'Knowledge Web': 6 degrees of trivia

June 13, 1999|By Brenda L. Becker | Brenda L. Becker,Special to the Sun

"The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back -- and Other Journeys Through Knowledge," by James Burke. Simon & Schuster. 285 pages. $25.

In the British comedy film "The Wrong Box," Ralph Richardson plays a dotty Victorian gentleman who compulsively dispenses arcane bits of data. Upon giving a ride to a grateful traveler in his carriage, he starts their shared journey by asking, "Have you any idea how many times the word whip is used in the Bible?" and then proceeds to regale him with the precise number. Quick cut to journey's end, as the traveler staggers away, near insanity, while the old gent prattles on.

This may be how some readers will feel after reading "The Knowledge Web," the latest offering by indefatigable fact-wrangler James Burke. Many others, however, obviously relish a mind-numbing ramble with the prolific author and television personality. His schtick, refined in the PBS documentary series "Connections" and its sequels and companion books, is to spin forth a wild assortment of technological, cultural and historical tidbits via obscure linkages. Some of these links are illuminating, but most are trivial and arbitrary.

A typical chapter begins with Einstein and black holes, segues into grape fungicides and the Pony Express, then rips through vaudeville, Joan of Arc, Titian, tobacco, logarithms and Pasteur, before winding up with the invention of the waxed-cardboard milk container in 1906.

If you suspect that there are few meaningful links among those topics, you'd be right. It's a tour de force, but one that delivers almost nothing more coherent than a chance flip through the encyclopedia.

Burke's writing is mostly crisp and amusing, and the tidbits go down as easily as popcorn. Like that snack, they eventually leave the consumer bloated yet oddly undernourished. Although the format, a hyperkinetic skating party across the surface of Western civilization, may be perfect for television, it grows tedious on the printed page.

Ultimately, the whole thing goes nowhere. After wading through all those fascinating inventors, artists, philosophers, cranks and geniuses, one longs to find some nugget of analysis or enlightenment that would make the book more than the sum of its parts. Burke's sort-of thesis -- that everything is somehow interconnected -- is about as profound as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Burke clearly relishes the game-like nature of his enterprise; a previous book was called "Pinball," and his material is now being packaged and peddled as, yes, a computer game. Its jarring, then, that "The Knowledge Web" starts out with a blast of pseudo-intellectual hokum, as Burke makes claims right up there with Al Gore's invention of the Internet.

He claims to be introducing a webbed knowledge system using a number of linked storylines intended to introduce the reader to the kind of information infrastructure we may begin to use in the next few decades. (The book has 142 cross-referencing coordinates in the margins, allowing the reader to jump backward or forward through literary subspace.) The approach, he modestly predicts, may be one way to enfranchise those millions who lack what used to be called formal education. On the other hand, maybe that's fancy talk for fractionating the intellectual history of civilization into a format palatable to the Nintendo generation. With that in mind, I nominate "The Knowledge Web" as graduate gift book of the year.

Brenda L. Becker is a medical writer and editor for consumer and clinical magazines including Women's Day and Patient Care; co-author of "Week by Week to a Strong Heart" (Rodale, 1992); a two-time winner of national awards for writing on cardiovascular disease; and a contributor to journals of opinion including the American Spectator and National Review. She is former editor of Beginnings, a pediatric health magazine.

Pub Date: 06/13/99

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