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Friday, December 10, 2021

The Limitations Of Knowledge

"I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction."

"And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?"  

"But Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself."

Sentences lifted from a 2021 op-ed? Observations of some contemporary pundit? Overheard in a recent conversation? Guess again.

In 1962, John Steinbeck penned those prescient words in Travels With Charley: In Search of America.  Page after page of Steinbeck's stunning insights from his cross-country road trip with his dog Charley sixty years ago demonstrated to me why this literary titan will likely remain required school reading well into the twenty-first century.

Full disclosure: Though Steinbeck's travelogue was recommended to me by a trusted discerning reader, based on my recent track record with authors and books from the canon, I was still initially skeptical. But he had me from his first page when referring to "...the virus of restlessness...", then cemented his grip two pages later with "...and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir." And try this on for size and see if it doesn't describe some people you've known: "Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement." No? Then how about this? "There are others who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it."  

The sentences opening this post amply illustrate Steinbeck's wisdom about the issues facing America, in 1962 or 2021. The last paragraph brings into sharp relief his wisdom about people. But, in the end, this sentence sealed the deal for me: "Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know." I'm invariably more drawn to those with enough self-awareness to know the limitations of knowledge.   


  1. You and I are on the same page. No surprise there. Countless times while I was reading this book, I would either read passages to my husband or write them down. My comment was always how these passages reflect our current time as much as 1962!

    1. Ines; You are so right - no surprise to know this book landed with you as it did with me. This post is the first of its kind, i.e. a "sneak peek" at the upcoming book we'll be discussing at the next meeting of our book club on Tuesday 12/14; never published a post this close in time to a conversation like this.

    2. I wondered about the timing as well:). BTW, it was 1960 not 1962. There was an election going on!

  2. Good morning, Pat. Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful book. It's been more years than I can recall since I've read it but the passages you referenced have brought so much of it racing back. Probably time to read it again. One comment to add. I would change '...will likely remain required reading ...' to '... should likely remain required reading ...'. I only make this suggestion due to the uncertainty of the current times.
    Be well,

    1. Bob; Thanks for the comment. Glad my post brought back to you a positive reading experience. And your point re "will" vs. "should" is a valid one.