Cramming for Nothing

Joe Trinkle has an intellectual hunger that he can never satisfy, which might sound like a good thing, until you really — really — think about it.


I tend to memorize in twenty-fives, also sometimes in sevens. Everyone has a number in which they often memorize as well, but most people don’t know what it is, because they have the ability to not think about how they think, and I am jealous of that.

There is a concept that psychologists and education theorists refer to as intellectual need. It’s the idea that people perceives holes, or negative space in their framework of the universe and subsequently want to fill those gaps with information. It’s one of the driving forces behind how we learn and assimilate cognitive information into a meaningful world-view, but cases such as myself — hyper-intellectuals, as I refer to us — don’t know when to stop. They constantly ask questions — as curious children do — such as, “Why is the sky blue?” or “How does a radio work?” except their worried queries are more complex, and they keep seeking out information in an overextended attempt to solve some unidentifiable, ultimate question, probably something like, “Does God exist?” or some other nonsense, until they eventually withdraw from society or go mad and hang themselves. Or invent time travel, I don’t know. There is little to no research on the topic, as people primarily regard fervent, relentless erudition as a good thing, not as a manifestation of insanity, but I ask you this: why have many of the individuals I’ve managed to relate to in this regard been found dangling from a rafter?

I forget exactly when it started — sometime before college — but it comes and goes in consistent cycles and, currently, I’m in the throes of a major bout. I spend five or six hours a day studying everything — physics, literature, geography, ecology, history, the bible, culinary technique, demography, gardening, marketing theory — it just keeps going on and on and everything keeps leading into something else. I want to know. I spend more on books and magazines a month than I do on anything else except maybe rent. Maybe. I read Wikipedia like it’s a novel. The capital of Turkey is Ankara, not Istanbul. Why? Because its geographical position is more central to land transportation and the country is mainly dependent on agriculture to sustain its upswinging economy. Which industries you ask? Well, primarily fruits and vegetables (figs, hazelnuts, watermelon, chickpeas, tomatoes) and textiles (cotton and wool). But this isn’t enough. What other nations are the most important in agricultural production? Let’s make it easy; what are the top twenty-five? I write them down on a flashcard and keep using that flashcard until I can name them all in order. Then I check again in three days to make sure I still remember, because I’m reading Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, learning Arabic (and keeping up on my French and Spanish), and enrolled in three unrelated online classes, and I work full-time, and all of this is probably never going to stop because I’m an autodidactic mental-hoarder-lunatic-person.

You see, it’s not so much to do with how intelligent you are — that’s the primary misconception that people seem to carry, and probably explains the lack of research on the subject. Intellectual capacity is certainly a factor, but it’s not the driving force behind this fact-seeking mania; desire is, or fear, depending on how you look at it. You could say I’m hungry for knowledge as much as you could say I’m afraid of leaving a self-posited question unanswered. If I were to walk past a bridge, I’d naturally want to know the name of the bridge. That’s why structural engineers, people of quite utilitarian dispositions, are thoughtful enough to put plaques bearing the name and construction date somewhere near a footpath, so ordinarily inquisitive minds can read the sign and say to themselves, “Would you look at that? The Martin-Ellis Bridge. Erected 1967. I was only three years old.” And this person continues his walk, buys a loaf of bread, goes home. I can rattle off the names, years of completion, and general height of dozens of local and national bridges, as well as the twenty-five longest bridges globally, most of their historic and economic contexts, and given more time, I’ll be able to tell you much more. Of course, there’s the matter of span versus length, and subjective measurements. I don’t even want to get into smoots, but that’s besides the point.

When I was young, despite our relatively low income, my mother bought a complete New Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia set for me from a door-to-door salesman, because she was a good person that valued the importance of knowledge, and was also susceptible to buying things from people with humiliating jobs (as am I). The set came in installments through the mail — weekly, I believe — and I sat on my bed throughout that summer, leafing through the encyclopedia, looking similar to how you would find me now. I believe that year was when the lifestyle took hold of me.

Twenty years later, when I get ready for bed, I sometimes think about where all of this information is going. While I’m learning, it feels as if I’m being taken further, somehow — towards something, and this feeling provides me with the necessary momentum — but while I’m laying there in the early morning hours, grabbing at the wisps of new material and sewing them into the fabric of my underlying concept of existence, I see only the emptiness, the holes, the missing pieces. In my nightmares, I often dream that I know nothing.

It was about a month ago, while I was sitting in a small coffee shop I frequent, when the woman behind the counter finally got the nerve to ask me about all the books and flashcards I carry with me. I lied and told her I was researching education methods for a private study. She asked me if she could see my flashcards, because she thinks it’s interesting that I study so much. I said, “Absolutely,” although I wanted to say, “Please don’t ask me any more questions.” She looked through them for a minute or two, making a few general comments, until a customer walked through the door. She started foaming milk for a cappuccino. I wondered if she knew that at 65º Celsius the disaccharide sugars in the milk would begin to break apart, making for more bitter — subsequently less palatable — microfoam. She probably just knew not to burn the milk.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Joe Trinkle is a writer currently living in Philadelphia, PA. He attended Kutztown University of Pennsylvania for Writing and co-facilitates the Allentown Writers Workshop. Previously published in New Fraktur Arts Journal, WINKpinup, and Subtopian Magazine, his work is also forthcoming in several journals. His grandmother made him promise to never get a tattoo or kill himself, so he spends much of his time reading.