I was in the university library because I don’t really make sense anywhere else. Not to brag but in my life I’ve been in over twenty places, and really, “university library” is the one I look the least awkward and weird in. I don’t mind. At least it’s somewhere.
But I was there because I’d wanted to read this history of word processors. Not a recent book, mind you. The book was written sometime in the mid-80s. That’s a lot of word-processor history ago, I admit. Back then word processors were primitive affairs, often programs we got by typing them in from magazines that cost $2.95 at the grocery store and there’s nothing about that I’m making up. Many of them were coal-powered and they were able to store up to one macro, which would be “add a line break after each paragraph, except that makes your document more than 4 kilobytes big, so the computer runs out of memory”. Still, I’d want to know more about how we got to that point.
And that’s when I discovered the horror: the library was reorganizing its shelves. Like, all of them, best I can figure. Everything. And I thought: no! That shelf where I ran across that book about pasta technologies holds nothing now! How will I ever find that book again? I haven’t wanted to find it again since I first read it but still, I knew where it was. I was lost.
This made me realize something. I own multiple books about the history of containerized cargo. I own a book that’s entirely about nutmeg, a spice I could not positively affirm under oath that I had ever had. Seriously, if I tried it would go something like this, taken from my court appearance for failure-to-yield in this minor traffic accident I had at the awful traffic circle where Route 206 crosses White Horse Avenue in Trenton, New Jersey:
ATTORNEY: And have you, knowingly, ever consumed a thing with nutmeg on or in it?
ME: I … think? Maybe? Don’t they use it for pumpkin pies? I’ve eaten that.
ATTORNEY: Maybe? Didn’t you knowingly and deliberately sprinkle some onto the free coffee you got at the farmer’s market so you could see what it was like?
ME: Oh, yes, I guess. It tasted … like every spice ever?
I don’t know what the attorney hoped to prove. In any case they forgave the failure-to-yield and only gave me a citation for listening to an audiobook about the history of the concept of corporations. And that feeds back to my point. I want to say I’m curious about all aspects of the human experience, and that I’m open to how much thought and history goes in to even the small, insignificant things. And then the attorney asks, “Don’t you own multiple books about the history of calendars each written by someone with the name “Duncan”?” Yes. Yes I do. And I already knew all the good stuff in the various Duncans’ books from having read many books about the calendar when I was a kid.
Clearly, I need help. I need some kind of guide to what things are in fact interesting and what things are not. This might take the form of some kind of specially-trained support dog. Someone who will notice how I’m looking over a history of subway tokens (by Brian J Cudahy, author of one of those containerized-cargo books) and leap onto me, shoving me to the ground and maybe rolling me over to something of more general interest. Like a history of an Apollo mission. No, not that Apollo mission. A famous one, like Apollo 11 or 13. Good grief. Fine, maybe 8. No not 12 why are you looking at 12? Who notices Apollo missions that didn’t have James Lovell involved?
They didn’t have the word-processing book. So, hey, someone else found it interesting or they lost it in 1992 and nobody’s asked about it yet. Left to my own devices, I got to Harvey C Mansfield’s 1947 A Short History of the Office of Price Administration, because apparently I need to know something about the theory and practice of World War II price-control administration that I couldn’t just pick up from listening to Lum and Abner episodes that had a public-service mission. Ah, but consider this: it includes this July 1947 quote from Bernard Baruch, architect of what price controls the United States government attempted in World War I and a leading advocate for strategic planning of economic needs given the national emergency:
Also, as a result of piecemeal price control, we are now faced with inflation which, next to human slaughter, maiming and destruction, is the worst consequence of war.
This serves as a valuable reminder that one does not get to be an extraordinarily wealthy individual and public intellectual advising presidents across many decades without completely losing one’s ability to realize one has just composed the daftest sentence in all of 1947, a year when the administration of Germany was divided into The Soviet Sector, the Brassiere, and Bizonia. Yes, yes, plus the Protectorate of the Saar. Don’t nitpick me. I do my reading.
The Apollo 12 astronauts considered giving their Command Module the name Abner, so that their call signs would be Lem and Abner, but this was stopped when, I trust, a NASA Public Affairs Officer came down and slugged Lunar Module pilot Alan Bean. I can show you the book that’s from.