AN INCOMPLETE EDUCATION By Judy Jones and William Wilson Ballantine. 670 pp. $24.95
You are engaged in chitchat at an elegant, literate cocktail party and doing very well, you think, until the conversation shifts to Kierkegaard. Then it quickly becomes clear (only to yourself, you hope) that while you were busy perfecting your skills at pocket billiards or memorizing the lyrics of Frank Zappa, everyone else in sight was immersed in "Fear and Trembling."
Well, tremble not; have no fear. In a mere two minutes (including the time it takes to find him on Page 319), you can learn everything that a political science major or a biochemist is really expected to know about that particular great Dane. And while you're at it, you can pick up quick fixes on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and William James on adjoining pages. For no extra charge, you also get a useful one-liner: "Existentialism is less a philosophical system than a bad mood."
This is, I should hasten to add, barely the beginning of what "An Incomplete Education" promises and actually delivers. This is not a more elaborate and expensive sort of "Bluffer's Guide," as one inevitably suspects on first acquaintance. Originally, the author-editors confess, "we envisioned a kind of intellectual 'Dress for Success,' " but then they began to worry "that the book we were working on wasn't noble (or uplifting, or profound; also long) enough."
So they brought in some expert help and produced a book dedicated to "context and perspective," a conscientious compendium of the material any educated person should know outside his or her area of concentration -- all the things you were supposed to learn in college, but sometimes didn't. Inevitably, if you have any education at all, parts of it will strike you as terribly superficial. But elsewhere, it should bring enlightenment where there had previously been darkness and fog.
If it were simply a survival manual for cocktail party conversations, "An Incomplete Education" would certainly include Wittgenstein and probably Whitehead, as it does, along with Kierkegaard et al. But Henri Bergson, who gets more than a page, would go unmentioned, and so would Leibniz. Inclusion of such important but unfashionable figures is a demonstration of serious intent. So is the brief but useful discussion of such themes as Zeno's arrow, Plato's cave, Buridan's ass and Occam's razor.
Only 36 pages (about 5 percent of the book) are dedicated to philosophy, but they are effectively used. So are the 37 pages on music -- approximately half of which focus on opera. The book makes the Metropolitan Opera half a century older than it really is, but it gives useful advice on when to shout "brava" rather than "bravo," and how to pronounce the name of the Wagnerian shrine -- "BY-royt."
Other sections, which are published in alphabetical order, include American Studies, Art History, Economics, Film, Literature, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Science and World History. There is also a 42-page "lexicon" that tells you the difference between "authentic" and "genuine," the pronunciations of "flaccid" and "dour," the meanings of "heuristic" and "otiose," and how to remember the seven hills of Rome: "Poor Queen Victoria eats crow at Christmas (Palatine, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Capitoline, Aventine, Caelian)."
The Lexicon also offers 6 1/2 pages of Latin expressions (including 3 1/2 of abbreviations), two pages of such handy German words as "Weltanschauung," "Zeitgeist" and "ersatz," five pages of French ("be~te noire," "droit de seigneur," "noblesse oblige") and four brilliant pages on prefixes ("crypto-," "proto-," "micro-," "hyper-," "meta-," etc.).
But for those who (like this reviewer) tended to doze during science classes, "An Incomplete Education" earns its shelf space most clearly with its succinct but lucid and interesting discussions of such phenomena as Brownian movement, DNA, the Doppler effect and Boolean algebra, not to mention the Fibonacci series and the work of Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky.
The book's Political Science section might almost as well have been labeled Selective Geography, but is nonetheless useful. A lot of political science (e.g., the work of Karl Marx and his followers) comes under the heading of World History. But these are valid options. So, perhaps, is the decision to devote the Psychology section entirely to psychopathology and therapy. In any case, most of the time it is not hard to find what you are looking for.
One exception, where serendipity must be invoked, is the one-sentence discussion of Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, found in the useful one-paragraph treatment of Walter Gropius, her second husband, but not in the index. Also discussed (rather inadequately) but not indexed are Jorge Luis Borges, how to tell a Guelph from a Ghibelline, and Edvard Munch, among hundreds of other bits of worthwhile information.
Strictly speaking, this is a book to sit down and read, not a book to consult for a quick information fix. But in the next edition (which is almost inevitable), the publishers should seriously consider enlarging the index to give a better idea of what has been crammed into these pages.
The reviewer writes about music, books, chess and computer software for The Washington Post.