Book Simple: The Mysteries of The Real World
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
On my spring break in Mexico this past week, I’ve been gorging myself. On piña coladas, guacamole and arrachera, yes, but also on Sherlock Holmes. Vacations are the perfect time for re-reading, I’ve found. With no pressure to accomplish anything, I feel no guilt at all swimming back through my favorite stories. So this past week I spent part of the time in Puerto Vallarta and part ensconced in the lodgings at 221B Baker Street.
I’m starting a new job in a few months, and it was difficult to avoid mining the stories for lessons about working life. After all, what is the collection but the history of a brilliant career? Consulted by kings, governesses, heads of state and pawn brokers, Sherlock Holmes chooses his cases with a single rule: let them be interesting. Without stimulation the mind rebels, and can easily fall prey to vices. For Holmes, cocaine or morphine. For me? Facebook.
Holmes’s famous ability to deduce from impossibly tiny details the massive whole of a problem has a funny flaw. Once the great detective explains, his listeners demote him immediately from magician to casual observer. In The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes opens the story by noting out of the blue that Watson will not be investing in South African securities. Watson “gave a start of astonishment. Accustomed as [he] was to Holmes’s curious faculties, this sudden intrusion into [his] most intimate thoughts was utterly inexplicable.” But Holmes predicts that a mere five minutes time will convince Watson this statement is “absurdly simple.”
“You see, my dear Watson,” says Holmes, “it is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents ones audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect.” Given the groove in his finger, Watson had been playing billiards. He only plays billiards with Thurston, and Thurston offered Watson an expiring option on some South African property some four weeks before. As Watson’s checkbook remains locked in Holmes’s desk, clearly our billiard player will not be a real estate investor. As Holmes notes, “every problem becomes very childish when it is explained to you.” But the lesson is, I think, not to discount those who do the explaining. I certainly hope that in my career, there will be people who can help me sort out my tasks with as much skill and clarity. I promise I will try my best not to nettle them by assuming a good explanation is an easy one.
Sherlock, of course, describes the collection best. Speaking to Watson in The Sign of the Four, he notes, “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” Having read the parallel postulate, and now being back in Los Angeles reading Hamilton’s Time Series Analysis in order to complete my thesis, I can attest that a little of Watson’s romance would make both these exercises in logic enormously more interesting.
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