The Peril of Learned Lumber

“The bookish blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head.”

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (1711)

If we set aside the imputation of blockheadedness, I don’t suppose any bookish person will deny the essential truth of these lines. Like the capacious attic of a packrat, a retentive and bookish head will eventually be crammed to the rafters with “loads of learned lumber”; and much of this learned lumber will be broken, moth-eaten, moldy, begrimed, or meant for uses that the owner has forgotten or never understood.

The lumbering is worse in those bookish persons who have, as I have, the genial habit of desultory and miscellaneous reading. Of course, one cannot lead a life of desultory and miscellaneous reading without reading some lines by one of the many efficient and purpose-driven scolds who insist that all serious readers are methodical. But the genial and desultory reader merely chuckles, closes this book, and picks up some other, unrelated volume. And if providence is operative, that volume will be Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and he will open at the page where the great man opines,

“I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study . . . . A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”*

Now it must be said that Johnson went on to stipulate that a young man should read for five hours every day, so he was by no means advocating lazy and lackadaisical reading; but he was certainly right to say that there is little profit to be had from reading when reading is an assignment and a chore.

A second virtue of desultory and miscellaneous reading is that the desultory and miscellaneous reader must, sooner or later, swallow a book that contains some nutrients. The advantage of methodical reading disappears if the method restricts the reader’s diet to the literary equivalents of sawdust and sand. I’ve known many methodical academics who read nothing outside of “the literature” of their field, and who were, therefore, emaciated prisoners of the barbarous inanities of that cramped and  miserable literature.

I watched these methodical academics ascend to honors and renown, but will forever remember them with Lowell’s lines on the pedantic grind.

“A reading machine, always wound up and going,
He mastered whatever was not worth the knowing.”**

* * * * *

Whether the attic was packed by accident or method, the mischief begins when a head loaded with learned lumber undertakes to unload that lumber as gifts, donations, or commodities with price-tag attached. Unless the captains of these overburdened vessels are gifted with rare modesty and discretion, they will be tempted to dump their learned loads upon innocent and unwilling bystanders.

They will be tempted to make themselves colossal bores.

I am bored by a subject that neither interests nor amuses me. The mark of a bore is that he informs me about that subject nonetheless. He (and not infrequently she) is driven by an urgent and irrepressible need to dump and discharge minute and tedious accounts of mundane occurrences, trivial gossip, footling grievances, or piddling ailments. And He (or she) bores on and on, undeterred by my increasingly overt indications of indifference, impatience, annoyance, or desire to escape to the toilet.

A commonplace bore will bore me with a minute and prolix account of his trip to the grocer or the lining of his stomach, but the colossal bore will bore me with a minute and prolix review of the learned lumber in his head.

Professors are, I’m afraid, of all humanity, the persons most prone to being colossal bores. Years of lecturing to bored students has hardened them against every indication of indifference, impatience, annoyance, or desire to escape to the toilet.  Their very livelihood rewards them for an ability to  bore on and on, without the slightest sign of encouragement from their audience. Added to this, many professors groan under a cargo of learned lumber they feel an urgent need to dump.

So here are some lines that every professor (including this one) should add to the learned lumber in his head.

“So, struggling on to bridge the gaps
That seventeen from sixty sunder,
And causing at his best, perhaps,
A mild and intermittent wonder,
At least he recognized the truth
That there are other ways of earning
The sympathy of clear-eyed youth
Than by a mere parade of learning.”***


*) James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
**) James Russell Lowell, A Fable for Critics (1848)
***) Charles Larcom Graves, “The Dug-Out Dominie” (1917)

3 thoughts on “The Peril of Learned Lumber

  1. Kierkegaard anticipates your judgment in The Concept of Irony. So soon as a people has relinquished spiritual conviction, Kierkegaard writes, “The ‘Professor’ appears.” That solemn person conjures himself on the scene “through [the] many arguments [that] he is able to prove, to substantiate, and to comprehend,” until he constitutes a being “scientifically arranged in paragraphs.” Kierkegaard adds that, “The ‘Professor’ of course flatters himself and the respective graduate students and undergraduates and all their intended with the idea that the ‘Professor’ is Evolution’s finest and richest flower.”

  2. Pingback: The Peril of Learned Lumber | Reaction Times


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