Did you ever wonder how we managed to do research before scroll and point? Well, here’s how: This is something I wrote in 1992, describing what went on in the NY Public Library.
On the third floor there is a rotunda with murals on floor and ceilings. From there you go into a big room where the librarians are behind a large counter. These people are amazing. They seem to know EVERYTHING about how to find information. Whatever you want to know they can tell you where to look for it.
Of course, sometimes you can find what you want by yourself. Along three walls of this room are black books which contain photocopies of all the index cards of books published before 1971. Across the room are computers where you can look up anything published after 1971.
After you find the call number you fill out a slip and give it to a clerk at this little desk who gives you a tag with a number on it and puts the call slip in a pneumatic tube which sends it to the basement where all the books are. Then you move onto the huge reading room and wait for your number to light up on a board. When it does you go to the counter give them your number and get your book.
They don’t let you check anything out of this library so you have to take your book to one of the reading tables and read it (and take notes) there.
In other words, we moved our butts. First of all we had to get to the library, probably by subway, we talked to other people asking for information, we used our imaginations as we searched for the book holding the right card; we moved across the room, we held books in our hands; we opened them and closed them, we paid attention. We could take a break to get something to eat from the vendors in Bryant Park, the backyard of the library, but that involved its own complicated routine which I can’t remember.
And we enjoyed it! It felt good to be engaged with life. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment after a successful afternoon at the library that I don’t seem to feel after sitting and scrolling. Is the new way better? There’s an easy way to answer that question. Are the books being written today as a result of our research better than the books being published then? The answer is clearly no. We tend to think that we are constantly moving forward in a positive direction and that whatever is new is better. Sometimes new ways are better, but not always.
Everywhere I look nowadays, I see something that makes me think it should be put in archival storage; things are changing so rapidly. The latest example is the friendly letter. I can’t tell you how many mid-19th century diaries I’ve read (before the age of the telephone) where women kept track on the flyleaf of when and to whom they received letters, and the mail was delivered twice a day.
Much to my amazement, this week I actually received two friendly letters in my mail! The friendly letter does not tell anything newsworthy that has happened; rather it talks about what is happening. It is not a thank you, not an expression of sympathy, not an announcement of a surprise. I suspect most people would feel foolish writing one and puzzled receiving one. I can’t say what prompted my correspondents to write one other than a desire to “keep in touch.” And touching is what it is all about. It’s why we shake hands; why we hug, why we pat on the back, why newborn babies latch on to their mama’s breast.
Today I’m afraid many of us are more accustomed to touching our phones than each other. I understand that those in the know are predicting that AI will someday make it possible to read the activity of each other’s brains on our computer. God help us.
If you’re too far away to reach out and physically touch someone, the friendly letter is the next best thing.
We were studying the stanza from Wordsworth’s poem The Tables Turned which sums up his philosophy. It is so significant a passage that in my opinion every young person should be familiar with it.
One Impulse from a vernal wood Can Teach you more of man Of moral evil and of good Than all the sages can.
However, in the middle of my disquisition, the fire bell rang. We all knew that drill. Students immediately arose from their seats and started leaving the room (“walk, do not run”) to the nearest stairwell, followed by me, the teacher, who shut my door. Upon exiting the stairwell, we proceeded to our predesignated spot in the backyard of the school where we waited for the all-clear bell to ring.
It was a large school—two buildings—so we had to wait there quite awhile. We returned the same way, and when I, bringing up the rear, arrived, all the students were seated. And on my desk was a collection of twigs, leaves, clumps of grass, weeds—whatever my students could manage to find in the backyard to represent Wordsworth’s vernal wood.
It nearly brought me to tears because it showed me that first of all they had been listening, maybe even starting to understand, and also that they knew me so well that they realized I would relish the joke.
Today those seventeen-year-olds are grandparents (don’t ask me how that happened!) and I often wonder if any of them, while walking through the grass, are reminded of that time so long ago when they made their teacher’s day.
This post appeared a year ago around this time. This year, more than ever, it is important for us to reconnect with old friends. Therefore I am repeating myself. In case you are considering foregoing Christmas cards this unusual year, I hope you will reconsider.
An old friend sent an email yesterday asking for my address. We moved last year and she had forgotten to enter our new address in her address book. She wanted to send me a Christmas card. That got me to thinking about Christmas cards and why they matter. She could have easily wished me a Merry Christmas in her email, but I am so glad she didn’t and I look forward to receiving her card.
Why, I wondered, do I care? Why is it that Christmas cards are really my favorite Christmas custom?
Here, I think, is the answer: Who we are, after all, depends on all the experiences we have ever had in life and that includes the interactions we have with our friends. Old or new or ongoing, our friends matter—a lot.
In fact we may not see them often; realistically we may know that we will never see many of them again. But we have not forgotten them, and when an envelope with a familiar handwriting appears in our mailbox, we know they have not forgotten us.
There may be a short note—or even a letter, though that is not often the case. But there will certainly be a signature .and we will have the opportunity of holding the hand of a friend in our hand and reflecting on our friendship and the times we have spent together. You can’t hold an email in your hand.
I came across this in a blog I follow and it seemed to be good advice: It’s from The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang.
“Compare the difference between the life of a man who does no reading and that of a man who does. The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison there is no escape.
“But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about. An ancient author puts him in communion with a dead spirit of long ago, and as he reads along, he begins to imagine what that ancient author looked like and what type of person he was….
“Now to be able to live two hours out of twelve in a different world and take one’s thoughts off the claims of the immediate present is, of course, a privilege to be envied by people shut up in their bodily prison.”
And Closer to Home—from Reading and Rhyming by Herbert Knapp