E.L. Konigsburg died the other day. She wrote two of my favorite books growing up: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which makes everyone who reads it want to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and The View From Saturday.
Something I never talk about is that I spent my high school years deeply invested in the world of quiz bowl. I mean, of course I don’t talk about it–when would it ever come up? But for those four years, it was one of the most important parts of my life. I got up when it was still dark out most Saturdays between October and March, waited in parking lots with my teammates to take vinyl-and-gasoline-scented school buses to suburban Chicago high schools, sat in classrooms and answered questions about history and science and classic literature.
And The View From Saturday, which is about a team of students and their coach competing in an academic tournament, made me want to do that. Maybe I liked the book so much because I already had the appetite for knowledge and the eagerness to show it off that would make me a successful quiz bowler.
The View From Saturday is one of those books that reassures you about being a kid who loves to sit inside and read. It doesn’t make learning seem cool. The heroes of the book are not the cool kids. They endure teasing and ostracism. They’re outsiders: The coach is confined to a wheelchair; one of the players is a recent immigrant.
But the book does make learning seem powerful. Each of four sections involves one of the players answering a tournament question based on their interests and experience. When you know something, the book says, you don’t have to cradle that fact to yourself–you get to wield it to your advantage, whether that’s winning a quiz bowl match or outwitting a bully.
I graduated from a high school honors program unmodestly named The Academy, where grades and being better than non-Academy students were key. Since then, I’ve reminded myself that smart people are not necessarily good people, that not knowing facts is not a judge-able offense, and that being able to spell and punctuate has little to no effect, actually, on whether someone is worth loving.
I still find myself hoarding knowledge, waiting for the right time to wield it. Sometimes when I jump into a conversation to drop a name or a fact, it’s as close to being back in high school quiz bowl as I can get without actually holding an electronic buzzer. But I try to admit when I don’t know something. I try not to frown when someone else doesn’t know something.
The View From Saturday teaches that knowledge is powerful because it can be applied and used, and that it’s joyful because it can be personal. Back in those quiz bowl days, I knew a moderator (question-reader) who would always announce the second-to-last question of a match with, “The penultimate tossup!” I think as I get further away from my high school years, what will stay with me is this: know facts, know skills, but know when and how to use them–even if it’s just to share an interesting story. Knowledge may be the penultimate goal, but it’s not the ultimate.