As readers of this blog know, I read a lot. My appetite for books, for knowledge borders on the insatiable. I am interested in a lot of things. I often think that if I were more focused, less peripatetic and esoteric, I would be teaching in a university somewhere far away from the fleshpots of Madison Avenue.
Years ago, I worked with Tony Kaye, the storied director. We worked closely together on a package of unscripted spots for IBM. Working with Kaye was an education. Before each shot, he would get in my face, sticking his beak about one inch from mine.
"What do you want them to say?" he would ask.
"Well," I fumbled "I want them to talk about their fears about data security."
"One thing," he would say.
I would try again to clarify.
And he, edging closer would say even more insistently, "One thing."
Often I am enmeshed in a 700 page book on the tank battle at Kursk or a 400-page biography of Alan Turing. I read such books, as I said above, cover to cover.
But in the end, I usually get one thing from them.
Sure, I might retain more than one fact. I might recall a lot of anecdotes. But one big idea is all I usually can handle.
There's a job open at a private school in Manhattan that I'm interested in applying to even though I have none of the stated qualifications. It's a job teaching middle and upper school world History. As I wrote a note to the interviewer in my head, I said this:
I understand history on three levels.
1. The dates. When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and all that.
2. The events. Like the importance of the Diet of Worms.
3. The meanings. The ramifications of seismic occurrences on humanity and the globe.
It's basically one thing.
This does not mean it doesn't take 700 pages of reading or a lifetime of thinking to get there.
But when you get there, you'll know.
There's just one thing.