Being There

It has always amused me how much emphasis we place, in our non-fiction media, on someone being "on the scene." You see this, for instance, when there is a big meeting at City Hall, or a riot in a prison, or the police are at some celebrity's house. Turn on the news, and there will be a reporter, outside of City Hall, or just beyond the fence around the prison, or on the other side of the police tape from the Celebrity's house. Generally speaking, the only information these reporters will have is what authorities are releasing to them, which they could just as easily have had e-mailed to their office: yet there they are, the wind sweeping their hair, reporting on the scene. Somehow, that makes their reporting of the official press release more trustworthy, or accurate, or something.

But we of book culture are subject to this bias as well. I'm reading Michael Erard's Babel No More right now, a book about hyperpolyglots (people fluent in more six or more languages). Erard begins his tale discussing Cardinal Mezzofanti, who appears to have been fairly fluent in about 30 languages, and to have had some knowledge of another 30 or more. In the course of his investigations, Erard travels to Bologna, the Cardinal's hometown.

What does he do there? Will, he spends what appears to be four or five days (it is not entirely clear from the narrative, but this is the impression I got) messing around in Mezzofanti's papers. These are in a variety of languages, the majority of which Erard cannot read all, a few of which he has some reading ability, and in only one of which, namely, English, he is fluent. Then he visits a scholar who wrote a book about Mezzofanti, and who shows him Mezzofanti's library. He seems to spend about an hour or two talking to that fellow, and then concludes: "I could stay in Bologna until my Italian was molto perfetto, and the truth about the hyperglot would elude me."

Well, yes, with haphazard, lackadaisical research like that, one is not likely to get very far! It's not that Erard accomplished nothing in his time in Bologna, but I doubt he accomplished as much as he could have had he just gone to the New York Public Library and done some serious reading on his topic. The point of the Bologna trip was not to find out anything in particular: the point was to show he was really there, touching Mezzofanti's shit and whatnot.

And you weren't.


  1. This reminds me of a TLP post, Gene.

  2. I certainly have been influenced by his style of post.


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