A Display of Ignorance

Garrison Keillor’s response to a letter asking what is fresh lutefisk?

Ah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.  “I didn’t want to show my ignorance” – that’s the wrong road for an intelligent young woman to travel.  Showing ignorance is how we learn, it’s how we get strangers to tell us their stories, it’s how we experience the world fully.  False sophistication – putting on a cool knowingness – is the road to ignorance.

“What is that?” No need to preface it  with an apology.  I say this from bitter experience, Sarah.  I wasted some of the best years of my life in pretending to a worldly sophistication that stopped my education right in its tracks.  Even today, people looking at me imagine that I know all sorts of things that in fact I’m stupid about. […] Remember this little life lesson, Sarah.  Some of the great journalists of our time have found that nothing works so well in gathering information as a display of ignorance.  Happy New Year.  Garrison Keillor

I subscribe to A Prairie Home Companion’s weekly newsletter for one reason: to read the Post to the Host section.  I love GK’s writing voice, his sense of pitch. He responds to random questions about writing, potato salad, giving a eulogy, bookstores, sons who lose a writing contest, music, and the meaning of fresh lutefisk.  [his full response to Sarah can be found by scrolling to the bottom of the link.]   If you enjoy this, there are archives back to January 1997. 

False sophistication.  Guilty as charged.  Bluffer, nodder, phony me. Feigned comprehension. I remember the day in 1982 when my SIL said she was feeling ambiguous and I had no clue what she meant but murmured a vague response to cover up my ignorance.   The person who helps me the most  in this area is my cousin’s wife, who freely and naturally says “I don’t know what that word means; could you explain it?”  It is so refreshing.  No pretense.  No sham.  Ask and it shall be given to you…


6 thoughts on “A Display of Ignorance

  1. Back when I was a singleton living with my parents in Minnesota I was a die-hard PHC fan… GK holds a warm and fuzzy place in my heart — even when he’s being liberal, I “grace over it” and move on, for all the reasons you mentioned, and because he feels like family. 
    Also, I know what lutefisk is!   (But I’ll never eat it!)

  2. GK comes from the same faith community as I do, so there is always a sense of kinship with him.  I *know* what he is talking about when he speaks of his childhood.  I don’t listen to PHC anymore – I really don’t listen to the radio at all. But I sure enjoy these notes back and forth.Lutefisk – LOOT-eh-fisk  – Oh boy, I’ve eaten my share of lutefisk and let me tell you, it’s not bad with melted butter on it.  Of course, what is not improved with melted butter, tee hee!  For years we went to the local Lutefisk Dinner put on by the Lutheran church.  You walked into the parish hall and were assaulted with a strong fish odor.  The Norwegians surrendered to the Germans and now it’s a Annual German Meal with sauerkraut.  Can’t say it smells much better, but I salivate just typing the word sauerkraut.  Lutefisk has never made me salivate.

  3. My husband’s church (BIG Lutheran church in a small Minnesota town) also had (still has) the annual Lutefisk Dinner, at which his parents always help serve (with many groans).   I managed to avoid ever having to attend one of those while we lived nearby, thanks be to God, who knows my limits!   I salute you for your courage – and you may well be right that it could go down with melted butter… I just don’t think I can get past the knowing-how-they-make-it phase, plus the whole texture thing. 

  4. Well, you need to read my last post on my blog re: slang that I totally had no idea what it meant!  I think the key is not being too afraid or embarrassed to laugh at yourself  which is my outlook, at least. Pride gets in the way of using learning a lot of things, don’t you think?

  5. Great post–i too love GK!! And i couldn’t agree more about the benefits of honest questions. In this, the 2nd half of my life (if i live to 100 and something) i am good enough with myself to be able to say, “i know nothing about this, please explain it to me” in many situations. It’s so nice to continue to learn from others– What church did you grow up in?

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