trotting out your two-paragraph factoids on those subjects among actual Joyce scholars or opera singers or nuclear scientists isn't going to impress anyone. What do you do when you start "roam[ing] with the cultured class"? Uh, you hold intelligent conversation. You show that you have an interest in something, and are as eager to share your interests with others as to lean about theirs.

So pursue the things that actually interest you. Go to the exhibitions that come to your local art museum, or befriend a master woodworker, or take a series of pastry-making classes. Whatever. And if this book inspires you to learn more about some of the subjects it treats, awesome. But the only people with a fetishistic list of Things Everyone Should Know are those with screaming class and/or cultural anxieties themselves.

Trust me. The academy's full of 'em.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think lists and canons are always problematic, but like organized religion, a necessity for some.

Christopher said...

It reminds me of that genre of handbooks, like the official preppy handbook, hipster handbook etc, that also play on class/cultural anxieties. Unfortunately, while Intellectual Devotional's information seems to fall short of even cocktail conversation, I can see how some of these other guides can be very successful due to the shallowness of many "class" signifiers - they'll let you hobnob about what cheese to buy along with other members of the huge crypto-guidebook reading community.

medieval woman said...

I can name at least 5 of my senior colleagues who would buy that book with a straight & serious face and offer it up to those "junior faculty youngsters" who have some "ketchin'" up to do...

Ana said...

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen had a remarkable conversation on the same subject in "Manhattan". At a certain point she says: "Facts – I got a million facts at my fingertips." The fact that she was a lady in distress tells us the rest.

undine said...

Exactly right! Wouldn't you rather hear someone talk about what he or she is passionate about, even if it's not on some mythical List o' Culture?

Flavia said...

Somehow, this seems appropriate here.

(h/t Meg and the divine Miss D)

Elizabeth said...

check to all of this, EXCEPT. if you haven't seen "rashomon" and/or know how to use it in a sentence (as in, "this whole situation is becoming so "rashomon"), then you are a total douchebag loser hillbilly.

Bardiac said...

Rashomon? (clearly, I'm not hip)

I laughed at the things white people like site. So dead on about some things...

JustMe said...

wow, that is weird. and seriously, "devotionals"? that is so wierd.

St. Eph said...

To all of this: Yes. But. I confess to having bought this for the poet who lives in my house, as it's exactly the right kind of bite-size contemplation that he likes to kick-start whatever the hell happens in his head pre-poem. And it saves me from yet another History Channel or Science Channel special on, like, aqueducts or quarks or something (not that they aren't interesting, but one needs a break occasionally).

I do like the idea of a devotional dedicated to something other than scripture, though. What it winds up being is a ready-made commonplace book. Not as useful or revealing as the original model, but a start.

What Now? said...

But doesn't "devotional" imply devotion to someone or something? And to what exactly is this book supposed to help one express devotion?

Flavia said...

WN: yes, and I actually had a couple of paragraphs about how this book is neither truly educational nor (quasi-) devotional--but the post was going in too many different directions, so I deleted them.

To be either intellectual or devotional, the book would have to go deeper and imply more of a commitment to extended thought and analysis. A "devotional" isn't (or shouldn't be) a bunch of random neat ideas or even passages--it's a way of working through either a single text really closely and slowly, or a series of related texts or ideas.

This book is just a scattershot collection of cool things, and although there's nothing wrong with that--I like factoids as much as the next girl--I'm irritated by the way it markets itself. It's not intellectual. It's not devotional. And it associates itself with a (totally middlebrow) snobbery that turns me the fuck off.

Rhapsodysinger said...

One of my colleagues took me to a carpenter after he had asked me for a list of fifty books I'd like to own after my marriage. He insisted that he be allowed to buy me at least ten from the list. I made a list for my own pleasure and passed it on to him.
At the carpenter's he just asked the elderly man to make the spines of the books as seen in Amazon. Make only plywood spines engraved with the names of all those books and set them on high in your highest shelf,my boy, my colleague had counseled me...