Foxes and Hedgehogs
I’ve been asked the same question by several readers recently. How come I know so much about such a wide range of subjects? I blush even to type that last sentence. Now I’ll hurry on to correct a very mistaken impression.
To answer the question: I don’t know a lot. I’m just interested in a lot. I’m prey to sudden enthusiasms (which fade as mysteriously as they appear) and when something captures my interest I’m capable of getting the gist and, apparently, putting on a good show of knowing my stuff. More actress than scholar, you might say. I also have a serious book-buying habit which has resulted in my owning a good, if eclectic reference library.
Some Ancient Greek – I think Archilochus, but I bow to those who know better – divided people into two camps: hedgehogs and foxes. A fox may know many things but a hedgehog knows ONE BIG THING. Isaiah Berlin wrote about this with a level of erudition I’m not even going attempt. Apart from anything else I have the ironing to do. Suffice it to say that I am a fox. I trot from topic to topic, sniffing the air for the next interesting smell. I have a friend who is currently writing a lengthy PhD thesis on one abstruse aspect of one poet’s oeuvre and her life is my idea of hell.
I’ve occasionally been lucky enough to be invited to dine at High Table and my first thought has always been, ‘Oh no. They’ll rumble me. They’ll find out I barely scraped a bachelor’s degree and know zip about anything.’ Then I go to dinner and am reminded that Oxbridge Fellows are almost all hedgehogs. I suppose it’s in the job description. By the time we get to dessert I know I’m in the presence of great minds from the field astrophysics or archaeology but I’m also thinking that these people need to get out more.
I suspect our hedgehoginess or our foxitude is fixed in our DNA. My father was a fox, as witness his ‘garage’ which he filled with dozens of whimsical projects, some never completed, to the point where there wouldn’t have been room for a car even had he wanted one, which he didn’t. He wanted to know how to paint snow, why bats don’t bump into each other in the dark, and which mushrooms we could eat without dying a horrible death. Pure fox.
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