July 25th 2013

This book was given to me by my grandmother shortly before she died. It is a nineteenth century ‘encyclopedic manual’ that was issued to schoolteachers and had belonged to her own grandfather. As like most semi-gifted children I spent most of my childhood reading rather than interacting, whenever I went to the countryside to visit my grandparents I would spend most time in the living room, browsing whatever books I could find. Since most were religious in nature and didn’t interest me, I always ended up reading chapters of this book — chapters on Morals and Religion (written from a Catholic fundamentalist perspective and which reminded me too much of Church on Sundays, so I skipped ahead), Mathematics and Geometry, Physical Sciences, History and Political Geography, and, interestingly, Greco-Roman Mythology.

The joy I felt when my grandmother gave me this book subsided and after she died it became just a memento, a gift from the grandparent I got to know the least, from whom I hold just brief memories from those rare, once-a-year visits. At home in the city the book laid largely unnoticed among all the other tomes in my bookcase, even if I would entertain the thought that it was really valuable (it’s not — mint condition copies can be bought for cheap online). I reasoned Manual Encyclopedico was an antique book, after all!

As I recently rediscovered the book I also learned to see it as a symbol of my own smartassedness. Feasting on encyclopedic information had been an addiction since an early age. From lonely afternoons reading the Junior Woodchucks Library in childhood to late-night binge-reading on Wikipedia in my late twenties, I had started to feel the weight of my own gluttony for facts. I’ve found some people may compliment me for being knowledgeable and opinionated, but most will resent me (and there’s an overlap between the two groups). Being a ‘know-it-all’ became a common accusation in foundering relationships; or the justification for a bad first impression. Being self-aware and trying to do something about it only seemed to make matters worse.

It took me quite a while to understand information doesn’t equal wisdom, and knowledge of ‘facts’ will often just lead us astray. I may carry a store of knowledge of a wide-ranging level of usefulness and expertise, but at thirty-four I still feel the same teenage hard time engaging in conversation with people I don’t know very well.

Paradoxically I should have paid more attention to Manual Encyclopedico. Besides all the facts about History and Political Geography which are obviously long outdated, in the old book a luminiferous aether is presumed to permeate the universe and our Sun is described as an inhabitable globe with a "radiant atmosphere" in the same pages that list the sixty-four known ‘planets’ of our Solar System. The lightning rod, the train and the atmospheric baloon are described as cutting-edge technologies. I used to have great fun reading all these ‘facts’ which were so obviously wrong and outdated. What I should have understood is that it is in the nature of facts themselves to suddenly become untrue.

This simple observation is the great nugget of wisdom I should have found in these pages. I was just too blind to see it.