Saturday, August 19, 2006

Der Struwwelpeter

When I was about 12 we helped some friends with spring round-up on their ranch. It was a really big ranch in the Big Hole Valley in Montana. I was over the moon because it meant I got to ride a horse all day and there was nothing I would rather do at that age. Round-up consisted of bringing all the cows and their young calves down to the ranch yard and checking over the calves, branding and vaccinating all of them, de-horning some or all (I don't remember which) and castrating most. My memory is vague on the details. I remember chutes and the throw-down of calves, but mostly what I remember is how very quick, methodical and efficient it was back on this ranch where all cattle were free-range (was there any other kind?).

That's mostly what I remember until lunch anyway. We were in the ranch house and I found a copy of a very old children's book. I don't know if it was a modern re-print or an original edition from the 19th century--either would have been reasonable in the setting. I don't recall all the stories--even shock-headed or slovenly Peter, the one the book was named for--and I couldn't say whether it was in the original German or if it was the English translation by Mark Twain. What was etched permanently and vividly in one little corner of my brain, however, was the picture of the little boy getting his thumbs cut of by the scissor-man because he sucked them. I hadn't even been a thumb-sucker and I was traumatized.

On and off over the years I have thought of this story, and though I don't know what made me think of it this time (yesterday), I obsessed on it enough that I went to the Internet. In my search I found the complete text and pictures, several printed versions of the complete stories from early 20th century editions to current paperbacks (I purchased one with the original German version and the English translation and the original illustrations). I also found biographies of the author, essays on the cultural context of the writing of the stories, comparisons to other children's literature of the time, and lists of other works supposedly influenced by these stories including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands.

The unfolding of these events brings home to me again how much life has changed because of the Internet. Sure, we say everything is now at our fingertips, but how much are we able to step out of our daily context with that knowledge and really see the impact that that access has on what we do (how quickly we do it) and how we think? I remember again the old set of Encyclopedia Britannica we had in the basement when I was growing up and how its contents defined my immediate access to knowledge. Less immediate but more complete was the library.

The library was a relatively complete but very slow gateway to learning. First you would go to the card catalog and search on subjects. For items that looked promising, you would write down all of the necessary information on a small slip of paper with the stubby pencil provided. Then you would go to the stacks or to the librarian and gather together all the books and periodicals which contained the references to the subject you were researching and you would go through those books and periodicals to find the references. Sometimes those materials would reference other works that might be interesting and you would have to go back to the card catalog or the librarian to see if the library had those works. If it did not and you wanted them badly enough, you might be able to request an interlibrary loan and wait a few days or weeks to get them.

Gathering information and learning used to require patience and a lot of effort. Now the amount that I can find to cram into my brain and cycle through it is limitless and immediate. And I don't even scratch the surface of what is available on the Internet. I don't think even Bruce Sterling gets more than a micron deep into the surface of what is available and he is a far more sophisticated surfer than I am. Next time one of the networks decides to do another reality show they should make one called Lost in (cyber)Space. That would be a far more interesting reality than Survivor or the Apprentice.


Jodi said...

Great post. I'd leave an intelligent comment if I could formulate one this early in the morning. I wouldn't even be up if it weren't for having to be at work today. My brain will fully turn on much later.

Bill Paley said...

How true. Bridget is a much more capable websurfer than I am, and I'm amazed at the data she can find, when she gets going.