The Cliff Notes Version of the The Complete Idiot's Manual to Bluffer's Guides

My use of the phrase "bluffer's guide" yesterday got me to thinking about all of those wonderful books that promise to make learning a breeze. Here it all is they say: ten thousand years of history, the central concepts of economics, the major theories of sociological analysis. Anyway, this phrase—a bluffer’s guide—has stuck in my head for the last twenty-four hours. Just what is a bluffer’s guide? Academics usually take a dim view of them and suggest that such books are little more than handy cheat sheets, tools useful for creating the false appearance that you have mastered a vast and complex body of knowledge when all you have done is gleaned a few relevant but superficial insights.

I will confess to resorting to Cliff Notes once (I too have sinned). We were assigned to read The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy for a Victorian literature course. I am no fan of Hardy's novels, all those characters relentlessly ground underfoot by indifferent, deterministic forces (I admire his poetry a great deal, however). Well, after several chapters of this bleak fatalism, I succumbed to temptation and bought the Cliff Notes version with its handy plot synopsis and overview of major characters and themes. The truth is I passed the exam on Hardy and my guilt faded with time. Even so, I have mixed feelings about the use of bluffer's guides.

One the one hand, a great deal of my knowledge outside of my discipline (and a bit inside) is entirely the result of bluffer’s guides. I love the things, can’t get enough of them. And yet when I think of how much I want to know and how little I do know, and when I think about how lazy I am… alas, a bluffer’s guide is as good as it is going to get. Am I ever going to get around to completely reading Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, or Bacon, let alone Marx or Cervantes? Fat chance. It’s a bluffer’s life for me.

Even so, a part of me still looks down on a thinker who reads widely rather than deeply, yet I also recognize myself as this person. I try to take comfort in Montaigne’s confession that he too was a great skimmer of books, or in Isiah Berlin’s remark that some minds are foxes and others hedgehogs, but I never stop longing to master something deeply, completely. And I never stop looking for good bluffer’s guides either.

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