What you don't know can help you: Sugar Man, spies & surprise

At the Westdale Theatre last night I found myself thinking about surprises.

Not just because I discovered that they stock little cups of Haagen Dazs in the freezer at the snack counter (I was surprised: How had I missed that?)

But I was thinking about how the terrific documentary we were watching, Searching for Sugar Man, is about surprise. Everyone in it is surprised; surprises burst like popcorn through this story. There are sad and joyous ones, and startling connections ...  you just couldn't make this stuff up.*

And you shouldn't look it up. Really! Don't research anything about this film -- don't read a review or watch a trailer online. Come to it unfortified by information and just ... be surprised.

I won't spoil things if I tell you that one of the key dates in the Sugar Man story happens to be the year that, in what now seems like the very distant past, Google was incorporated. Google has nothing to do with the story of Sugar Man, except that, had his story played out in an information-rich time and place, it wouldn't have been that story.

And if I had hit Google before going to the theatre I would have been less engaged by Searching for Sugar Man. The edges would have been knocked off a weird and raw story.

A little knowledge, then, can be a slightly numbing thing.

Today, when I finished Ian McEwan's new spy novel, Sweet Tooth, I found myself thinking about surprises again. Walking home with the book under my arm after a dash to Bryan Prince Booksellers the other day, I thought about its setting -- 1970s Britain, those grim years of domestic crises and international tension. Perhaps I'd find McEwan talking about the book in a clip online. Surely there would be an Eleanor Wachtel interview from earlier this fall?

After a few pages I was reaching for my smartphone so I could check out -- all sorts of things. But I caught myself and shelved (hah!) the impulse. It's a spy story, after all. There would be a surprise. 

There was.

Plundering Google, snatching up articles, podcasts, video: This still feels to me like a near-magical privilege I have not earned but on which I depend.

But it's worth remembering, sometimes, to lay off the keypad, to leave room -- to leave a light on -- and to wait for surprise.

*The only unsurprising things in the film are these: The music industry can be a beast; music itself can be transformative.