Get Smart 

An enlightened interview about enlightenment

It's a tough moment in life when you realize how much you don't know. Few know that better than Boise Weekly staffer and well-meaning doofus Sara Beitia. That is, until, she saw the way out of the cave via the teachings of Dr. Thônng.

And not a moment too soon. Ever since the not-so-halcyon days of youth, the summer months have represented a time of cutting loose, slacking off and out-and-out dinking around. But the Thônngites at BW want you to shake of the residual miasma that results from years of viewing June through August as a time to forget everything you learned over the preceding nine months and get smart.

So I sat down with me to find out what "get smart" really means, as well as who I think I am to tell me what to do.

Sara Beitia: Is it actually possible to become smart over just one summer?

Sara Beitia: Dr. Thônng believes so, and I believe Dr. Thônng. When I read chapters 4 and 5 of [Thônng's soon-to-be-self-published life manual] 90 Days To a Better You, it changed my life. Those chapters deal with the mind and how a well-tuned one fits into the better life. So I decided that this summer would be it. I would begin my life transformation with renovating my brain.

I read the advanced copy of the book. Seems short for a complete guide to transforming your life.

Who would have thought that the wisdom of the ages could be contained in just 70 short pages?

You claimed that you can become smart in three months. How?

I'm just repeating what Dr. Thônng says.

OK, fine. How does Dr. Thônng suggest a person make that transformation in this period of time?

That's problematic. I mean, he's a great man, but he's not very specific. Like on page 52, he says, "fill your mind with profound and edifying works of literature."

Many people have said as much. How does that not leave you where you started?

You've heard the one about the only ones who get it are those with ears to hear? 90 Days To a Better You made me receptive to nothing less than the voice of the universe. The whole book is written entirely in aphorisms, so you really have to think.

You've lost me.

I read the book in one sitting--

It's a large-print book--

--and after I finished it, I reread those two chapters on the mind. I went to bed, and still, I couldn't stop thinking about Dr. Thônng's adages. I fell asleep and had a dream. But it was one of those dreams where you know it's more than just a dream. In it, I got up in the middle of the night and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. As I was sitting at the kitchen table, the ghosts of Aristotle, Isaac Newton and Spuds McKenzie came to me and fleshed out Dr. Thônng's teachings.

What did they tell you?

At first they all just stood there. Then Aristotle broke the silence. He said, "Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity." Newton rolled his eyes, but he agreed with him. The dog was inscrutable, but since they were traveling together, I figured they all were in accord.

How did you interpret what they said?

Ears to hear, man, ears to hear [muttering]. Seems painfully obviously that they were telling me to get educated this summer. Take Boise State, right here in the city. They're pimping their "Return to Learn" program pretty hard right now, with the aim of making finishing a degree as easy as possible. They also offer an extended studies program--not just for degree-seeking students, but for people just looking to learn, too--and they plan to launch community college courses in the near future, from what I hear. Summer is a great time to just find a course that interests you and take it.

So your dream was an ad for Boise State's community education programs?

No [rolling eyes]. I was just using the local university as an example. Education isn't just something you get from school, you know. How do they teach you things in school? With books! So the real key to getting smarter is to read lots and lots of books. All the books you can. Good books, bad books, big books and skinny books--whatever you can get your hands on. As Thomas Carlyle said, "The greatest university of all is a collection of books."

Was Carlyle in your dream, too?

No. He didn't say that to me. He is widely quoted as saying such.

So what else did you learn?

Like I was trying to say, after Aristotle broke the ice, the four of us began talking, just about the nature of knowledge and stuff like that. Then we started talking about books, and specific books, and the conversation never left the topic. Believe me, these guys have strong opinions about what to read.

What books should every person read?

Aristotle and Newton were discussing that exact question in my dream. They threw around several titles at first, titles that they all agree on. Aristotle suggested familiarity with the so-called "Western canon"--you know, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Voltaire, Dickens, Twain--what else would you expect from a dead white guy? They made an exception for Joyce's Ulysses ... Newton insists that one's not worth the trouble, no matter what your English prof says. I'll take their word for it, since I didn't make it past the first page of the thing. There was some argument about modern literature, like Ayn Rand and Stephen King--one was for one and one for the other, but I can't remember who was for who. Somebody brought up Kipling, too, I think.

Spuds piped up to make a case for Jane Austen and the Brontes, which frankly surprised me, though I don't know why. While Aristotle and Newton were arguing, Spuds also recommended getting an Oxford English Dictionary and suggested E.D. Hircsh's Dictionary of Cultural Literacy as a resource of what to know. Newton heard Spuds on Hirsch and made a snide comment about "a la carte intellectualism," and Spuds snapped back with a rather unkind reference to Einstein's theory of relativity and before you know it, Newton had nipped the poor dog. Aristotle stepped in to mediate, but I woke up before they got it sorted out.

Do you plan on following their advice?

Definitely. I haven't read nearly enough books, for sure. Now that I know the kinds of edifying books Dr. Thônng intends me to read, I'm going to go for it. I really want to be a better me in just 90 days.

All those books ... sounds expensive.

Yep. I plan to make great use of the library this summer. I can search the database online at and put holds on the books I want to read. I could look into one of the library's many book discussion groups, which might come in handy for actually understanding the books once I've read them. I know that many of the local bookstores have book discussion groups, too--like Veritas Fine Books and Barnes & Noble, just to name a couple. Then there's the Log Cabin's myriad programs, from reading groups--not the least of which is The Big Read--to writing classes.

If you could only read the same five books for the rest of your life, what five books would they be?

That's a tough one. I think The Count of Monte Cristo would be in there somewhere, as would Helprin's Winter's Tale. I'm not sure I'm comfortable answering this question. Tell you what. Make it six and I'll just take the Harry Potter collection.

Whether it's a library group or the NEA's Big Read, one-book discussions seem to be the flavor of the summer season. If you could suggest that someone read one book this summer, what would it be?

I guess I feel like talking about books that mean something to you is a lot like wearing a Speedo on the cover of a weekly newspaper--too revealing. But if pressed, I suppose it would be The Neverending Story. If only because German children's fantasy and summer go together like sauerkraut and frankfurters.

Name some other things you will do this summer to become a smarter person, besides sitting around and reading.

Puzzles are supposed to be good for keeping the mind in shape. I plan to do a lot of crossword, Sudoku, anagrams, maybe even a game of Scrabble here and there. Got to keep the mind in shape in order to fill it up. After that, if I have time, I'm going to learn a second language--either Spanish or Latin. Or Esperanto.

Thank you. Truly, this has been the most, uh, illuminating interview of my career.

[blushing] Oh, stop.

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