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One man’s battle against stupid Add to ...

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We put them at the far end of the table – or in another room altogether – which is the arrangement they seem to prefer anyway. The logistics of having friends over are subject to some variation, but you and your guests will usually agree to banish the kids for the sake of a few “grown-up-only” hours, preferably washed down with a second glass of chardonnay.

But time marches on. One evening soon, sitting to your right might be the boy who regularly entertained the kids’ table by dangling fusilli from his nostrils. He’s 18 now, and is gently introducing you to string theory and its relevance to particle physics. Over dessert, across the table, another former barbarian is eloquently championing biological determinism while a bona fide adult guest clings desperately to a few fuzzy arguments supporting free will.

Unlike these upstarts, I’m never going to get much smarter. The challenge for me is to not get any more stupid than I am already. Like the ladies in the shampoo commercials – swaying my head rhythmically from left to right and right to left – my 62-year-old neurons feel luxuriantly free of tangles, and I wholeheartedly expect to dodge the dementia bullet. The stupid bullet is another story.

Neuroscientists have surprisingly little to say about garden-variety stupidity, though it seems pretty straightforward to me. If I relentlessly fuel my grey matter with Herculean challenges, my healthy old brain need not necessarily succumb to enfeeblement. Having arrived at this theory, I liken my cerebral cortex to Stalingrad under siege. My secret weapon? The Times Literary Supplement.

For no other reason than to ward off a state of irreversible imbecility, I have been subscribing to the TLS for five years. First published in 1902, the journal is the world’s “go to” arbiter on matters of esoteric, often impenetrable, cultural importance. A single issue might easily discuss the theme of public transportation in the works of Charles Dickens, the regrettable table manners of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and geometric structures in the pop balladry of the artist formally known as Prince.

Most folks my age entrust their vulnerable cognitive software to a daily regimen of fish-oil capsules, a commute-long Sudoku workout and an occasional snooze-interrupted hour of the History Channel. I’m working harder than that, and in return for three, or even two, more decades of relative lucidity, I will happily take on animal husbandry as a leitmotif in the novels of James Joyce, the darker side of Franz Kafka, or whatever else the TLS has to throw at me. I understand almost nothing. It’s all about the war.

The TLS is devilishly difficult and mean-spirited, too. A review of a recent Marilyn Monroe biography seemed to teasingly promise a rare gossipy and easy read until Norma Jeane’s trademark goofiness was suffocated by TLS charges of “deep historical imagination,” “a debt to Shakespearean fools,” and a familiarity with 16th-century Commedia dell’Arte. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Some readers undoubtedly thrive in the rarefied air of the TLS. With netherworldly names like Llewellyn and Prunella, and from netherworldly locales like Willow Cottage and All Souls College, they gather on the Letters to the Editor page where, with barely inhibited brutality, they mercilessly ridicule some hapless young historian’s offhand claim that Napoleon’s retreating army fed exclusively on raw turnips.

I regularly socialize with the cleverest people, but I know that not one of them will ever want to know about “something interesting I read in last week’s TLS.” Downloaded images of my lower bowel from a recent colonoscopy would generate less stunned silence at a dinner party. The TLS may in fact be a first cousin to Playboy, Hustler and whatever pornographic magazines have survived the digital age: While my living-room coffee table is littered with New Yorkers, foodie magazines, art gallery publications and assorted other statements of “who I’d like you to think I am,” the TLS stays upstairs, out of sight. No one needs to know.

I grew up in an almost book-free house. In the early-1960s, my mother bought me an illustrated children’s encyclopedia – one volume at a time – from Loblaws. My father fumed at the expense. Our family record collection was limited to one or two Chubby Checker albums – a testament to my mother’s early-midlife Twist phase – and a few Belafontes that probably came with our cherrywood-veneer stereo console. Neither Bach nor Brubeck was ever heard in our home. At school, I demonstrated no passion for scholarship, and after two tortuous years of Latin I can recall only semper ubi sub ubi, or “always where under where.”

I may well be the least scholarly of all subscribers to the TLS, but getting smarter was never my intention. I suspect I am not significantly more stupid than I was five years ago, and that was my only modest goal. That being said, my relationship with the journal has evolved. I may never quite grasp their relevance to the Napoleonic Wars, but I’ve come to understand that even turnips are deserving of our most passionate attention.

Encyclopedic, convoluted and sometimes bitchy, the Times Literary Supplement is like a history of the world. It should be read very carefully. It’s all important. Just ask any smart person.


Farley Helfant lives in Toronto.

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