I have spent the better part of the last two days going over research proposals for my research paper writing class.
Last week I had them bring in samples of their research, parts of articles they had found on the web, or through the library data base. Somebody wrote me an email: Is a book alright? For God’s sake, yes, I wrote back.
I drifted around between the groups as they exchanged information on their possible research topics. I stopped when I heard one young woman talking. She was holding a book in her hand. An old library book, I could tell, by its thick cover, the kind they used to put on books back in the day to protect them forever.
The young lady was saying, she had been in the library looking for something and found this book. She took it down from the shelf because she had seen it mentioned in something else she had been reading related to her research topic. And she opened it up, she said, and the pages were all yellow with age, and the print was faded, and if you held it up to your nose the book smelled moldy.
She opened the book, as she was sitting there, to show the yellow pages, and the faded lettering, and she started reading she said, and it was like the book had been written yesterday, though really it had been written in 18 something or other. Way back when.
What was the book, I asked. By some guy, she said, and said his name wrong. Thorstein Veblen. “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” All about conspicuous consumption. And he wrote about “predatory capitalism too,” she said.
Just yesterday, she said, looking a little bemused and amused at once.
A great book, I said, and would have said more but stopped because I have been feeling really vulnerable lately and didn’t want to make like an idiot of myself. Because I was touched. Somebody, in one of my classes, had actually opened an old book (maybe for the first time)—one all yellow and moldy—and read something that seemed as if it could have been written yesterday. So perhaps all haphazardly, by way, one might say, of collateral benefit, my writing class contributed to somebody’s real education—by affording that person a moment of historical awareness, of seeing that all that is so pressed up against our faces, and so much now, is not really all that new and that where one is now and where one might be later are part of, extensions and extrapolations of things, long in motion.
I can remember that feeling from back in high school when I started haunting the public library, and opening an old book, and thinking, Damn but this is news! How come it isn’t on the front page?