When I worked in a bookstore with a replete Penguin section, I came to know a whole lot about a whole lot of books. I knew who classic authors were, I knew what books they had written, I knew what the books were about.
I had not actually read all the books.
Who has that much time? I read their back covers. In matters of classic literature, I was not a polymath; I was a perimath.
You know what a polymath is, I reckon: someone who knows a lot of things. That’s from πολυ- polu- (normally rendered as poly-) ‘many, much’ plus μάθη mathē ‘learning’ (and yes, that’s related to the math in mathematics). I imagine you’re also familiar with peri-, as in perimeter, periscope, periphrastic, and peripatetic. That’s from περί peri ‘about, around’. So, yes, perimath means someone who knows about things – you could say they know details peripheral to the things. (And a person who knows about a lot of things could be called a polyperimath.)
That might not sound like a good kind of thing to be. But believe me, there’s a lot to be said for knowing about things – knowing that information exists, and knowing where and how to get that information. Very few people will remember everything exactly as they read or learned it, and the amount of information available will be forever greater than any one person’s capacity for learning it all. But if you see some reference to a fact, and you can remember where and how to find out the details – if your mind is not an encyclopedia but a catalogue or search engine for a whole library – you can be very intellectually effective indeed. And, I must add, people who are sure they don’t need to look things up tend to get things wrong enough of the time to vitiate their effectiveness.
Let me give a little example. When I was in grad school, I taught test prep for the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, which are standardized tests for admission to graduate school, management school, and law school, respectively. They have a “reading comprehension” section, wherein you read a passage and then answer multiple-choice questions about it. A good way to do badly on it is to read the passage once and then answer the questions on the basis of what you’re sure you remember. The way to do well on it is to look back at the passage and confirm the exact answer to every question. (Remember: these tests are multiple-choice, so you are given the correct answer for each question, along with three answers that are incorrect in ways that people who rely on memory may miss.) But it’s a timed test, so you need to be able to find the information without rereading the whole passage every time. You need to have an idea where and how to look (numbers and capitalized words make great landmarks, for instance) – and then you need to pay attention to what it definitely does and does not say.
Real life isn’t like standardized tests, of course, but it does present unlimited opportunities to make dumb mistakes on the basis of what you’re sure you remember. The ability to find and check facts is very useful – and the inclination to do so is a mark not of insecurity or ignorance but of diligence and careful thinking. It should also go without saying that it’s better to know that a piece of information exists than not to.
So sure, it’s good to be a polymath. No one could say otherwise. But it’s also good to be a perimath. And, if we’re being honest, a lot of people we think of as polymaths are really mainly perimaths – or polyperimaths, if you want to insist. One of my favourite quotes about high intelligence (or producing the impression of high intelligence, anyway) is from a guy named Rick Rosner, who characterized it as “doggedness and reference skills.”
Which also characterizes essential traits for getting a graduate degree – and for several professions, such as librarian and editor. So here’s to the perimaths.
By the way: you won’t find this word in wide use… yet. I assembled it from existing parts, and its sense follows quite reasonably, but I have no prior attestations for its use. I do hope it catches on, though!