vol. 1, #3, July, 1995
HARD COPYI love the net. I like browsing and finding things on it; I like reading people's ideas on it. But there's an ephemeral quality to the stuff on the net. Instant access has a bias in favor of the new. Last in first out reduces the value of the FIRST IN; eventually, of course, FIRST IN gets dumped altogether to make way for newer information.
I just don't think 185 years from now, people will be reading my stuff on the net. But in my own library, I can browse in magazines from 185 years ago, and read a history that for them was current events. They did not realize they were drifting into the War of 1812; they did not know how it would come out.
If I was going to teach history, I'd send the kids to these magazines. The hardest thing about teaching history to kids is that what happened before they were born isn't real to them. They see history as something that's finished, done with.
They don't see that they themselves are in the middle of a history that they know only bits and pieces of, and they don't know how it's going to come out. They don't know what's going to happen in Bosnia. They don't know if Israel and the Palestinians will ever work things out. They don't know whether Newt will change our government forever, and, if he does, how it will change their lives.
I would send them to the old magazines, and let them browse until they found an event that interested them, and then I'd let them research that to find out how it came out.
When I go down to the basement to shift periodicals, the people in my library know they have to come hunting for me, because I get lost in the magazines.
I start reading an 1835 account of the building of the Cumberland Road, and the congressional discussion of who gets to pay for the upkeep of it. The senators are arguing that if the Federal government built it, the Federal government should pay to maintain it. It wouldn't be fair to make the states raise their taxes to pay for it.
Some things just don't change over time.
Like the article in a 1908 Atlantic Monthly. "Does the Democratic Party Have a Future?"
Or a 1931 Literary Digest article about how, with international air travel becoming a commonplace, germs could travel throughout the world undetected.
Or an 1899 North American Review article titled "The Logic of Our Position in Cuba," which begins, simply and succinctly, with the statement: "We want Cuba...Its annexation will be for its benefit, our benefit, and that of the world at large."
Reading the old magazines, you're in on the founding of things you kind of thought had existed eternally, like the Post Office. Mail delivery is so much one of those assumptions we make about the way the world operates that it's hard to envision a world in which the Post Office has not yet been founded.
Another assumption we make is that we can move to a city in the middle of a desert and nonetheless expect to take a daily shower. A 1909 National Geographic article talks about the building of the immense irrigation and dam projects that made it possible for Phoenix residents to take their showers, or indeed, made it possible for Phoenix to exist. "Future writers," National Geographic intones, "will record the irrigation movement as an epoch in our history."
Fat chance. The great American tragedy is that we do not remember our history. (The tragedy of the rest of the world is that it can't forget a single moment or grievance of its history, but that's another column.) This, it seems to me, is why you see this "Sagebrush Rebellion." In a West that could not exist without the federal government removing the Indians from the land, building railroads, roads and airports, giving land away to settlers, and bringing in water by extreme feats of engineering, Westerners are screaming to get the government off their backs.
Of course the magazines were providing light reading for their audience, too. Their light reading was Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman. And the lithographs and woodcuts might be Winslow Homer's, the photographs might be Matthew Brady's.
These magazines, which people must have thrown in the trash after they finished with them, contain our culture as well as our history.
I'm not sure the net is ever going to be that kind of historical museum. It changes too fast, and there's no way for any library to fix it in time and keep it as a record of who we are right here, right now.
So if I wander down the basement to shift the periodicals, do rescue me. But not in too big a hurry. I'll be in the middle of an 1899 article about how the food industry adulterated its food and watered its milk--back in that ideal Republican vision of a world in which the miraculous efficiency of the market, unrestrained by wasteful government regulation, discerned consumer needs and desires and met them.
home to all my
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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