how to be smart
i wanted to be smart so i bought some books. it seemed like i’d seen smart people reading books everywhere—in cafés, in parks, in airports, on airplanes, in bathrooms—so i figured that was the trick. i went to my local bookstore. “give me one of everything,” i said. “sounds like someone’s trying to be smart,” the man behind the counter said, and i nodded sagely. or at least i nodded in a manner that i hoped approximated sageness (since i was not smart yet, from the books, i had no way of knowing what that was at this point in time).
unloading crate after crate of books in my apartment, i already began to feel smarter. i read the titles out loud to myself as i took out each new book. “the republic,” i said. “pride and prejudice. ulysses.” i couldn’t believe i’d gone so long being stupid when it was this easy to be smart. it had been expensive, sure—even shopping for used books i’d zeroed out my bank account—but it was worth it. i didn’t feel so self-conscious all the time, now that i knew that i was smart. at parties, in job interviews, on the phone with telemarketers: “i own the book ‘a people’s history of the united states’ by howard zinn,” i would say. and then they would know that i was smart, and i would know that they knew. it felt good.
the thing about books is that they contain information, which is a key component (in fact, some would say the only component) of being smart. i would invite friends over to my apartment, which i now referred to as a salon. i had nowhere near enough shelves for all the books i’d purchased, so they sat around in stacks on the floor, on the furniture. every time anyone would ask a question, like “what is the meaning of life?” or “how are you doing?” i would say “let me look up the answer to that in one of my many books” and then i would chortle, which as everyone knows is the smartest way to laugh.
i passed a lot of pleasant afternoons in my salon like that, afternoons which turned into evenings which turned into late nights into early mornings and would you believe we spent the whole night just talking about books that i own? but pretty soon i began to have doubts. you see, i had thought that having books made you smart because they were full of knowledge. but consider: if you need to have books to give you knowledge, then that means you yourself don’t have any knowledge. ergo the truly smart person would have no books, because they don’t need any, because all of that knowledge is in their brain.
it was clear i would need to sell all my books, destroy any evidence i’d ever so much looked at one. i needed everyone to know that i was smart on my own, without the help of any stupid authors. even the word “authors” disgusted me now—i struck it from my vocabulary, and said “word whores” instead.
i wanted to sell the books back to the bookstore where i’d originally purchased them, but i was too embarrassed to do it all at once. i brought them back in more manageable stacks of five or six, wearing a different disguise each time. the man behind the counter gave me a quizzical look each time, a look that said “are you the same person who just bought all these books the other week, and now you’re selling them back because your definition of intelligence has changed?” and i gave him a look back that said “stop asking questions and just take the books” and then i’d run a furtive finger over my fake mustache to make sure it wasn’t falling off, if i happened to be wearing a fake mustache on this particular run.
eventually i was rid of all the books. it was nice to be able to sleep on my bed again. but even more importantly, it was nice to feel truly smart. i stood on street corners outside of libraries and scoffed and shrugged my shoulders, as if to say “what kind of idiot would need to read all these? certainly not me.”
because when i thought about it, most of the smart people i’d seen in my time actually hadn’t been reading books at all. everyone who did interviews in documentaries (the smartest type of people) talked extemporaneously instead of reading out of books. it made perfect sense: the same way people who were the best at running didn’t need fast cars, they could do it on their own.
so i had no books, and i spoke with confidence on every subject. i averred and avowed and declared and insisted, without the help of any man or written text. “the inverse of the derivative!” i would cry when presented with a math problem. “the battle of waterloo!” i proclaimed on matters of history.
people certainly took note. “he must be very smart,” i was pretty sure i heard people say after i left several rooms. i smiled to myself on these occasions, content that i was making the desired impression. i did a little fist pump, but in a cute way not a lame way.
this happiness, unfortunately, was not destined to last. i soon realized that a lot of people who weren’t smart also didn’t own any books. like my friend rick. i love the guy, but he’s a total idiot and owns a grand total of zero books. is that what people thought of me now? the past week flashed before my eyes as i reevaluated every social interaction i had had based around the fact that i didn’t own books, which was all of them. what if it had been judgment in their eyes, rather than admiration, when i said “virginia wolf? what’s that, the state animal? i have certainly never read ‘mrs. dalloway,’ or ‘a room of one’s own.’” maybe they’d been sarcastic when they said i was smart. had people been chortling at me instead of with me? my self-worth crumbled like a soft cookie in the mouth of a hungry child.
it was all too hard. owning books? not owning books? i couldn’t win! no one would ever think i was smart. at the convenience store, i reached for a bottle of smart water, but who was i fooling? i began to cry as i reached for a bottle of regular old dasani, having accepted my fate. the woman who rang me up noticed my distress.
“there’s no need to be sad,” she said. “look at this humble bottle of dasani. on the one hand, it is its own unit, bottled and capped. but at the same time, it is one with the ocean, which covers the entire earth. or technically 71%, but who’s counting? ha ha ha. you are like this bottle of dasani. you may feel alone, all capped up and packaged for individual sale, but you must never forget that you are also the ocean, which is all of humanity in this metaphor.”
what she said was so smart i immediately stopped crying, and then started crying again but from wisdom instead of sadness. “you are so smart,” i told her. “i have to ask—how many books do you own? zero, or several thousand?”
but she smiled and shook her head. “the ocean,” she repeated, and tapped the bottle of dasani.
i drank it alone in my room, which i no longer called a salon and was still empty of books or anything else with writing on it. the more i thought about it, the less i was sure i’d fully understood her. the more i thought about it, the less i was sure i fully understood anything. i had this habit of oversimplifying things, of trying to reduce difficult questions to a simple yes or no. probably it was because i wasn’t able to process anything more complex. probably it was because i wasn’t very smart at all. but then i realized i never actually paid for the dasani, so, like, ka-ching