This might be a long post. You see, I had intended to write another post on books. It was going to begin something like this:
When I was a child, perhaps about ten or eleven years old, my older brother gave me a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. It was a paperback book, a facsimile of Lewis Carroll’s manuscript that would become the book Alice in Wonderland. I think my much older brother might have purchased it while traveling in England. I seem to remember him telling me in his sort of theatrical, conspiratorial whisper that the book was a copy of the author’s original manuscript, as though it was a true treasure he had purchased for me. And actually it was. I was nerdy kid, and I thought it was very cool to own such a book. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. The book vanished somewhere, along with my youth, down the rabbit hole of time.
So that was what I intended to write about. But then Brian Williams happened.
And I started thinking about a memory I have. I remember being in one of those old-fashioned elevators. It’s the kind that has the metal grill work door that you pull closed, and then you see can see everything outside of the elevator as you go up and down. Something like this:
I remember taking this elevator in my grandparents’ apartment house in Philadelphia. Problem? Well, apparently this never happened. My mom said her parents never lived in a building that had such an elevator, and my brother confirmed it. Neither of them could think of any relative who lived in such a place. So was I ever in this elevator, perhaps visiting someone else? Or did my overactive imagination take some old movie I watched and make it my own experience?
What are memories and what are dreams? And what are dreams of memories?
My husband and I have been watching the TV show, Fringe on Netflix. In one episode, a former rock band keyboard player (played by Christopher Lloyd), now in a nursing home, has a late night encounter with his young son, who had died many years earlier. The keyboardist later mentions that when his son was younger, the son told him of a dream he had had. In the dream, he met his father in a nursing home. It turns out that the mysterious creatures known as the Observers experience time differently. One of them took the son when he a child to meet his father many years in the future. The boy thought it was dream, and for the father, the experience had not yet happened.
Storytellers all over the world have written about time travel. There are time machines, and then there are stories of people who can just wander into another age. I have always loved these stories. Perhaps that’s why I’m a historian.
Philosophers and scientists have also theorized about time. It’s said that animals do not experience time the way humans do. They live in the present. Some human cultures also experience time differently. In fact, those of us in modern western culture probably experience time differently than those in previous centuries—before electric lights, accurate clocks, train schedules, and all the various social media devices we now have alert us to news 24/7. Not that time didn’t matter, but perhaps it mattered in a different way. The hours left of daylight to accomplish a task, the changing of the seasons, when a crop should be planted, when a cow should be milked—all of these things were important, but perhaps it did not matter to previous generations if it was 7:00 or 8:00, or even what year it was.
Books and written records bring some past worlds to our present existence (as do other artifacts). But they are often incomplete. In reading an eighteenth-century divorce petition, I might discover the bare bones of a couple’s unhappy marriage—when they married, and why the petitioner sought a divorce. If there are extant depositions, I might discover more. Perhaps a neighbor saw the husband brutally strike the wife, or witnessed the wife having a sexual encounter with another man. (Some of those depositions are pretty juicy.) The documents also tell me about legal language and conventions of the time, and perhaps provide some details of how privacy—or the lack of it in the eighteenth-century–but I will probably never know more about that particular couple and their unhappy life. Yet I might glean some idea of how they lived from other records, from accounts and stories told by others. These records are not time machines, but they do give those in the present a window into the past.
And that brings me back to this.
Once upon a time, a teenage boy bought a book for his sister. This girl, living in Cold War America, read about the fantastic adventures of a girl in Victorian England. As she read, she traveled through time and space. She saw people dressed in nineteenth-century clothing who had weird tea parties and spoke in a way that was different from the people around her. She encountered magical creatures. In her dreams, she may even have tumbled down a rabbit hole with the English girl, Alice.
I might not remember the thoughts and dreams I had then, but I do remember receiving the book. A memory of a book, a gift of the past, it now exists in the present.
PS. Shout out to Rachel Carrera! Her blog post on Lewis Carroll triggered this post. Check out her always interesting blog.