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06 July, 2007

Beachcombing With Kurt

I was talking to Wifie the other day and I pointed out that the length that hair grows to on different parts of your body is a function of the speed at which it grows and how long (on average) each hair lasts before it falls out. She looked at me in surprise and asked, 'How do you know that?' I just shrugged, and said, 'I dunno. How do I know most things I know?' Meaning, I just pick these things up, mostly from things I have read.

I am, in fact, a vast repository of arcane knowledge. For example, I know that the centre of our galaxy is in the direction of the constellation Saggitarius, that the wavelength of green light is about 500 to 550 nanometres, that the average length of a marriage in the West these days is under ten years, that Groucho Marx once said, 'I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.', that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, and so on and so on. I have no idea where most of it came from. I read a lot of stuff.

However, I noticed myself learning a piece of trivia today. I'm reading A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut and he mentioned in passing that Marco Polo brought back pasta (to Italy) from the Chinese. This struck me as such a singular fact that I know I will remember it. And this must be how I have learnt so much of what I know – by picking up interesting tidbits from novels, histories, biographies, science books, magazines, even TV shows and films. For example, I'm also reading Master and Man, a collection of short stories by Leo Tolstoy (and, yes, I often have two or three books on the go at once) and I'm discovering all kinds of interesting background about 19th Century Russian society, the care of horses, cobbling, how to navigate a horse-drawn sled in a snow-storm at night, and so on. Some will stick. Some will not. It's hard to tell, at this point, whether I will have retained anything from the experience in a year's time.

But the pasta-from-China thing will stay with me. I'm sure of that. As will the terrible sense of sadness that A Man Without A Country communicates. It's awful to think that Vonnegut was so disillusioned at the end of his life and so ashamed of what his country had become. It makes me want to have been able to comfort him – with something like, 'Don't worry about it. Nothing we become will even remember what America was in a million years' time,' or 'So what? We were just monkeys, playing a bit too roughly maybe. None of it really mattered.' You never know, it might have helped.

Anyway, I plan to keep A Man Without A Country handy and hope that, as I re-read it over the years, something more substantial than facts about pasta will stick to my neurons.

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