Harry De

Three cheers for generalism — why James Delingpole is wrong about web journalism

I yearn for expertise, in the way that only an arts graduate can. At university I learned how to read books (as long as they were written in English). But now, two decades on, people who can read books (as long as they are written in English) are not quite such the hot ticket that they used to be. It’s an outrage.

No wonder I envy those who have honed and sharpened their talent, rapier-like, into something that can be wielded usefully in life. What good will my dim recollection of sonnet form do me?

The people I particularly admire are those who have set their heart on some really specific skill and put in the hard yards. Microbiologists, say. I look up to them in the way that small boys look up to fathers who know how to tie 18 different kinds of knot.

When I became obits editor at The Telegraph, therefore, it was this kind of specialist life that I most enjoyed recounting. Describing the tools and tactics of artisans of genius – the master boat builders and dazzlingly brilliant cobblers — was a kind of bliss. The more specific their trade, the better. I wallowed vicariously in their lifetimes of accrued and refined knowledge. Writing about them provided a momentary and, for me, suitably superficial, appreciation of mastery that I would never know. Though we were of the same species, their specialisations seemed fantastic and remote. I felt like a dull grey pigeon landing briefly on a branch occupied by birds of paradise.

Marilyn Monroe knew of what I write. ‘Specialisation,’ she used to sing (badly), is ‘the trait/That seems to state: first raters’. I’m sure she did not have authors of dodgy dissertations on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in mind.

All in all it often feels as if the generalist has had his day.

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