On Useless Knowledge

The King of Pointless Trivia

There’s a really bothersome idea I’ve run into working day jobs outside of writing and interacting with other writers, and that’s the notion that some knowledge can be useless or not worth learning about. I strongly disagree with that. I find it repugnant on a lot of levels. It discourages autodidactism and I’ve always been something of a self-teacher, I consider it one of my very few positive traits and it’s something I love to see and nurture in other people.

There is no such thing as “useless” knowledge.

Let me start with a little story. Way back in the year 2000, when I was a pasty, reclusive teenager instead of a pasty, reclusive adult I played a lot of a little game called Everquest. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it was a fantasy game with a lot of influence from Dungeons & Dragons, and a very large part of the game consisted of going into forgotten tombs and dungeons with a group of friends and looking for rare monsters that would drop exceptional equipment. I played a warrior who, unlike all of his friends that could fall back on spells and minions, lived and died by having the best equipment possible. One of the best one-handed swords a warrior could wield for a very long time was called the Short Sword of Ykesha, a fast blade that had a chance on hit to strike the enemy with a jolt of ancient magic damage. It dropped off an undead frogman lord buried in the deepest tombs under an old, troll-infested swamp and I spent countless hours hunting for it with my best ingame friends.

When I finally got it, I was struck by the shape of the blade. It was unlike anything else in the game I had run into at that point. All my other weapons had been incredibly stereotypical western European swords and axes. This was a weird blade. It started off like a dagger with no cross hilt but then bent at a weird angle and became much broader, like someone had sneezed while forging a scimitar and fucked the entire thing up, but this was one of the most powerful weapons in the game at that point and I wanted to know where they’d gotten the design.

Again, this was 2000. Google was not a big thing yet, Wikipedia was not around. Going to Yahoo search and punching in “weird sword shapes” was not helping me out much and mainly brought up Geocities pages where people were documenting made-up weapons for their fanfics and I could not find anything that matched what I was looking for. I did what any self respecting nerd would do and went to the library and checked out the biggest books of world weaponry that I could get my hands on, and after hours of searching I found what I was looking for.

My video game knife was apparently something known as a Kukri blade, originated in Nepal as a hybrid machete and combat knife, and it was still popular among a British army division called the Royal Gurkha. Huh, thought young Aaron, that’s kind of cool. Back to the library I went, and out I walked with a bunch of books on British India and Nepal. What a gory and fascinating history that was! I branched out and started learning more and more about the imperial eras and recruitment from specific ethnic regions, integration into the British army, and various Gurkha war heroes. Seriously, if you ever want to feel like a tremendous wimp go look up people like Lachhiman Gurung, who lost his arm and half his face to a grenade after tossing several others back out of his trench and then calmly used his remaining hand to reload and fire his rifle at point blank range for several hours, killing 31 attackers over multiple attempts to storm his position).

This was one of many things that jumpstarted my interest in history and led to my becoming a history major and someone who read dry historical texts for fun, all of which have contributed to my life in great ways. It meant that I knew all about things like the Sepoy Rebellion, the ceremony surrounding the Queen’s Truncheon and various other things long before they popped up in college, and they gave me a huge leg up when it came to writing essays. All because I was fascinated with a sword in a video game. A sword in a video game which a lot of people would write off as pointless trivia.

I can apply the same to a lot of “useless” things over the years. Like most D&D geeks I read the Drizzt books growing up, and so I wanted to go and learn about scimitars because the badass dark elf warrior dual wielded them. As a result of that I knew a lot about the Ottoman Empire that they never taught in school. Dual wielding in general led me to lead about the history of Italy, parrying daggers, sword-breakers and some “exotic” fighting styles that I’ve been able to incorporate into worldbuilding to great effect. Tolkien’s increasingly esoteric mythological references led me to read a translation of the Kalevala, the Finnish epic that has influenced everything from their independence from Russia to a lot of their contemporary cultural norms. Weird little tidbits from all kinds of contemporary media have led me back through the winding paths of world mythology, tracing them back to things like the Ulster Cycle of Ireland, the Nibelungenlied of Germany, the sagas of Susanoo-no-Mikoto of Japan, and dozens of others.

I’m someone who firmly believes that mythology is a great window into the culture that generated it, and so each of these has furthered my understandings of people from all over the world. Mythology often leads into history as well, and you look for recorded historical events that map to the mythological ones. I wouldn’t trade this accumulated knowledge for anything except the chance to learn it all again from the beginning.

Every “genuinely useful” thing I know I can trace back, directly or indirectly, to something I would probably be mocked for caring about by people who do believe that different facts have different inherent worth.

So, yes. Don’t write things off as useless knowledge. Even the most pointless, trivial, silly pieces of information are potential doors to something greater and people who want to know more should be encouraged and enabled to do so. We can only benefit from it as a society.


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