Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Ways We'll Be Remembered

I'm reading an interesting book this week - The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future, by Robert Darnton. It's not too long - only 206 pages in small format - and a bit repetitive, because it consists of a series of previously-published essays re-worked into a book, but it is still filled with interesting and thought-provoking information. One passage that particularly stood out to me was this one...speaking about the challenges of doing research in archives of old letters, Mr Darnton writes:

"....And most people never wrote letters. Most human beings have vanished into the past without leaving a trace of their existence."

I don't know about you, but I find that a very sobering thought - "vanished into the past without leaving a trace of their existence."

All of you who are my regular readers know that I love to write letters, even though I seldom have the time any more to write the kind of long, chatty letters I prefer. People always love to receive letters, of course, but very few people love to write them. But if we don't, how will we be remembered?

Very, very few of us will rate mention of our lives in the history books, not too many of us get our names in the newspapers (for the right reasons, anyhow), and all those photographs we've taken of ourselves will eventually vanish, either because the dyes fade, or because the digital formats we have taken to storing them in will eventually no longer be readable. Most families, at least in modern America, have no tradition of oral history. How will my great-great grandchildren know what kind of fellow old Bilbo (or any of us) was? What will be their reference points for knowing what he thought, how he acted, and how others thought of him?

When my mother passed away back in 2001, we discovered boxes of my old letters in her room at home. She had saved almost everything I ever wrote, going back to the letters home from college and those I wrote as an Air Force officer from divided, walled-in Berlin in the early 1980's. There were all the letters I wrote home from my month at the Outward Bound school in the Colorado Rockies, bringing back all the memories of aching muscles, blistered feet, cold, and campfire food seasoned with pine needles, dirt, and ashes. Postcards from exotic locations, cartoons and interesting articles clipped from local newspapers, and all the minutiae of an ordinary life being lived day-to-day.

Of course, all those letters provide history with spin...no college student ever writes home to his parents about everything he did, and the letters covering my military career by necessity can't tell about everything I did and experienced...but someday those letters may provide my grandchildren's great-grandchildren with information about my life and times they won't find anywhere else. We're moving more and more to ephemeral electronic communication via e-mail, tweets, and comments on Facebook pages. Where are those stored? Will they be recoverable decades from now? I doubt it. And in any case, what can match the appeal of a genuine, no-kidding, ink-on-paper letter ... something you can hold in your hand and feel a physical connection to the person who wrote it? A genuine letter provides a not just a link of ideas, but a physical link to the past.

What would they refer to if I had never written any of those letters? Where would they go to find out about great-great-grandpa Bilbo? God knows what Mike might tell them, after all.

I guess this means one of two things: either I need to find the time to write more letters, or I need to start keeping a journal. Of the two, I'd probably prefer the journal, except that I think I get better results when I'm writing to someone, crafting the words for what I know they're interested in.

What are the ways we'll be remembered? Photos are one-dimensional, e-communications are fleeting, and letter-writing is all but a lost art. I guess I should stop whining and start writing.

And work on convincing Marcy, Joe, Noah, Leya, and the Grandchild-in-Preparation that they should learn to love writing, too.

Who wants to vanish into the past without leaving a trace of their existence?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

5 comments:

KKTSews said...

A few years ago, a friend recommended "A Grandparent's Memory Book" to us. By that time, dd's Grandmothers had both died. So, we asked the Grandfathers to fill out the book. It prompts them with questions such as how they got to school, stories from their childhood, favorite meals their mother cooked, their first job, etc. Each question has a space for an answer.
No, we don't have oral history but modern families also don't often have the close contact families used to have. A book like this helps document and pass along some of those every day details subsequent generations may want to know.

Mike said...

"history with spin"

Not that I'm trying to get off the subject of letter writing..... Anyway, how many times have you seen an event happen, and then listen to someone else explain it to someone that wasn't there? Makes you want to go STOP! That's not what happened at ALL!!!

Anonymous said...

What an awesome post. I found it very though provoking.

What you said truly took my breath away: I`ve (I doubt anybody has) never really thought of it.

"Most human beings have vanished into the past without leaving a trace of their existence" does sound indeed very dramatic. It is sad for something like that to happen to a human being.

I´ll be writing more letters from now on!

Amanda said...

I really do enjoy all your posts reminding us to write more letters.

I think the whole idea of pen pals is a great one to ignite the letter writing bug in kids. I had several growing up (some that I had met and others that were introduced by other people) and it was exciting. Aaron isn't quite up to that stage yet but maybe in a year or two, I could get him to write to one of your younger grandkids :)

Mal's Team Gherkin said...

I really need to get back into the groove of writing my autobiography for my own kids. I'm doing it for similar reasons.