What should a person know?

Consider these words:







They all contain the sound of n+o or its mutated echo. Each suggests the idea of acquisition, the filling of a space in the brain or the body. An encounter with a bit of information, an awareness, or—if we are lucky—with another person.

I love this about words: the ways they multiply and divide, their particular cellularity. Each of these words contains within it the same single cell: the PIE root *gno-.

I think of the Gnostics, the early Christians full of spiritual knowledge. I think of the power of information, what comes with knowing something and the choice to share—or not share—what you know. I think of the difference between knowledge and belief and wonder if it is real.

I think about the things I am compelled to know. Right now: pizza. I want to know dough. To be acquainted with semolinas and yeasts, and the temperature fluctuations of my oven. I want to acknowledge our stories, why we tell them, what they offer. I want to notice what makes a sentence ache to be spoken aloud by its reader.

When I think of the things I do not want to know, the list is longer. I realize that I am an agnostic at heart, against gnosis, attracted to the unknown, the not knowing. Lately, I just want to settle in there, to inhabit that comfortable, ambiguous space. I tell my students that I am more interested in their questions than their answers. Those budding engineers and scientists are confounded by a teacher who says, “Don’t write a thesis. Your job is not to prove something.” Their hard stares suggest they do not like me for this.

Not knowing reminds me of the name of Shelia Heti’s new novel: How Should a Person Be? It’s on my reading list for the title alone. I like a good, hard question.

“To know – and to present what we know as if it’s all we need to know – is deadening, really,” Dinah Lenney says about writing essays in “Against Knowing.” I wonder, is knowing itself sometimes deadening?

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