When it comes to what you put into your skull, what kind of Sherlockian are you?
In A Study in Scarlet, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about the detective and his loyal sidekick, Dr. Watson is trying to figure out just what kind of roommate he has picked up while recuperating from his recent military service overseas. (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” Holmes famously remarks upon being introduced, in an exchange that is gently parodied in the 1986 Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective.) While studying Holmes’s eclectic intellectual pursuits in hopes of enlightenment, Watson is stunned when his acquaintance not only claims ignorance about the fact that the Earth orbits the sun but then actually expresses his intention of forgetting his new knowledge:
“ ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilled workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. . . . [Y]ou say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’ ” (The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1, 154)
(In defense of the supposedly astronomically ignorant Holmes, editor William S. Baring-Gould argues that the detective is actually pulling Watson’s leg with his remarks about the solar system.)
The curious thing is that toward the end of his career, Holmes implicitly contradicts his utilitarian position. In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” he solves the mysterious death of a science instructor by recalling an odd phrase used by a nature writer in describing a jellyfish. “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles,” Holmes remarks (789). Apparently by this point in his life, the detective has found that extracurricular reading has its rewards.
Academia encourages, and sometimes actually demands, the approach of the younger Holmes. Reading and other mental activities are the servants of scholarship, and if something doesn’t “make a pennyworth of difference” to one’s work as a teacher or academic writer, to the wayside it goes. Detective fiction? Who has time for that when there’s a journal article waiting?
But I’ve always had an instinctive sympathy for the older Holmes – the one who, instead of reading yet another treatise on cigar ashes or the latest lurid testimony from the assizes, decides to kick back with some nature writing that later enables him to deduce that a fatality should be laid at the feet (or rather tentacles) of Cyanea capillata rather than a jealous romantic rival.
Part of this harks back to my longtime vocation as a copy editor, a job in which possessing knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep is quite advantageous. (You never know when the difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church might be important.) But it’s also a personality thing that reaches back into my youth. When news broke recently that Encyclopaedia Britannica would no longer be publishing a printed edition, I was struck by the number of Facebook acquaintances who confessed that they (like me) had spent their childhood leisure hours leafing through the family encyclopedia, omnivorously snapping up whatever trifles of knowledge they might find there.
Clearly, the sort of single-minded, narrowly focused dedication that Holmes advocates in A Study in Scarlet is necessary to scholarly success. (Commenting on the detective’s familiarity with what we would call true-crime literature, Watson bemusedly notes, “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century” ). But I would argue that the broad approach has its rewards as well. (In fact, some of these thoughts, along with the Sherlock Holmes references, formed part of one of my first graduate school papers in the summer of 2009.) One of our most important abilities is that of making connections between ideas, and the wider the intellectual net has been cast – inside and outside one’s specific academic focus – the more connections can be made, to the benefit of students as well as fellow scholars.
Perhaps I am preaching to the academic choir; perhaps we all know the importance of occasionally purchasing the oddball intellectual tool on the off chance that it may prove handy someday. But if not, consider the possible value of having one corner of that rigorously ordered mental attic dedicated to a little creative chaos. The younger Sherlock Holmes might raise an acerbic eyebrow, but the older one might look up from his retirement beekeeping and give you an approving nod.