Posts Tagged ‘Spark Notes’

Snippet scholarship: Being at ease

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Snippet scholarship: A note to the likeminded

I consider myself a snippet scholar.

While not a perception I particularly desire or encourage, I confess being a snippet scholar can often be thought pejorative. Snippet scholarship could be construed as my being a connoisseur of television sound bites or street-side church signs or as the way of one born to think as a Jeopardy! contestant.

What I speak of is not exactly an attraction to trivia; it is more of a resistance to lengthy expositions. I once heard a teaching colleague describe an administrator as one who “When you ask a question, you get a pageant for a reply.” I do not easily suffer pageantry in conversation or exposition; I want to get through explanatory prose as quickly as possible.

My discovery of my own predilection for what I call snippet scholarship arrived late in life when I became consciously aware of a lifelong attraction to so-called “handbooks.” In fact, I might better describe my leaning as more of a handbook scholarship than a snippet scholarship.

On my living room bookshelves as I write, an “accidental sample”–as the data buffs might say—reveals about 40 such volumes, not including dictionaries (such as a Dictionary of Symbolism), or grammar and style tomes on the order of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and the less sparse volumes produced by Theodore M. Bernstein, such as The Careful Writer. My quick count runs a gamut from Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace, subtitled, A Vocabulary of Faith, to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, subtitled, The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. And this count does not include the row of dictionaries and writing guides that adorn my desk.

One must understand: I do not simply refer to these books, I read them. The latest of my snippet guide devourings is something of a best-seller, ’isms and ’ologies: The 453 Basic Tenets You’ve Only Pretended to Understand, by Arthur Goldwag, who says his book “can serve as an intellectual and social shorthand.” A few months ago I finished reading (in its entirety) Nathan P. Feldmeth’s Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 terms clearly and concisely defined.

It would be easy for me to lay my snippet penchant at the feet of a college professor of psycholinguistics who habitually encouraged students to read—actually read with care and in detail—dictionaries. (I confess to being one of a handful of students who took his admonitions to heart and developed a habit of perusing—in the true sense of that word—dictionary entries.)

However, I have to go further back to account for my snippet tendencies. I have always been a slow reader. My wife, for instance, can devour a Dick Francis novel in a couple of hours that would probably take me a couple of weeks to complete.

I went through high school in the days before CliffsNotes, Spark Notes, and most of the other “shortcuts” that secondary school teachers disdain. Had I access to them, I would have been a grateful champion of their snippet approach. Instead, I had access to Classics Illustrated Comic Books (to get the best flavor of this treasure trove, I recommend one visit this site: http://www.tkinter.smig.net/ClassicsIllustrated/index.htm and its links.)

By the way, my high school teachers held these graphic adaptations of the classics in disdain as well, and that inculcated guilt in my consciousness that took a long time to shake. Even after learning in college that most literature students were more familiar with Masterplots than with original editions, I always felt I was somehow cheating by taking the “shortcuts.”

It has taken decades for me to be at ease with my snippet tendencies. One cannot imagine how vindicated I have felt with the invention of the hyperlink and the ascendancy of Google as a way of scholarship; alas, many of my colleagues and many of my son’s high school teachers have nothing but disdain for Google. Be at ease, they will learn.

I am now a proud snippet scholar. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to blogging, as you also must be! Be at ease, my snippet friends.