Ignorance Studies, and Other News


On the Shelf

An illustration of ignorance personified from an 1890 edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.

  • Literary fame has been a thorny thing more or less forever—according to Suetonius, Virgil sometimes ducked into buildings to flee his fans and the adulating masses. But what accounts for this celebrity, and what stokes its flames once a writer has died? Being struck down in your prime helps: that’s why we read Keats, who died at twenty-five, and not Barry Cornwall, who lived to eighty-six. All told, “an appetite for literary immortality, like the desire to read one’s obituary, poses sufficient challenge that a writer should concentrate on other goals.”
  • Today in etymology and the patriarchy: misogyny is a very old word, and sexism a fairly new one—in 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “a sequence of six cards”—but despite their nuances, the two are coming to be used interchangeably: “Imputing hatred, which is what misogynist does, is an unnecessary step in a different direction … Misogyny isn’t merely a strong version of sexism. Some men go past stereotyping to contempt. Those calling out ‘misogyny’ everywhere do so with the aim of helping women, but overuse of a word weakens it. If speakers keep misogyny to its original and more powerful meaning, it will pack a greater punch, hopefully to land all the harder on the misogynists of the world.”
  • If we want to dispel ignorance, there’s one tactic we haven’t really tried yet: teaching it. Ignorance Studies could impart valuable lessons about human folly, in its many guises. “The study of ignorance—or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford—is in its infancy … But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.”
  • Since The Corrections, published fourteen years ago, Franzen has assumed a role as our preeminent public moralist, following in the footsteps of Roth and Mailer where once he admired more fringe figures like DeLillo and Gaddis. “His new phase is marked by his conviction that novels be animated by causes … Franzen has always conceived of writing as a competition, with all writers everywhere, living or dead, aligned either with him or against him, or both at once. His critical writings often read like peace treaties or declarations of war, or like the posturings of a permanent undergraduate at pains to take a side. They frequently contain eccentric statements about what it means to read a novel.”
  • Charles Simic has been reading Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative, culled from thousands of pages of court records spanning three decades around the turn of the twentieth century: “I know of nothing like it in literature … what we have here is the first found epic poem. It certainly reads like one, with its huge cast of evildoers and victims, vast setting, and profusion of breathtaking stories. Murder, treachery, injustice, greed, foolishness, jealousy, rape, anger, revenge, marital squabbles, cruelty to children and animals, bad luck, and many other miseries human beings bring upon themselves and on their fellow men are all here to behold … It should not be surprising that Testimony is rarely assigned at our colleges and universities these days; it causes too much discomfort to those who prefer to know nothing about what goes on in the world. This may be precisely what Reznikoff intended with a book like this. Let whoever reads it be upset.”