This morning I finished reading Norman Dixon’s fascinating book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. It was sufficiently thought-provoking that I suspect I will have to go back and reread it several times, taking notes and making comments as I go.
However, I don’t intend to summarize the book or my impressions of its content. Instead I want to comment on the bibliography and chapter notes at the end of the book.
Perusing the bibliography of a non-fiction book is sometimes an exercise in self-congratulation and sometimes one of self-flagellation. I consider myself fairly well-read, and I was thinking, as I turned to the bibliography at the end, that I would find any number of books that I had already read. Partly this was because many of the factual accounts and a number of the conclusions reached by Dixon were in accord with things I had already read.
I didn’t count the number of works and papers cited by Dixon in his bibliography. They were numerous, somewhere between one hundred and two hundred, at a guess. I’m not a professional psychologist, so I didn’t think I’d be familiar with many of the papers or their authors, but I really did think at least some of the works cited by Dixon would be known to me. Or, at the least, I thought I’d know the authors.
Apparently I’m not as well-read as I thought. I recognized a mere handful of the authors, such as Liddell-Harte, Forester, and Glenn Wilson. The only book I read in that long list was Forester’s. That’s C.S. Forester, better known for his Horatio Hornblower series, but here cited as the author of a novel titled The General, which I read with great interest if not exactly pleasure when I was much younger.
In thinking over the reasons for this, one might be that Dixon’s work was first published in the mid-1970s, when I was still at university. Much of what I’ve read that would be relevant to Dixon’s subject matter I encountered 15 to 20 years later, when I became interested in the subject. So perhaps the relative familiarity of Dixon’s work derives from reading authors who came after him.
Or perhaps I’m not as well-read as I thought.
Regardless, I had to chuckle at myself when my certainty of a smug experience consisting of, “Yes, I’ve read that, very good” and “Aha, but of course he quoted from this,” and “I remember reading that, most intriguing” to a steadily growing confusion when I realized I had read virtually none of his sources!
This in turn led me to wonder at what point one may truly regard oneself as well-educated. One might perceive a certain complacent self-satisfaction in that term, perhaps, and that might be the lesson I should derive.
Sir Isaac Newton once remarked, if I remember the quote correctly, that however brilliant he was perceived by the rest of the world, to himself he always seemed like a small boy bending over to pick up pebbles on a beach that bordered a vast ocean. Curiosity impels me to look that up, and a moment’s Google search reveals the following from the Cambridge Library exhibition on Sir Isaac:
“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
So perhaps from time to time it does one good to be reminded how very, very vast that ocean of knowledge is, and perhaps to understand that any one man’s collection of pretty shells and pebbles is necessarily limited.