you can’t know everything . . . though you wish you could

If I examine it logically, I’m aware that I know amounts ranging from “a little bit” to “rather large truckloads” about a whole lot of places and time periods. Ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, ancient China, Japan, Mesoamerica, India, Viking Age Scandinavia, the American frontier, etc.
And oh yeah, increasingly broad swaths of English history.

Sometimes, though, I go into fits over how much I don’t know.

This admission is brought to you mostly by my current reading on the Ottoman Empire, but also by seeing a preview for a documentary about Rudolf Kastner (who I’d never heard of before, despite him being Rather Important), and half a dozen other things reminding me that there are whole chunks of the world (like most of the southern hemisphere) about which I know almost nothing, whole centuries or even millenia in the areas I am familiar with about which ditto.

(And, of course, this little gap.)

What I know never really feels like enough. Even though I’m aware that I know more than your average bear. One of my favorite things about this job is that it gives me license to decide I really ought to learn more about Topic X; but the list of such topics actually goes from A to Z and then starts pillaging other alphabets for more. And a lifetime doesn’t feel like enough in which to learn it all. Which it probably isn’t.

Yes, folks, this is the kind of existential angst that occasionally plagues my mind. Tossing it out there because I suspect some of you feel the same way, from time to time. Consider this official commiseration space — or space to admit to similiarly half-logical forms of self-criticism. What things do you go into fits over?

0 Responses to “you can’t know everything . . . though you wish you could”

  1. arielstarshadow

    And yet some people are baffled by my desire for immortality…

  2. celestineangel

    RE: linked post. We never got around to reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Actually, I cannot for the life of me recall the vast majority of what we did in history in high school, other than the one act we put together for 20’s history day. Or something. We did a play about a man who finds out he lost everything in the stock market crash and commits suicide. 😀 We were some morbid kids. Which is probably why I remember it so well (er, other than the history teacher telling me I needed to be on the set committee, not the writing committee, because she’d read my writing. W.T.F.???).

    Tangent. Sorry.

    I feel terrible about this (sometimes) but I can’t seem to make myself be interested in current events beyond a general feeling that we’re doing it wrong.

    Also, you know a thousand times more than I will ever know, but apparently you’re striving for godhood. 😀 Go for it. When you know everything, you can write The Book of Ultimate Knowledge and then bury it where no one can find it because we’re not ready!!! (Just finished reading The Lost Symbol, so it’s sort of taken over my brain for the moment.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Current events are another entire kettle of fish. Several kettles. Several thousands of them. And yet, how can I understand them without knowing their history first?

      • celestineangel

        That’s very, very true. And the idea of learning all of that overwhelms me, because it’s a lot to learn just to understand what’s going on today. My brain can’t even begin to process how much information that is.

  3. beccastareyes

    For history, I know nothing about Africa south of the Sahara beyond some bits of colonialism under Europe. A lot of my history from high school/college was blurred together in my brain, and I did have several good professors who made sure we got outside Western Europe and America — mostly bits and bobs about India, China, Japan, and the Middle East. I also took an Asian history class that was mostly China and Japan — I wish we had talked more about Korea or Southeast Asia.

    I also am dealing with dealing with being a grad student researcher. A friend linked me to an essay by a biologist about the difference between absolute and relative stupidity (though ignorance may be a better word here). Basically, the idea is that when you’re in a class, you can measure your knowledge versus the other students and the teacher, and figure out ‘how much do I know versus my classmates or what the teacher things I should’.

    When you start doing research, you start measuring your progress on ‘how much do I know about the problem I’m working on’, and you start to realize that you don’t know the answers when you ask questions or get asked questions, but no one knows, and the research is to try to find out. And part of being comfortable as a scientist is learning that it’s okay to realize your absolute ignorance and get comfortable with being regularly confronted with things you don’t know.

    • mindstalk

      Most of the southern hemisphere is ocean. :p

      If you’ve read 1491, Bryn, you’ve got something on South America. Basil Davidson seemed a good historian on sub-Saharan Africa. Milton Osborne’s _Southeast Asia_ seemed a good overview, from early kingdoms to colonialism (including Japanese) and independence. Light coverage, but I like to have broad skeletal knowledge and get surprised by details later,

      • Marie Brennan

        I mostly listed stuff that’s above the “a little bit” level of knowledge. 1491 was fabulous, but it also constitutes about 96% of what I know about South American history, so the sum total is not much.

        I will definitely save those other two refs, though. It’s always nice to have a starting point for new adventures in nonfiction.

    • Marie Brennan

      I just feel like it’s a moral failing on my part not to know about even the most important details of some region or time period. Because that stuff matters to people, quite a lot.

  4. c0untmystars

    I have recently come to realize just how much I don’t know about American history after World War II. The Western Civ and American History classes I took in college were both approximately 17-something through 1945 and we never even got to 1900 in either of them because the professors were in no hurry to make sure we covered everything; we got bogged down in the 1800s. My personal interest generally lies in the first half of the 20th Century, particularly the 1920s-30s. But of my parents’ lifetime, or my own until I started paying attention to current events? Not much. And of cultures, ethnicities and experiences outside of the usual Dead White Europeans? Tragically, shamefully little. I can do something about this, and I actively want to, but it’s overwhelming… there’s just so much I don’t know, and I have no idea where to start!

    • Marie Brennan

      This is actually one of the weird advantages of approaching this via writing: I come up with something I’d like to write (e.g. a linked set of short stories about a Fantasy!Chinese guy exiled from the imperial court, traveling across the fringes of the empire), and then that helps me decide that okay, learning about China is higher on the priority list than learning about (say) Australia. Then I go asking people who know about China for books to start reading.

  5. diatryma

    I know an awful lot about various fictional things, but very little about the world I actually live in. It’s so much easier to read fiction, after all.

  6. pentane

    I remember as a youngster I used to never understand how people could just not know things. The bit about Galdalf being the only wizard with hobbit lore was baffling. Couldn’t they just learn it?

    Now, however, I understand why it is that people have gaps in their knowledge. Time is limited, as is memory.

    This bothers me at work as I’ve been in management for 6 years now and am totally not current on the technology we are using.

  7. Marie Brennan

    Korea is one of the ones I feel bad about not knowing, because of the implications of me knowing China and Japan.

    The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is one of the many, many books on my shelf I have no yet gotten around to reading.

  8. fablewright

    We all go through this stage at one time or anther. It’s a shame we have only one life time to squeeze in such limitless, endless, fathomless knowledge. Forget about the past, do you think you know everything that goes on in the present? A good way to start getting out of this phase is to get our fundamentals right in history. History always fascinates me. Learning history is like getting down to your roots. If you’re stuck and need answers you might want to try Shmoop. The guidelines there helped me a lot in getting a good perspective on US History.

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