Thursday, July 26, 2012

Connections - Non-fiction

In response to a prompt on Theme Thursday. This week's theme:


I just completed reading “The Know-It-All” by A.J. Jacobs, his account of his time spent reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z. That sounds duller than tarnished brass, but it is an interesting and amusing read. Jacobs lists oddball facts about things he’s read. Throughout, he sprinkles anecdotes about his childhood and current situation, including his hilarious insights on life gleaned from the 65,000 Britannica entries and many failed attempts at proving to himself & others that he has become smarter during his 33-volume journey. 
Shaw posing as The Thinker for
photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn

During an interview with the host of Jeopardy, Alex Trebek told him, “I’m curious about everything ---even things that don’t interest me.” Wow! I think. Alex and I are kindred spirits.

Once Jacobs completed his quest, one of his conclusions was that “everything is connected.” 

I’m sure that is obvious to many, yet the way we are taught history in Social Studies class, biology in Science class, one has a tendency to compartmentalize knowledge and fail to see how everything is indeed linked.

However, when I studied art in college, I needed to know chemistry and geology to develop ceramic glazes and I used geometry to calculate materials needed for art projects. I noticed connections between the creative insights of artists, writers, musicians, and scientists. 

Six degrees of separation has never seemed like an off-the-wall concept to me.  Many times I discover that there are only one or two degrees of separation.

Twain posing in the cap and gown he
received when awarded an honorary
degree from Oxford. The photo was
taken at Stormfield, Twain's Redding CT
home. Coburn's autochromes were among
the first colored photos.
I especially notice such connections in my reading. During the time I read “The Know It All” I also listened to the audio version of “Mark Twain, Man in White,” covering Twain’s final four years.  On two occasions, on the same day, I read entries that touched on the same incident or person in both books.

In the Twain book, the author touched on the famous trial of Harry Thaw who killed Stanford White in 1906.  Twain was on the list of potential jurors, but was excused because he was acquainted with several people involved in the case, including one lawyer.  When the author mentioned that Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity, I wondered if that were the first instance of that plea being a successful legal strategy.  Later that day I read that Jacob’s wife had been quizzing him on his knowledge and asked who was the first person to successfully use an insanity plea.  Jacobs guessed Thaw.  He was wrong.  But there was Thaw and the Stanford White murder trial, twice in one day.

A few days later, Jacob mentioned a Britannica entry about George Bernard Shaw's nude photograph taken in England by art photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn. The same day, when listening to the Twain book, I learned that Coburn had arrived, unannounced, at Twain’s home to request that the author pose for him, albeit fully clothed. Shaw's naked photo was mentioned there, too. Other odd connections were that Shaw and Twain were friends and that Coburn’s middle name, Langdon, was Twain’s wife’s maiden name.

There is one final obscure connection between A.J. Jacobs and my own father. One of my father's pleasures was grabbing any volume of our home Collier's encyclopedia, opening it to a random page and reading. I believe he thought of it as the college education he never had the opportunity to pursue. 

I hear TV detectives repeatedly say they don’t believe in coincidences, but they happen to me all the time. Or, perhaps, I just pay attention when I notice links between two seemingly unrelated events.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us. -Sargent Shriver


Jenners said...

I'm a HUGE A.J. Jacobs fan and this was one of his two best books (the other being The Year of Living Biblically -- which pretty much says it all). And I often find connections between my reading in the most surprising ways. For example, I read about the supervolcano in Yellowstone a few months back in Bill Bryson's book (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and then have come across mentions of it at least four times since then. Weird how that works, isn't it?

Tea norman said...

I have never heard of this man who read the Encyclopedia Britannicas. I would love to read the book about A.J. Jacobs.

Karen Fayeth said...

Excellent post. The middle bits about needing to know chemistry to do art. I hate math with a passion and quickly emptied math learning from my brain.

And so I sit at my art table crying over fractions as I can't crate my works without them. Thankfully I have a wise and patient husband (who also read an encyclopedia set cover to cover when he was a kid, coincidentally.)

Everything most certainly is connected.

Brian Miller said...

pretty cool connections you draw...and i like to do that as well with seemingly unrelated the end its like one big puzzle that leads to the big picture of life...

CJ said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Jenners: That happens to me all the time. One thing I notice is that I will read, see a report on TV, or a friend will tell me about some weird ailment I never heard of. Then, I hear/see it everywhere. Maybe it was there all along, but I wasn't paying attention.

Another thing that happens, is that I read, say, a novel, and the protagonist will have an unusual occupation or hobby. Then, a book I requested months earlier is ready for pickup at my library, and there is a character with that same job or pastime. Or both books will have a similar theme or take place in the same city. And, yes, it is weird how that works.

Tea norman: see if your library has this or other A.J. Jacobs books. You will learn something from him and laugh a lot, too.

Karen: Luckily I was always good at math, but I peaked out at trigonometry. I use algebra and geometry all the time, and lots of fractions or decimals when creating art work. I'm glad you have someone to help you. You might want to check out my post previous to this one, about Artist Trading Cards.

Brian: Yes, that is exactly how I see things, as a big jigsaw puzzle with all the little pieces creating a big picture. Even when the puzzle is only partially completed, one can see interesting images, but when all the pieces connect, WOW!

Amber said...

I truly enjoyed reading this. I too have this tendencey of relating two completely different things or situations. It comes almost naturally to me. And i love it! Everything is indeed connected and it's a beautiful fact. Thanks for sharing this with us. :)

Mrsupole said...

When I was young I used to dream about someday owning a set of encyclopedias. I seemed to be the only person I knew who actually liked to read them along with the dictionary. Sometimes I like to explore Wikipedia but do not have the time anymore. I too believe there is so much that connects each of us and is funny about the super volcano at Yellowstone because my hubby and I had just been talking about it a few weeks ago and I did have to check it out on Wiki and is really worth checking out.

Thanks for connecting with Theme Thursday and playing along.

God bless.

CJ said...

Mrsupole: Thanks for stopping by. You might look for an old, used set of encyclopedias. Since people rarely use them anymore, you could get a set for almost nothing. And you could make a goal to read one page or entree a day, in any order. It would only take 5 or 10 minutes.

When I was about 10 or 12, my parents purchased a set of Collier's Encyclopedias. My father would often pull a volume from the shelf and open it at random and start reading. I have no idea what percentage of the entrees he read, as this wasn't an every-day occurrence, but it was several times a week for several hours and went on for all the years I lived at home and long afterward. I think my father would have loved the internet, but died long before it existed.

Sometimes when I was looking up something for a class project, I found myself leafing through a volume of the encyclopedia and reading everything that caught my eye.

We now have that set in my husband's office. I rarely use it, mainly because it is so much easier to look something up online, even though lots of websites aren't all that reliable. But the encyclopedia is more than 50 years old now, so many entrees are outdated.

Online, I tend to click on links on one page, then click on another, then another. Before I know it, five hours have passed and I still haven't looked up what I was searching for to begin with. But, I figure, I probably learned something along the way.