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February 19, 2007

TT: Pinned down

Today’s almanac entry (see below) is a quotation whose source I've been trying to locate for more than a decade. Last week I put out a call for help, and two of my Francophone readers responded with alacrity. Alfred Wallace was first past the post at 4:54 a.m. on February 14, informing me that Gustave Flaubert said it in a letter to Louise Colet. He even gave the original French version of the quote: “À force de nous inquiéter des imbéciles, il y a danger de le devenir soi-même.”

A day later Nick Williams e-mailed me the same information, adding a useful gloss on Flaubert’s neatly worded remark, which I had first encountered in a 1928 essay by Irving Babbitt:

Babbitt's translation is approximate; one might translate also: "If we keep troubling ourselves with imbeciles, we run the risk of becoming imbeciles ourselves." But of course Babbitt's adaptation is more elegant than that. The French sentence itself has an exquisite compactness and balance that is hard to preserve in English (especially those delightful infinitive constructions).

What amazed and delighted me is that both of my readers found the text of Flaubert’s letter on the Web. (I had no luck tracking it down because I don’t speak French and thus searched for “idiots” instead of “imbéciles.”) We are growing ever closer, it seems, to the day when anyone with a computer will be able to sit at his desk and do the kind of research that was previously only possible by going to a library.

Indeed, more and more highly specialized information that used to be available only from specific libraries can now be found on the Web. Just the other day, for instance, I was reading a collection of essays about Aaron Copland in which I learned that all of Copland’s surviving letters to Leonard Bernstein can be viewed on the Web. Having spent the better part of a decade making regular train trips to Baltimore to sift through H.L. Mencken’s papers in order to write his biography, I find this nothing short of staggering.

No doubt the digitization of libraries will sharply diminish the number of serendipitous discoveries made by those of us who spend hours sifting through stacks of ill-sorted documents in search of gold. I found the manuscript of A Second Mencken Chrestomathy on the top shelf of a dusty closet in the Mencken Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library that was illuminated by a fifteen-watt bulb. I also had an experience there that I described with great glee in the Mencken Day lecture I delivered at the Pratt a few years ago:

I got to know that room well during the years I spent working in it. In fact, I grew to love it. It’s comfortable and quiet, like the library of a slightly shabby but distinguished club. When you’re working in the Mencken Room, you’re usually the only person there, which means you can hear yourself think—and, if you listen closely enough, you can almost hear Mencken thinking. He never set foot in the Mencken Room, so far as I know, but most of his personal library is there, and nearly all his private papers, and even one of his typewriters, an ancient Corona portable with the black enamel worn off the space bar from years of constant use. He probably wrote a couple of million words on that typewriter, all of them pounded out with two fingers….

One afternoon I was sitting in the Mencken Room, transcribing a column in which Mencken talked about religion. It had been raining for the past couple of days, and though I didn’t know it, there was a leak in the roof of the library, and water had been silently dripping into a chandelier hanging over my head. I was clicking away on my laptop, inputting an exceptionally naughty paragraph. Just as I typed the last words, the hollow brass ball on the bottom of the chandelier came unstuck and fell to the table, six inches from the laptop and a foot from my head, spilling dirty rainwater all over my papers. I’ve never been able to decide who did that—Mencken, or God.

Such adventures are not available to the stay-at-home researcher, and now that I’m writing a book about Louis Armstrong, I’m having them all over again. To hold one of Armstrong’s scrapbooks in your hands, as I do each time I pay a visit to the Armstrong Archives at Queens College, is an experience I wouldn’t trade for any amount of convenience.

As I wrote a year ago:

Not surprisingly, the scrapbooks are perilously fragile, and they have yet to be scanned, so anyone who uses them has to put on a pair of protective white gloves and handle them with the utmost care. I found it impossible to type with the gloves on, meaning that I had to take them off in order to make notes, then put them on again each time I turned a page. It was a nuisance, but it was also a small price to pay. To be sure, microfilm and its successor technologies are (mostly) unmixed blessings, but any scholar can tell you that there’s no substitute, emotionally speaking, for handling the thing itself, be it a scrapbook or a holograph manuscript. Though constant use has drained the word awesome of much of its meaning, I don’t know any other way to describe what it feels like to turn the crumbling pages of the personal scrapbooks of the greatest of all jazz musicians. How amazing that such things exist—and that they've been made accessible to researchers.

Be that as it may, I can't wait for all of Satchmo’s papers to be digitized. Life is short, too short to spend too much of it running from library to library in search of information when you can find out what you want to know by clicking a few keys on your laptop—or posting a request for help on your blog. Postmodernity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, but it definitely has its moments.

Posted February 19, 2007 12:00 PM

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