A few months before Daniel Boorstin retired in 1987 as the 12th Librarian of Congress, I had the honor to interview him. It was a rare opportunity. Armed with pencils and pad, I was readied with more than an ample number of questions, the answers to which I hoped might reveal new insights into the man whose prolific, prize-winning books included the trilogy: The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958); The Americans: The National Experience (1965); and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).
I still remember one of those questions.
I wanted to know, as preposterous as I knew the question to be, what book in the Library of Congress he would keep if he had to throw every book away save one.
I still remember Dr. Boorstin’s response. It stings as much now as it did then.
“Oh, I can’t answer a question like that. It’s not realistic.”
Of course, he couldn’t. After all, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 25 million cataloged books.
Nonetheless, he proceeded to respond to my unrealistic question.
“I might say the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When dictators burn books–let me say the first books to keep are the books that would be burned by a dictator. I’m saddened that people in parts of the world … can’t read what they want. We should weep for our fellow human beings who can’t read whatever they want.”
You would think that I would have learned a lesson about asking unrealistic questions.
And I did.
But if you’re thinking that I learned not to ask unrealistic questions, you’re wrong.
What I learned is this: ask the questions even if they might be perceived as unrealistic.
And that is exactly what I have always done. And that is exactly what I will keep on doing.
It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I love asking my students questions, even unrealistic ones.
Just last week, smackdab at the beginning of the semester, I tossed one to my Creative Writing students:
“What important lesson have you learned during the pandemic?” Write a 500-600 word essay responding to the question.
I had no sooner given the assignment than Dr. Boorstin’s comment started reverberating in my memory. “I can’t answer a question like that.”
But after the echo quieted, I remembered that Dr. Boorstin responded to my question anyway, unrealistic as he considered it to have been.
And I remember so vividly that his response joyed me, thrilled me–not so much for the content (though I think that his selection of OED was a stellar choice)–but more because he graciously went right ahead and responded to a question that he had just stingingly characterized as unrealistic!
Truth be told, it wasn’t until just now–this very moment, actually–that I realized how successful I was with that interview. I went into the interview simply hoping that I might gain at least one new, unique insight into this acclaimed historian. And I did! By asking my unrealistic question, I gained a priceless response: Dr. Boorstin’s statement that the OED might be the one book from the millions of books in the Library of Congress that he would save.
Search and explore, if you will, all the published interviews with Dr. Boorstin, and I daresay that you will not find this little nugget anywhere other than in the September/October 1987 issue of Insights: The Library of Congress Professional Association Newsletter that published the full interview.
But I digress, as I am so inclined to do, as I so love to do when I’m fooling around with ideas and words.
Let’s get back to my students, wherever it was that I left them before my digression caused my moment of forgetfulness! Ah, there they are: I found them again. I usually do! It seems that they might be talking about how preposterous the topic is that I asked them to explore, how unrealistic it is.
If they feel that way, I get it. I feel that way, too. No doubt, you do, too. No doubt, we all feel that way because we have all gone through so much during a pandemic that has lasted for two years and that threatens to dog us into the future. Globally. Nationally. Personally.
How do we cope with the challenging times ahead, whatever they might be?
Maybe, just maybe, we make it through the same way that my students will make it through as they write about what they have learned.
Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment to pause.
Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment or three or more from all the busy-ness that so often prempts the genuinely important things in our lives.
We let our minds wander. We pause in wonder. We think about what we have learned. We reflect.
We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.
I have no idea how my students will respond to the call–absolutely no idea. I am writing this blog post days before I will have seen their submissions. But I am confident that they will respond. And it won’t be because of a grade. It will be because they have an opportunity to sort through it all.
It will be an opportunity for them to explore a question that, perhaps, no one has asked them to explore before, especially with the requirement that they chronicle their explorations in writing.
As they sort through it all and share what they have learned, I reserve to them the right to preface their lessons learned with the same caveat that Dr. Boorstin used to preface his response: “I might say […].”
Tomorrow, my students might change their minds and explore another lesson learned. Actually, I hope that they do!
Whatever it is they might say, I will value, honor, and respect their responses. For they will have done what I hope each of us will do as we grapple with a pandemic that baffles science and scientists and that requires daily changes to the game plan.
Respond. Write. Distill.
Since my students have to grapple with and respond to my unrealistic question, it seems to me that I should have to do the same. It seems to me that I should have to sort through my own pandemic experiences and arrive at a lesson that I have learned.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing in this post.
What I have learned (re-discovered, if you will) is how much I love fooling around with ideas and words. It brings me great delight. It always has. As a child, I fooled around with ideas and words in the dictionary, letting one definition lead me to the next and that one to the next and so on, just as my mother ran reference in her Biblical commentary books. It was so easy to get lost running after ideas and words. Sometimes I even lost myself.
More important, though, sometimes while fooling around with ideas and words, I landed upon moments when a great calm washed over me and comforted me and made me believe that everything might be all right after all.
It’s akin to what Robert Frost observed about poetry and about love: “[Poetry] begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion […] Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (“The Figure a Poem Make,” Collected Poems, 1939).
I’d like to claim that thinking about today’s post began in delight. It did not. My initial thoughts were a mishmash of all that I have missed out on–lost, if you will–during the last two years. I won’t even begin to list my woes and heartaches and tragedies here because you know them all, already, all too well. I’m betting that yours have weighed as heavily on your spirit as they have weighed on mine.
I had to reign myself instanter. I had to shift my focus from lost to found. From lost to learned.
Ideas and words have always anchored me and held me fast during the raging storms of life, even before the pandemic, and they will continue to do the same long afterwards.
As soon as I made that much-needed attitude adjustment, my essay-in-progress–this post– started giving me delight! Then, I allowed impulse to take over, and I went with the flow as the essay rode along on its own melting.
And, by the time that it ended–as it is about to do–I had a moment of clarity– perhaps even a moment of wisdom.
I am delighted that I called on my students to tackle my unrealistic question.
I am even more delighted that I tackled it myself because in sorting through my own lessons–in creating my own “call and response”–my essay ran a course of lucky events, and I achieved my own Frostian stay against confusion, momentary though it might be!
I love your revelation! And even the continual Frost references (“as the essay rode along on its own melting”) throughout the blog. Never stop writing; it brings you comfort and your readers delight!
I love to write! And it always brings me pleasure knowing that my essays bring delight!
Thanks so much!
Many years ago, I read a quotation about life happening on the banks of a river, and it made a big impression on me. It comforted me then, and it comforts me now when I’m going through bad times.
A few years ago I wanted get the exact quote to put in a personal essay. (For one of Professor Kendrick’s classes, as it happens.) It didn’t take long to find on the Internet, and here it is from my essay, which I saved:
“Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.” Will Durant, THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION
Important people will write histories of the pandemic and what came before and what comes after, but what happened to the people on the banks will have been saved in diaries, letters, emails, and, yes, essays assigned for credit.
I hope your students save their essays. They will be a slice of history and an insight into the character and personality of the student who wrote them. If a subsequent reader should happen to be a grandchild or other family member, that will be a sweet bonus.
Thank you so much, Bonnie, for such a thoughtful and extensive comment. I love “on the banks” because it can be taken literally or metaphorically.
As for what’s being written about the pandemic, important people will loom large, just as you say they will. However, I think that the diaries, letters, emails, and essays that you mention will be of far greater significance, if they are preserved. I hope that they will be!
I am so delighted that you mentioned my students’ essays in your comment. If your ears are burning in the morning, it will be because I will be reading your comment aloud to my class!
As always, Brent, your reflection “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I have asked my tribe the same question and I am reflecting on my answer, as well. Thank you for making us reflect and think, critically and thoughtfully.
My students enjoyed this assignment immensely, and they actually appreciated the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned from the pandemic. To my joy, their essays accentuated the positives that had come their way, not the least of which was spending more quality time with family and having more time to focus on their own physical and emotional well-being.