Robertson Davies on Useful Knowledge

On my 1998 "sabbatical," I read about 25 or so books. Among them were the collected works of the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, one of that country's great literary lions whose rather old-world style and eccentric areas of expertise led to some fascinating novels -- What's Bred in the Bone being a particular favorite of mine -- and some interesting failures. One doesn't hear much of Davies since his death, and that's a shame. A paperback edition of Tempest-Tost

In one of his early novels, Tempest-Tost, he has the music master deliver a little speech that impressed me so much at the time that I've delightedly trotted it out whenever the subject of information management rears its tedious head. 

Up to the time I read the book, I admired and attempted to emulate the Sherlock Holmes idea of the mind as a limited container for information that needed to be categorized for convenient retrieval:

I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

A Study in Scarlet

But on reading the following passage by Davies, I saw there was another way one could organize one's mind -- mainly by not attempting to do so. It seemed to me then, and to me now, as so much more natural and relaxing. And in this age of structured information and rigid databases, it's a quote I find very inspiring because it's so human:

“Oho, now I know what you are. You are an advocate of Useful Knowledge.... Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.”

Isn't that marvelous? As I think about how I wish to manage my information stores, I think about that shaking the machine vs shaking the dustbin. Which is more robust? Which is more fun to maintain?

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