The joy of useless information

I am now learning something useless, something that has absolutely no real function or purpose in my life. And I’m loving it.

In a few weeks, I leave for Egypt. This past month, I’ve been learning to read (and write) hieroglyphs. I ‘ve been traveling with hieroglyph textbooks, and I’m practicing drawing the symbols, which has been a real struggle because I have no artistic talent. All my birds, be they vultures or quail chicks or sparrows, are severely deformed and only vaguely ornithological. I’m sure I would have been kicked out of scribe school. I feel like a four-year-old with a crayon as I scrawl these misshapen things. But also like a four-year-old, I’m experiencing the pure joy of learning to master something completely new. I’m not planning to use this knowledge in any of my books. It’s a dead language, so it’s worthless as a means of communication. It takes up precious time and mental energy to learn this skill, and it has absolutely no relevance to the rest of my life.

And that may be why I’m enjoying it so much.

I think that everyone needs a vacation from “need-to-know” information. Maybe it’s our old Puritan ethic, but many Americans seem to feel that everything we do or learn must have a purpose or it’s merely an indulgence, and that makes us feel guilty. We hear echoes of our parents nagging us with “Don’t you have something useful to do? Why aren’t you memorizing your multiplication tables?”

Learning hieroglyphs is one of those odd little indulgences that’s giving me great pleasure, even as that naggy little voice reminds me that I really should get to work on the next novel.

18 replies
  1. samc288
    samc288 says:

    Hello Tess!

    I can understand perfectly what you mean with enjoying to learn. I think life would be terribly boring without learning something new every day.

    I’ve tried to study Mandarin (I stopped, because I didn’t have enough time for it anymore) and to draw all the characters: well…
    It was fun, though.

    Have a nice time in Egypt and tell us later what is written on the pyramid walls^^.

  2. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    Wow! Is there anything that you don’t do? Everytime I read one of your blogs, you’re doing something new. You’re amazing.
    You do know now that I’m going to attempt to use my humor here to give you a joke about hieroglyphs, so here goes. (BTW, this is NOT my joke, it was emailed to me)

    There were a group of archeologists who dug up a line of hieroglyphics that were, from left to right: a dog, a donkey, a shovel, a fish, and a Star of David.

    After years of study they came up with an explanation. They believed that this was a very wise group of people. First, they knew man had to have company, hence the dog. Next, they knew that they needed animals to help with work, so the donkey. The shovel was there because of their advanced knowledge of tools. Next, they knew that they had to eat, and that fish were the best source of food. Finally, they were a religious group and knew man had to have religion.

    After the explanation, a man jumped up and said, “You fools, Hebrew is read from right to left! It says, ‘Holy mackerel, dig the ass on that bitch!'”

    Please don’t hold this against me. I don’t write ’em, I only send ’em.


  3. ec
    ec says:

    Good for you! 🙂

    Former teacher here. ::drags out soapbox::

    Perhaps if more people could recapture the joy of learning themselves and inspire it in others, more than 50% our eight grade students would be able to read on an eigth grade level. (A scary statistic, but I’ve read reports that put that number even lower.) I’ve seen teaching methods that seem designed to squash the fun out of learning, kids who approach school with an expectatation of boredom and futility, parents who exude disdain for anything that doesn’t immediately interest them. Real conversation: “Mrs. X, your son really needs to complete his semester project. He’s barely passing the class now and blowing off this project will probably tip him over the edge.” ::the mother smiles and shrugs:: “History wasn’t my favorite subject in high school, so I’m not too surprised.” But suddenly everyone was shocked–shocked!–when the kid had to repeat the class. And never once did anyone–the student, the parents, the principal who calls me into a meeting and tried to get me to change the grade–show any interest whatsoever in whether or not the kid actually learned anything, not from the class, nor from a challenge to his expectation that he’d be pushed along whether he made any effort of not. LEARNING is, purportedly, one of the main goals of education, but people tend to lose sight of that.

    Our town has a blue ribbon high school, in no small part because of the high number of students enrolled in AP classes. In the first week of my son’s AP calculus class, several of the students made it clear that they had no interest in learning the material–they just wanted the class (and an A) on their high school resume. Several hadn’t bothered to take the trig prerequisite, but expected the teacher to get them up to speed, and WITHOUT the need for them to do actual work outside of class; in fact, they made a fuss about doing homework of any kind. And the teacher caved. By the end of the first quarter, the class had covered less than one chapter. Few kids bothered to take the tests that would qualify them for college credits. But that doesn’t seem to concern anyone. There are a high percentage of kids taking AP classes. That looks good for the school as well as the individual, college-bound students. Everyone is happy–except the two or three kids in class who actually wanted to study a subject on a college level.

    When my boys were growing up, I was amazed at how so many of their classmates hadn’t the first clue about what to do with themselves if they weren’t involved in organized sports or plugged into something electronic. But then, how many adults are no different? Come home from work, plunk down in front of the TV or the computer. Boredom is deadly for kids, and not much better for adults. Perhaps if more people took delight in learning new things, kids would be less inclined to experiment with drugs and alcohol out of sheer boredom, adults would be less likely to become overweight, boring couch potatos.

    The desire to learn new things builds inner resources and keeps the mind functioning at an optimum level. This can be tremendously important to a person’s quality of life. People at risk for Alzheimers–as I am, given my family history–are advised to make a habit of learning new physical and mental skills.

    So. Yes, sometimes I feel guilty for taking time that should be Productive to practice the harp or work out with Wii Fitness or learn Adobe Illustrator or study Polish. But it seems to me that an inclination toward learning new things is not only fun, but it also beats the hell out of the alternatives.


  4. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Well, you’ve got to do something for yourself every once in a while, and if that means learning a dead language, then so be it! As long as you’re having fun, then nothing else matters…!

    See you next week in Philly!!!

  5. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    All my birds, be they vultures or quail chicks or sparrows, are severely deformed and only vaguely ornithological.

    Don’t feel bad, Tess. I’m an RN, and the physician’s orders I have to decipher on a daily basis only vaguely resemble written English. I’m sure the docs in ancient Egypt had crappy penmanship too, so your hieroglyphs are probably quite authentic! 🙂

    PHUONG says:

    Hi Tess,

    As a new fan and first timer in posting on your blog, I’d like to ask-pretty irrelevant to your topic..Will you ever consider touring to Melbourne,Australia for book signing?

    I’m a lazy reader it would take me months to finish a book. But lately I’ve been pretty keen on reading books by this particular author, you, of course ;.

    So yeh, just a general question and hope all is well with you.

  7. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    LOL, I really wouldnt get very far Tess. Look at it another way I doubt that many had good penmanship. Aftr all what we tend to go off are the inscriptions in tombs and lets face it your average person didn’t do those, it must have been the cream of the crop, the caligraphy masters etc.

    Learning somethingt hat most people term as useless is always fun and I think thats part of the joy of it. I love watching documentaries or reading about history. Just wish the enthusiasm I have for it now I’d had at school. But then again I suspect that a good part of it is due to the fact that you can learn what you want whereas when I was at school the guy I had for history was wrapped up in the Industrial Revolution and didnt like covering the rest. (Its one stage of history I can’t stand.)

    Now give me an ancient war, or something about ancient inventions that we’re only rediscovering now and Im in my element. Plus as I said, if its what most would term as useless info it tends to stick.

  8. IServeTheCat
    IServeTheCat says:

    I grew up in foster care, and the priority then was to not get beat up by the scarier foster kids. I never read any of the books that “normal” kids were required to read. I got my A’s for actually showing up to class on a regular basis.

    As an adult, I no longer have to worry about surviving the night. I can take the time to read all those old books, play around in old math books, and whatever else I feel like learning. I think it is great that you have chosen something new to learn, Tess. It keeps life interesting. No one learns because they have to, or are told to. We learn when we decide something is worth knowing. Be that ancient languages, old literature, or new scientific theories.

  9. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    So maybe you will understand why, yesterday, I decided to hand write return addresses on twenty envelopes rather than get some address labels.

    It’s important to do things just for fun. Or just for the sake of relaxing. We humans need it.

  10. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    Have you ever read the book Aztec by Gary Jennings?

    It was published in the 1980s and was set in Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquistadors.

    The main character travels throughout the entire Yucatan peninsula and has a life as a warrior, merchant *and* scribe.

    He learns the Aztec picture language which obviously is different from the Egyptian hieroglyphics, but still…I thought if you hadn’t read it that the novel might provide you with some inspiration.

    Warning though if you haven’t read it before – it has explicit and graphic sex and violence. Some of it is very disturbing, but that novel is my favorite of all time due to its sheer complexity and attention to detail. There is nothing mentioned in the book that does not pay off later in the story.

    Have fun in your trip to Egypt!


  11. bob k
    bob k says:

    Awww Tess…come on. The information isn’t useless…just about anything you could learn could have somne future use in your life. Maybe at this point is “seems” useless – because you haven’t figured out what you can use it for.

    And perhaps its only use in your life will be to bring you the joy of learning to read and write hieroglyphs…that is a perfectly legitimate use.

    But I just KNOW that hieroglyphs are going to show up somewhere in one of your novels!!!

  12. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    I have been a stamp collector all my life.if you say “philatelist”people egt the wrong idea.:)So I learned all about printing methods,paper types,perforations,watermarks,etc.
    It all seemed like useless knowledge.
    Then I wind up being an INS agent and all the worldwide cultural/historical stuff I picked up collecting stamps became a great resource when dealing with people from all over the world.It helped me “break the ice”with a lot of otherwise scared and/or recalcitrant indiividuals.
    So it’s funny how things work out.
    If you enjoy amassing the “useless knowledge”,then that’s all that counts.
    My wife still maintains that I collect “little bits of colored paper”.Whaddya gonna do?

  13. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    I’m so happy you’re going to that mystical land. And learning to read and write hieroglyphs isn’t useless information in my mind. To me any knowledge only enhances one’s life. Not to say you have to know enough to appear (and win) Jeopardy, but nothing is useless.

    And here I thought guilt was just the Catholic part of me… Good to know there are others who share the burden of what our ancestors thought we should or shouldn’t be doing with our lives.

    Have a great time in Egypt.


  14. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    But who knows when or where that “useless information” will come in handy? And it’s fun. It’s why I’m unraveling bits of Gaelic – for the fun of it. I highly doubt anyone beyond Robert Burns would know, or care, if I ever got to a point I could actually speak it. I care. It’s something I do for me. :)) I also know a few words in sanskrit, which probably is a tad more useful, but not by much!

    Hieroglyphics would be great fun to learn. I wonder if there’s an online translator… ;))

  15. therese
    therese says:

    I am also a supporter of learning useless information because it is part, ancient or new, of who we are as humans today. In my childhood the concept of reading fiction was useless, in my mothering years learning to write fiction was a silly hobby.

    Of course I made time for both and there are those who think some of my other hobbies are silly too, like Feng Shui and Astrology. I just smile and do my thing because I have learned that the more the brain is stimulated, the more stimulation it can absorb. This helps with all our motor and neurological functions as we age, and I think “aging” is something that happens to those that stop learning for the joy of learning.

    I’m taking a Screenwriting class at our local college and can state that it forces a new perspective for a writer. It’s not my cup of tea, and I will never be a screenwriter, however, it’s an awesome exercise for a writer to dedicate attention to creating a visual medium. Which you are doing with your hieroglyphics.

    And if you need help with the calligraphy aspects of your hieroglyphics, there are special pens designed to do it right….

    Maybe Jane Rizolli will find herself cruising the rows of an art store, amazed at the amount of stuff… as she has to connect to an artist’s mind to solve her latest crime…

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