TITLE: What It's Like To Be A Scholar AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 09, 2017 9:04 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I just finished reading Tyler Cowen's recent interview with historian Jill Lepore. When Cowen asks Lepore about E.B. White's classic Stuart Little, Lepore launches into a story that illustrates quite nicely what it's like to be a scholar. First, she notes that she was writing a review of a history of children's literature and kept coming across throwaway lines of the sort "Stuart Little, published in 1945, was of course banned." This triggered the scholar's impulse:
And there's no footnote, no explanation, no nothing.
At the time, one of my kids was six, and he was reading Stuart Little, we were reading at night together, and I was like, "Wait, the story about the mouse who drives the little car and rides a sailboat across the pond in Central Park, that was a banned book? What do I not know about 1945 or this book? What am I missing?"
These last two sentences embody the scholar's orientation. "What don't I know about these two things I think I know well?"
And I was shocked. I really was shocked. And I was staggered that these histories of children's literature couldn't even identify the story. I got really interested in that question, and I did what I do when I get a little too curious about something, is I become obsessive about finding out everything that could possibly be found out.
Next comes obsession. Lepore then tells a short version of the story that became her investigative article for The New Yorker, which she wrote because sometimes I "just fall into a hole in the ground, and I can't get out until I have gotten to the very, very bottom of it." Finally, three transcript pages later, Lepore says:
It was one of the most fun research benders I've ever been on.
It ends in fun. You may be a scholar if you have this pattern. To me, one of the biggest downsides of becoming department head is having less time to fall down some unexpected hole and follow its questions until I reach the bottom. I miss that freedom. -----