It was about a month ago, while I was sitting in a small coffee shop that I frequent on South Street, when the girl behind the counter, Lauren, finally got the nerve to ask me about all the books and flashcards I carry with me.
"Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Sure," I said, incorrectly expecting upon those words, as many men do, a romantic query.
"Why do you carry around all of those books? You don't seem like a student?"
I laughed in the way I do to show people I'm uncomfortable. And then I said, "No, not right now. But I am studying, I suppose."
"Oh, cool. Are you learning a language or something? It's just that, you know, you come in here a pretty regularly and a few of us, the baristas, have tried to figure out what you're studying. But you always have all these different books stacked up on the table. It's funny."
I shifted uneasily, because this situation had presented itself before, in other cafes and bistros, places that I've haunted, especially before I moved to Philadelphia. This usually led to me abandoning those establishments and moving on to more anonymous, clandestine places to drink coffee and do whatever it is I do.
"Yeah, I just like to use some of my free time studying different things. You know, just to keep the brain working."
I felt like a alcoholic lying about how many drinks he'd had last night. I'm 27, and my brain does and has always worked perfectly fine without exercise. "I mean, I do it at home, too. But I like to come out every once in a while so I don't feel like such an old man."
I got the desired result from that last comment, a nice charming laugh and a smile, and I thought I was done with her. I wanted her to stop prying because I honestly didn't want to talk about it anymore. I didn't want to talk about the heavy bag of books that I'm afraid to leave the house without. The stacks of handmade flashcards on the table, that are a merely a small contingent of the Genghis Khan-esque army at home--I'd rather not talk about them at all, because, if I did, I'd have to either downplay the severity of the situation or reveal the absolute truth--I'm an incurable, autodidactic, mental-hoarder. In simple terms, I consume mountains of information as if my life depends on it, each seemingly innocent iota leading to the next, ad infinitum. Think of a spiderweb that goes on indefinitely.
I don't remember exactly when it started, sometime before college, but it comes and goes in consistent cycles and, currently, I'm in the throes of a major bout. I spend about five or six hours a day studying everything--Physics, Literature, Geography, Ecology, History, the Bible, Culinary Technique, Demography, Gardening, Marketing Theory--it just keeps going on and on and everything keeps leading into something else. I want to know.
I spend more on books and magazines a month than I do on anything else except maybe rent. Maybe. I read the Internet. The capital of Turkey is Ankara not Istanbul. Why? Because its geographical position is more central to land transportation and the country is mainly dependent on agriculture to sustain its upswinging economy. Which industries you ask? Well, primarily fruits and vegetables (figs, hazelnuts, watermelon, chickpeas, tomatoes) and textiles (cotton and wool).
But this isn't enough. What other nations are the most important in agricultural production? Let's make it easy; what are the top 25? Write them down on a flashcard and keep using that flashcard until you can name them all in order. Then check again in three days to make sure you still remember, because you're reading Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, learning Arabic (and keeping up on your French and Spanish), and enrolled in three unrelated online classes, and you work full-time, and all of this is probably never going to stop.
There is a thing that psychologists and education theorists refer to as intellectual need. It's the idea that a person feels holes, or negative space in their framework of the universe and they subsequently want to fill those gaps with information. It's one of the driving forces behind how we learn and assimilate cognitive information into a meaningful world-view. My intellectual need is currently set to max and the off button is broken.
Lauren came over to my small, wooden table and asked me if she could see my flashcards, because she thinks it's interesting that I study so much. I said, "Absolutely," although I wanted to say, "Get away from me." She looked through them for a minute or two, making general comments on my erudition, until a customer walked through the door. She started foaming milk for a cappuccino. I wondered if she knew that at 65º Celsius, the disaccharide sugars in the milk would begin to break apart, making for less palatable microfoam.
She probably just knew not to burn the milk.
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