The Autodidact

A cliché: he read avidly, Everything he could. Spotting someone reading a book on unfamiliar, offbeat subjects people sometimes ask, “Why are you interested in that?” To which, for an autodidact like [William] Gedney, there was only one reply: because it is interesting. He amassed and hoarded knowledge and then, if something caught his eye-a potential photograph-he would bring to bear on that instant or incident everything he had learned and read. It didn’t stop there, though, because his ideal of self-sufficiency was underwritten, naturally, by self-generating curiosity. The more he saw, the more he wanted to learn. The more he learned, the more he saw. It wasn’t enough to train himself to see; he had also to understand what he saw, to become more articulate in the language of sight.

‘William Gedney’ by Geoff Dyer

William Gedney Photographs and Writings
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

4 thoughts on “The Autodidact

  1. >The first time I came across this wonderful word (autodidact) was in The Elegance Of The Hedgehog. That novel had so much vocabulary that was out of the ordinary; I loved it! Sadly, I don't know of William Gedney, though. Thanks for telling me!


  2. >Great post. I love autodidacts, I would like to think I am an autodidactic, but given my long stint in universities I think perhaps I don't qualify, even if I read widely outside my area. But I did meet a genuine autodidact when I was in Sydney. One of the poets I interviewed who first read poetry in prison and then read widely in literature and poetry, learnt about painting and design and went onto to teach in universities and edit and literary magazine. An incredible man who felt insecure for years, despite his obvious talents, because his formal education ended at 13. Amazing.


  3. >Bellezza: It's a word that I have loved since coming across it in Sartre's Nausea. Gedney was a fascinating man, and a brilliant photographer.Fiona: I suspect that I am an archetypal autodidact, but perhaps it is a term awarded by an observer.


  4. >Something strange is going on. The word autodidact has come up in three separate books I have read in the last couple of weeks – The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Her Fearful Symmetry and Perfume.


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