Because my work often calls for me to be a curator of interesting stuff on particular topics, I spend a lot of time with search engines. They are kind of miraculous in a way; I’m often amazed at how easily I can come up with an exact image that I remember seeing ten years ago to illustrate a story, or how quickly I can come up just the right link, or photo, or piece of music or whatever to answer a query by a listener or a reporter.
Before such tools came along, I was also a regular denizen of the library, poking around the card catalog and the reference section, or with my head stuck to the screen of a microfilm reader. There was (and is) a pleasure in seeking out the particular in the amorphous mass of the general, and bringing home the nugget.
But there is also a danger in only seeking out the things you want to know, whether you find them or not. How do you know what you want (or really need) to know? This is a path that can lead to learning “more and more about less and less until finally you know everything about nothing”–a definition of an expert that I ran across somewhere. You can no doubt find the original citation via a search engine.
Fortunately my search activities are often derailed by the other things that come to light adjacent to what I might be searching for. While finding the particular has its own pleasure, meandering down byways that lead you farther and farther from your original goal is in many ways the purer pleasure. The ramble is a more civilized activity than the hunt.
For example, while rambling through just one novel, I learned a little about how perfumes are designed, something about the culture of Atlantic fisherman, took a trip into the Canadian arctic, and learned a little about narwhal migration and the science of hypothermia. In another novel, I learned how trick riders are trained to ride standing up in the ring, and about the subculture of carnival sideshows.
I had no idea that I wanted to know any of that, but I have now discovered otherwise.