Monday, May 28, 2012

Take note

"History is still in the making right here and I want you to see all sides of it."
~General Robert Eichelberger to his wife, Emmaline
9 September, 1945

I work in ed-tech.  My school is embracing tablets, mobile technology, and e-books.  And I'll be the first in line to extol the virtues of connecting students to the wealth of learning resources, both digital and human, that are available via the Web.  But I was reminded today of the treasures that can still be found on the printed page -- in ink -- that if we're careful enough to notice, may take us down a path of discovery we might otherwise miss.

On this Memorial Day, I opened up a published copy of letters written by my great uncle, Robert Eichelberger, a four-star general in the U.S. Army, to his wife during World War II.  I had ordered the copy through Amazon and was initially pleased at the good condition in which the used book arrived.  As I flipped through the pages, I noticed some underlining and some notes in the margins.  For a brief moment, I was slightly disappointed that the pages were marked up.  It was as if I sat down to let my uncle tell me a story, and someone was talking in the background.  I wanted to shoosh him... until I began to listen.

I've written about my uncle before.  He was second in command to General Douglas MacArthur, was superintendent of West Point when Pearl Harbor was attacked, made the cover of Time Magazine, and was recommended for the Medal of Honor.  I never tired of hearing my dad talk about his interactions with him or of reading the telegrams and letters he sent home.  He served humbly and honorably and despite extraordinary leadership, gained little fame.  He may not have become a household name, and part of that was due to his boss's ego, but he had some extraordinary stories to tell.  And here I was about to be a captive audience to his wisdom once again.

But there were those marks.  The words "See memoirs," a check mark, some squiggly lines, then...

"I was there... In fact I was wounded on that operation."
I've never been able to raise one eyebrow on purpose, but my right one shot up.  I continued reading.

"I was with him"
It hit me that the book I was holding, the edition I somewhat randomly selected online, was held and annotated by my uncle's contemporary, another eyewitness to history -- both my family's and the world's.  For me, this book just easily tripled in value.

Who was this reader?  What did he experience?  What had he lived through, and what impact did reading my uncle's correspondence have on him?

"I'm one of them"
These questions... the clues that invite you to keep going... this is why I love history.  And not the sequence-of-events-summarized-on-a-timeline-kind of history.  The layers-of-stories-and-voices-and-mysteries-that-we-have-the-privilege-to-explore kind of history.

I now wonder not only about the stories from this era but about the stories of this book itself.  I want to trace its path not just to the hands of the man who wrote it, but those who wrote in it.  I am not sure how far I'll get, but I have enough to begin a journey, and I'll go as far as I can.

What I do know is that the journey of a book is a story unto itself.  And I wonder what will be lost, as well as gained, as we print less and download more.

I wonder in what direction digital annotations will take us.  Crowd-sourcing and digitally connecting those with questions to those with answers will surely continue to help us examine and learn from the past.  However, in my quest to fill my virtual bookshelves and project the directions that electronic publishing is taking us, I want to remember to take stock.  I believe in the power of shiny new e-books.  But I also want to be sure that new, popular, and bold never eclipse quieter, enduring, and layered value.

In thinking about my students, I couldn't agree more with my uncle's words:  "History is still in the making... and I want you to see all sides of it."  I just hope I can lead my students in recognizing and appreciating those different sides and the media of their origin.  I hope I can help them take note of what they may find in the margins.  The paths of learning they may then forge could be some of the most valuable, intriguing, and rewarding of their lives.

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