One thing you can’t Google is what you should be Googling

One of the amazing things about humans is that they are all convinced they are above average. If you don’t realise what this means you are an example of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically the finding indicated that the smartest among us realise their limitations while the rest are not aware of quite how ill-informed they are – which is a nice way of saying dumb and dumber.

William Poundstone is an author whose latest book is Head in the Cloud (the blog has read some reviews but not yet the book) which talks the Dunning-Kruger effect and how humility and acquiring a wide range of knowledge might equip us to be smarter.

So far so obvious except that Poundstone’s argument is apparently more subtle than that – canvassing how inequality also manifests itself in levels of general knowledge. The problem he posits is about how we are handicapped by what we don’t know. From that starting point how do we know what we should be trying to know – in other words how do we Google what we should be Googling?

The question prompted the blog to think a bit about online and print-based information. The blog regularly Googles along with everybody else but it continues to use print-based reference books quite a lot as well – ranging across dictionaries of quotations, guides to foreign phrases, dictionaries and history, such as Tony Jaques, excellent Dictionary of Battles and Sieges. One of the reasons for this continuing reliance on print is that Google often provides too much information and too much information which is just plain wrong.

So the blog was delighted to get a copy of a new edition of a dictionary it uses often – Barry Jones’ Dictionary of World Biography. One earlier edition was flawed (not the fault of the author who insisted a printed statement about this was put in each copy distributed). This third edition is published by ANU Press and Wilkinson Publishing. The blog should say it worked, in the 1970s, with Michael Wilkinson when Michael was a young journalistic cadet who has evolved from that into being a very successful publisher.

A lengthy introduction by Barry amplifies the story of the dictionary told in The Thinking Reed; explains the history of the various editions; pays due credit to many helpers (including one former proof reader called Gough Whitlam); and, relates much of Barry’s long interest in history and biography.

All interesting enough, but why use the Dictionary rather than Google? Well accuracy for a start but, perhaps more importantly the extraordinary range and quantity of succinct and elegant biographies. For instance, Google John Dryden and you get anywhere from around 7 million to 10 million results. But with the Jones’ biography you get half a page which manages to encapsulate the work – including the fact that the Virgil translation is still in print – the politics and the family background. On the same page your glance also comes across Alexander Dubcek, Madame Du Barry and Russell Drysdale.

Opening at the Gs one gets Clark Gable (Marilyn Monroe makes the Ms by the way), the uncle and nephew Gabrieli composers, Yuri Gagarin and Thomas Gage – the rash and inflexible British General whose name is always associated with Lexington and Bunker Hill.

Turning to Barry’s beloved Montaigne (who gets about the same space as Dryden) there is a superb summary of his life and works and a one paragraph bibliography which ranges across works as diverse as the translator D.M.Frame and the only modern self-help book any sensible person would read – Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live. On the same page there is a terrific summary of the work and life of the next century’s great French thinker, Montesquieu, whose coinages – ‘the separation of powers’, ‘checks and balances’ and ‘the Byzantine Empire’ are still used today.

The blog, recently in France, set out for Chateau Montaigne from Bordeaux. Easy enough – train to Castillon and then a short taxi ride. Unfortunately checking at the tourist office for the best way to get there a young woman gave different advice on an easier and quicker route. Advice which reflected rather badly on French education because it confused Montaigne and Montesquieu and sent the blog to La Brede where the blog was stranded until a rather nice woman, realising the blog was lost, rescued the blog and wife, drove them to her chalet, introduced them to her husband (a Montesquieu descendant) who showed them his collection of Montesquieu manuscripts and who then drove them to the Chateau La Brede, and finally dropped them back at the light rail to Bordeaux. A finer example of the kindness of strangers would be hard to find. Back in Australia there is no need to get lost or confused about the two because they are both on page 588 of the dictionary.

On the next page both the Simon de Montforts – the Albigensian Crusade butcher of the Cathars and his son who was notorious for his expulsion of Jews from Leicester – although the omission of this latter fact from the entry puzzled the blog but given the brevity required the Earl’s revolt against the Crown was probably more essential.

All told there are more than 8500 entries and by the time you work your way from the A’s (Tony Abbott and Alvar Aalto) to the Z’s (King Zog, Mark Zuckerberg and Stefan Zweig) it is impossible not to be gobsmacked by the sheer erudition and comprehensiveness.

Google is great. But if you want an instant, accurate and brief summary of an astonishing array of important historical and contemporary figures buy this book and keep it on a shelf above your desk – just as the blog does with its collection of dead tree works which are often quicker and easier to consult than the online alternatives.