Circle learning

[first published 18th March 2012]

The demise of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s printed edition has been greeted with an awful lot of breast-beating, not least in the Grauniad, where Ian Jack bemoans its demise in not-so unequivocal terms, and several of the commentators wax not-so-lyrical about the clumping great tomes. In an area in which information changes so rapidly and inexorably, the printed source-book is prey to obsolescence at speed. To take a cute example, the C18th children’s ‘science’ book (and I use the term loosely, because it’s anachronistic to use this term: natural philosophy is so much more accurate) The Newtonian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies (London: John Newbery, 1761) AKA Tom Telescope went through six editions between publication and the turn of the century. Over this time several important changes were made to the text. Examples are the introduction of the Orrery as a demonstrative instrument in the 1790s, with a point being made about the slowness of the mechanical demonstrations to keep pace with new discoveries such as the planet discovered by Herschal in 1781: Continue reading

The garden of forking paths

Like most of us, I have my own pet fears, the fear that mildly paralyses, the fear that renders one strangely impotent.

One of mine is the fear of making the wrong decision. Taking the wrong path. Wearing the wrong shirt. It manifests itself in several distinct ways.

Today, for example (and I use the word today in the sense of one large expanse of time rather than midnight to midnight), I set about the tidying up of what is fast becoming my last academic hurrah. It’s an eight thousand word essay on how William Rawley, Bacon’s chaplain, secretary and amanuensis appropriated Sylva sylvarum, a work Rawley published in 1626/7, the year of Bacon’s death, to his own ends. He manipulated the paratexts, that is, the stuff the text is wrapped in, in such a way as to turn Bacon’s work into an approach to the new king, Charles, for patronage. Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing this, except that in not noticing that he was being, ahem, a little disingenuous in his presentation, the work, and its companion piece, New Atlantis, is misread.

The tidy up ought to be simple. A bit of clarification here, a tweak there … but as usual, I spot something and start to think to myself, ‘hang on a second, are you speaking nonsense here …’, and before I know it, I’m knee-deep in texts trying to find that quotation which floats in the back of my head but won’t quite give itself up … a passage I was so sure of suddenly becomes weak, vulnerable. I want to return to how I read it before, but don’t actually think I trust it any more.

So, at the crossroads of my career, and careering is a pretty accurate word for it so far, I’m obsessing over getting this piece just fucking so … and this makes me wonder am I doing the right thing?

There is a job going. My area. But a fellowship at Cambridge. Now. Tutorial fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge are renowned for being set-ups. Almost invariably there is an internal candidate already on the job sheet, the interviews are for show and to fulfill legal obligations. We all know it, we all know people who have been pre-selected (and sometimes they’re stupid enough to tell everybody). But do I waste a day of my life filling in what may as well be a lottery ticket, on the off-chance, knowing that it’ll only piss me off more, or do I hold my hands up and say ‘enough, no more … not so sweet and all that shit.’

The latter, I feel. But I’m terrified that that is the job with my name on it.

I walked home tonight along a foggy seafront, tumbling over similar questions in my mind. When I fucked up last year, I fucked up good and proper. In doing so I broke the heart of someone I loved very much. I then made an error of judgement, a colossal, pitiful error. Possibly an error made through my reluctance to make a judgement. An error made largely because I refused to make the decision, to admit to myself how I felt. This error – and yes, error is an awful word, a useless word that utterly fails to communicate the thought processes that may or may not have occurred, the awfulness of my behaviour. This error shut the gate. And, it seems, locked it. Simultaneously I understood. I understood. Understandably, all attempts at redress made since have been firmly, and generally politely, rebuffed. I want, well, not to return, but to underscore and move on, but in the same plain.

But I wonder. Is it simply because I hate to think I took the wrong path, because that path was comfortable, good, great actually … or because I’m scared that it was wrong all along and I really just hate to lose. Especially something so good. Well, there’s the answer.

Do I ignore the bad bits now?

And what of the path which is opening up before me?

What, indeed.