Saturday, August 12, 2017

"A Terrible Thing To Waste"

Sporadically, over the course of many months, I’ve been helping a friend to clear her late husband’s library and organize his academic work. I brought home a notebook of his from 2004, because I happened to leaf through it and was reminded, by notations found within, of wonderful, deep and sometimes difficult conversations we’d had over the years.

The library is a mirror to the mind of the man, and yet contains only a fraction of what is in the mind. This individual was a “big picture” kind of person – probably one reason we got on so well – and his lifetime of reading and interacting with his books, colleagues and students is an example of a life well lived, a life of mind well and truly explored. I think he chose the academic life because he loved to read. He was always reading, always writing, notating, diagramming, referring, inferring, questioning. The library, the papers, the notebooks are what is left of a magnificent mind. They are also an example of all that is precious that we lose because we can only hold onto so much, as time moves unrelentingly onward.

The books, what will become of them? He would have wanted them to find good homes; we’re working on that. He was constantly purchasing duplicates of books he thought were important; he knew where to send them, though he didn’t always get around to doing so. Hundreds and hundreds of books; a dizzying array. Book-sellers are difficult to find, apparently, for such a highly specialized, while varied, collection. My friend said, “Everyone is going to the internet, to Amazon, they tell me.”

This was of grave concern to her husband: The retention and the sharing of knowledge. The assumption made by people is that everything is digitized. If one can call up on the computer all the records from the past, who needs a book?

Or, for that matter, who needs a printed sheet of paper? Going through this professor’s teaching materials, I have been finding his own typewritten notes and cards, tying one subject to another like a spider web across a world of thought. I’ve also found photocopied pages from innumerable books that have been out of print, some of them, for over well over a hundred years. Am I confident that the materials I have been letting slip through my fingers into the recycle bin are all digitized?

No, I am not in the least confident. I am quite sure that the assumption of digitization is incorrect, and that things are landing in the recycle bin that will never be seen again. The photocopies are from books that may no longer exist as physical artifacts.

This is how generations lose sight of what prior generations thought about and understood, correctly or incorrectly. Someone decides for us what information is of value, and lets something (or even everything) else go. “Oh, that old thing; Oxford published a modern study last year, we don’t need that one from 1925.” These days, people who write papers now find all their supporting references on the internet, and they do not question these sources. (I know this because I proofread and edit such papers for clients all the time.) My old friend, the departed professor, would shake his head in dismay; the only proper way to interact with your subject is to question everything that is written about it and, further, to question your own thinking about it. Do people question their own thinking, these days? I wonder about that, as he did – he felt that most people believe there is an “inevitability” or “fate” to everything in their lives (“It must be God’s will,” for example).

Nothing is inevitable, but a people that harbors such defeatist thinking is a people that can be easily led, lied to and manipulated, just as the digital data in which they put their faith can be manipulated. The digital world, at the touch of a button, can disappear.

Who gets to choose what we keep and what we let go? Are they authorities on the subjects, or administrators with quotas? What are the criteria for retention? Is access to the resulting digital data free, or available only through privatized subscription portals? As I go through someone else’s lifetime of study and thinking and work, I remember the many discussions we had about this very topic, in light of the trends we were seeing.

Ultimately, there is a price to be paid, a freedom that is lost, when we capitulate to the notion that we don’t have to know and we don’t have to think, and that we can find references on the internet to support our beliefs. There is a price to be paid when others tell us what to think and feel about what is happening in the world around us, and we let them do it and follow what they say, without asking questions and doing our own research.

In the case of this collection of papers, I am mainly the one who is choosing, and I there is so much that am reluctantly choosing to let go.

“A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste,” the slogan of the United Negro College Fund for more than 40 years, popped into my head, as I was sifting through file folders and baskets. My friend worked his mind until it could not work anymore; he was a walking encyclopedia of the history of political ideas, civil society, and collectivism. Every page of the notebook I brought home has a note of something just read, followed by notes referring to other books, articles, podcasts or other media that one needed to review (many authored by colleagues, friends or students), in order to gain a more complete picture of the problem, or a wider view of the question. I could draw Venn diagrams from the notations on most of these pages, Spirographs of overlapping themes and disciplines.

I can preserve the man’s papers, but no matter how much I wish that I could, I cannot preserve the man’s mind.

If I cannot preserve someone else’s mind, I can at least tell you a little of what the person said:

“Nothing is inevitable.”

“Question authority and everything that is illogical.”

“In a free society, there can be no double-standards.”

If these thoughts of my friend are all I manage to carry forward in this world, know that they are his legacy, bequeathed to you.

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen