September 29, 2020
I’d like to depart from our usual introductory meditation on the seasonality of the American Midwest, and meditate instead on a too-often maligned figure: the crank.
For our purposes here, I’ll define a crank as a person who absorbs themselves in the study of an academic niche. Lest we dwell too long in airy-fairy hypotheticals, I’ll give you a concrete example: Ron Pattinson, who runs the blog ‘Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.’ Mr. Pattinson is a scholar of historical brewing, and writes prodigiously about it: he’s averaged about four hundred and fifty blog posts a year since 2008, covering such topics as “Bottled Stouts in 1913” and “Cellarmanship in the 1920s.”
To be a crank is to study something for its own sake. The crank’s interest is private, separate from their job and free of financial or social considerations. Certainly Mr. Pattinson receives income and some prestige from lectures and books, but there’s only so much money in comparing the ABV of Burton Ales from 1900-1955. If there were no books, no speaking engagements, one gets the sense that Ron Pattinson would still spend his days thinking about the history of beer.
A crank’s interest must be, to some greater or lesser extent, useless. My father, whose history of the Indianapolis Greenhouse Growers Association is expected any year? Useless knowledge, certainly a crank. Our own Pinguis, who is so passionate about quantitative verse? Couldn’t be crankier. A Senior Policy Fellow who uses voting patterns to predict election outcomes? Ahh… debatably valuable, but certainly thought of as useful. That’s a wonk, not a crank.
Though useless it may be, I believe crankdom to be one of the few really noble occupations left to us. I said as much to Pinguis over the summer. Free from the taint of money or social pressure, free from the need to produce anything for society, cranks learn for the joy of learning, study merely (merely!) because the subject is interesting. In so doing, they preserve knowledge that, left to the rationalization of the market, would disappear entirely.
So if you meet a crank, Dear Reader, if someone reveals to you a deep understanding of cathedral construction or Georgian fashion, I forbid you to laugh or to ask them why. Cranks need not justify their interest to you, of all people. Rather, if they’ll let you, do anything that you can to help them in their thankless, needless, excellent work.
W. Carpus (Ed.)