Hedgehogs & foxes

Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful essay The Hedgehog and the Fox is really about Tolstoy’s War and Peace but it starts off with a quotation from the Greek poet Archilochus (who is, let’s face it, much less read and re-read than Tolstoy): “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Berlin sees Proust, Ibsen, Dostoevsky and others as hedgehogs, ‘monists’ who are good at one big thing, and Shakespeare, Pushkin and Montaigne as ‘pluralist’ foxes. Tolstoy he sees as being a bit of both.

As we learn that the actual hedgehog population is in peril, we ask ourselves: is it better to have only one big skill or defence, or to develop a range of skills, call yourself versatile and be ready for anything? It seems to work for foxes.

However, in the world of work we are often expected to be good at one big thing. Employers and potential employers who want us to fit their own scheme would themselves resent being pigeonholed and would want to be credited for their own diverse skills.

Actually, in most situations we only need to be ‘good enough’ – we get by without being an expert at spelling, adding up, driving, boiling an egg – and indeed if your particular skill becomes obsolete or if fate decides you can’t do it any more, you could be in trouble.

Perhaps the solution is to be foxes and then play the hedgehog game when the situation demands it. And to seek out those who enjoy foxiness in others, remembering that hedgehoggery has its charms when that One Big Thing is something that fascinates us.

Taking the librarian out of the library

We (former) library types must never forget our heritage. Even though we don’t need to wear soft-soled shoes at work any more or speak in that quiet library voice, our skills are more and more useful as the world of information gets messier.

We shouldn’t feel apologetic about our passion for order and consistency – and our championing of the semicolon. People – especially creative people – can be quite dismissive of things like filing, until they want something NOW. “I just search through the sent emails and there should be an attachment.”  “Ah yes, that was around the time my gmail account got hacked / corrupted / wiped.”  “Just bear with me while I search through thousands of old emails.” Of course, those who have a librarian’s discipline will be able to locate the missing bit of information instantly and be considered amazingly well organised.

And then there’s “Just Google it.” as a way of finding out everything. All very well, but how do you know if it’s authoritative, relevant? Or the right amount to be useful to you.

If you don’t want that feeling of ‘drowning in information but thirsty for knowledge’ (as described back in 1995 by Königer and Janowitz), you could do a lot worse than learn a few tricks from your librarian friends.

Young people & their ears

When you sit on the tube and the person next to you is driving you crazy with that high-frequency rattly sound coming from their leaky earplugs, do you point out that they’re a) driving you mad and b) wrecking their ears? Or do you move to another part of the carriage in the hope that it’s iPod-free? Or perhaps you sit there and reflect that you could make a fortune in the hearing-aid business?

And then these same people and their (young) friends pitch up at the table next to you in a pub or restaurant. You begin to wonder if, in London at least, nobody under the age of 30 can communicate in anything other than a monotonous fortissimo. They have lost their interest in (vocal) light and shade because they have blasted their ears with the most unsubtle noise.

Tutti & the mezzo soprano

It’s rare in opera for the mezzo soprano to have a big aria alone on stage. More often than not she’s telling a story: how her mother got burned in a bonfire, and how she threw her own son into the same bonfire by mistake, or she’s setting out her view of the world: how love is like a bird that you can’t hold in your hand. Some get around this by hoisting themselves up to planet soprano, but others are happy with a career in the ensemble, happy to be in the middle of things. Making things happen, making the whole scene or event look good.

Coherence & diversity

Why tutti?
A lot of years ago I took over from a colleague, June Geach, who had edited a book called Coherence in Diversity – about multilingualism in schools. Good title, it’s high time it was resuscitated.

It’s great to be incredibly talented at one thing – music, physics, accountancy – and we all know people who are good at One Thing but are a bit over-specialised. It’s also great to be good at lots of things, without having to apologise for being a jack of all trades. It’s actually quite useful to have diverse talents and they can still be coherent if they are put to use at the service of something that matters. It’s even more useful to know people who can do lots of things, but speak your language so you don’t have to spend hours explaining what you want.

Well, that’s how my address book works. And that’s why I like ‘tutti’ to describe what I offer.