Knowledge and reason

Illustration of the Sherlock Holmes short stor...

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Most nights before I turn out the light I read for a while. Mostly I read novels then, some literary, some more escapist. Mixed up in there are the occasional short story, but regardless of style almost it’s fiction I read at night.

It’s different when I wake up. Reading in bed early is one of the great pleasures in life. On the weekend I read the newspapers. During the week, if I can manage it, I read non-fiction – histories, biographies, essays, books on ‘things’. By and large what I read in the morning is educational, though I’ll rarely read a book I don’t enjoy. As it happens I’m greatly inquisitive and love to learn. More often than not it’s a joy toi get up from my reading having learned something new.

Sometimes I’ll make notes on the books I read. Generally they’re the books I consider work related. For example I’m reading a book called The Design of Everyday Things at the moment, which is basically about usability in design (and fascinating). About a month ago I read a book called The Strangers Long Neck, basically about delivering the right content online. Both are interesting, both have relevance to my work. In both instances I’ll make notes on what I’ve read to keep for posterity. Writing it down also helps to lock it in.

My notes generally are little more than bullet points. That’s enough for me to recall the gist of the subject. I sometimes forget what happened the day before. I remember faces, but names elude me. For the things I read I hardly ever forget.

In some quarters I have a reputation for scary intelligence. Much of it is unfounded, at least on the terms they have measured it by. I read and remember. In conversations I am always bringing up arcane but relevant snippets. If anyone ever wants to know the answer to some piece of trivia they always come to me. I’m such a whiz at trivia games I am either handicapped, or drafted into teams as their secret weapon. I’d like to take credit for this, but little is due beyond the fact that I have an insatiable curiosity and am a voracious reader. Otherwise these bits and pieces simply lodge there in my mind ready to be used or recalled when the time comes.

I like being this way, and it is very handy, but it’s not really intelligence – not as I see it anyway. Intelligence is more than knowledge, it’s knowledge applied, it’s the ability to reason – that is to observe and analyse the available information and to produce from it a logical hypothesis or theory. Intelligence is an activity; knowledge is passive. It just sits there like a bunch of dusty books on the shelf just waiting to be read.

The phrase ‘learned fools’ for me has always had a lot of resonance. You can know every fact in the world, but they mean nothing without context. There are many who know much, but few who know how to use what they know.




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