AS A NOVELIST, RESEARCH IS A NECESSARY—and for me, delightful—part of the job. In order to create (or re-create) a convincing time and place, I need to know what I’m talking about. When I wrote about ancient Judea in The Welcoming Door, I traveled to Israel. When virology became the basis of my book Lightland, I finally got a chemistry education. The Wise Man Returns required that I understand ancient Egyptian religion, and I relished the chance to delve deeply into the subject. The result was, to my mind, a fuller, more dynamic story.
When I write, it is my intent to draw the reader into the story with just the right amount of detail. I always have binders of information that don’t make it into the book because inclusion would result in a narrative speed bump. If the hero is being chased and finds momentary refuge at Abu Simbel, I can’t stop and pontificate on the temple’s history. (Unless I’m James Michener, who isn’t always successful in this gambit.)
This deep digging and conservative parsing out of information subtly lets the reader know that he will get everything he needs for a fulfilling and enjoyable ride. Indeed, Samuel Johnson said, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” That’s sounds about right to me.
But that’s not the world we’re living in. Now, things are backwards. From television to books to movies to politics, I see a recurrent thing. As opposed to deep understanding and a light sprinkling of gleaned facts, I see shallow understanding and unbridled passion, and that passion often masks a profound ignorance of the subject.
Economic theory is one case in point. Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics sets forth irrefutable economic truths, but every day I hear someone make an assertion that goes entirely against them. Atheists make the most stunning statements about what believers believe. Politicians regularly reveal an ignorance about human nature so complete that one wonders what planet they live on.
I blame the schools. When I was in junior high, teachers were still teaching, but by the time I was in high school in the early 70s, the bottom had dropped out, at least in California. Instead of reading classics, my sophomore English teacher had us dissect the popular song “American Pie.” We wasted a substantial amount of time learning about the death of the Big Bopper when we should have been reading The Iliad.
College was little better, at least in my liberal arts department. I had a communications class in which the professor spent weeks propounding his pet theory: “If there is no listener, there is no communication,” a tautology that even at the time struck me as axiomatic.
It wasn’t until I got to law school that I learned how to learn a subject. Our study carrels were located among the library stacks, and the old dusty, tan Pacific Reporters were at our fingertips. Legal research is all about precedent—what someone else said about a principle—and citations must be accurate and on point. You can’t shmooze the judge, who has a copy of the case you’re citing in his library.
But electrons conspired against all this. Reducing the libraries of the world into bits and bytes and the invention of key word searching means the seeker need no longer dig his way down to pay dirt. Comprehending the entire branch of anthropology that is ancient Egypt need not be a precursor for someone wanting to know what the “Twelve Hours of the Night” means. Now, you can Google the phrase and get millions of documents that use the term.
The drawback, however, is that there is no hierarchy of merit in the search results. The use might be found in a fringe essay or a scholarly work. And as an acolyte, you won’t know the difference, and your research may skirt Champollion, Carter, and Budge and be based on a high school paper by Stevie from Oak Park, IL. Sure, you may learn some interesting details, but these will collapse under the weight of all that you do not know, which will likely be the real significance of Osiris’s nightly journey.
Welcome to Wikipedia World.
Now, if Wikipedia were the Encyclopedia Britannica, that would be one thing, but it’s not. The Britannica is written, compiled, and edited by professional historians. Wikipedia is written, compiled, and edited by Stevie.
But, you say, historians are biased and cannot be trusted. Perhaps so. Having lived through the Vietnam era, I know first hand how that war has been distorted by historians. But I cannot imagine that Stevie will do any better. Indeed, he will surely do much worse, because his ideas come directly from the very same historians, but are then twisted even more according to Stevie’s own ignorance, and then re-injected into the datastream on Wikipedia, to be edited and argued over by people with no more understanding or education than Stevie himself. And you, as the reader, may never know the difference.
So why doesn’t Wikipedia hire real historians? Because they cost money and Wikipedia would have to be a pay site, like Britannica. And, as any Gen Xer will tell you, “Hey, man, information should be free!”
Funny, education costs money. Books cost money. Cars, food, and clothes cost money. But information, man, should be free. (I think those kids are mixing up information with music. Man.)
Now, on occasion, I use Wikipedia as a resource. It complements my reading, the paid internet research sites I subscribe to, my email exchanges and chat room discussions, and my regular visits to the library. But to rely solely upon one source for information—as it appears the talking heads of our culture do regularly—is to reveal a profound laziness and ignorance to the world.
But does it matter? If everyone says the world is flat, does that not make it so?
Here there be dragons.