The shared solitude of writing and reading

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

—Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby” (via Brain Pickings)

Just Don’t Fall: Library Solutions

The first thing we did once I knew my leg might get cut off was Mom took me to the public library and we looked at a microscope that looks like a TV. Then Mom read out loud the number that were written beside the titles of the books on black shiny plastic that we put under the microscope and I wrote them down on a piece of paper. Then we walked around the library to find the numbers. And once we found the numbers, we found the books. Mom said this is the best and cheapest way to solve the problems in your life: come to the library and check out all the books about your problem and read them.

—Josh Sundquist, “Just Don’t Fall”

Smart lady!

The Victorian Internet: A series of tubes

Appropriately enough for the nation that pioneered the first telegraphs, the French had their own twist on the use of pneumatic tubes. For of all the tube networks built around the world, the most successful was in Paris, where sending and receiving pneus became a part of everyday life in the late nineteenth century. Like the pneumatic tube networks in many other major cities, the Paris network was extensive enough that many local messages could be sent from sender to recipient entirely by tube and messenger, without any need for telegraphic transmission. In these cases, the telegraph form that the sender wrote the message on actually ended up in the hands of the recipient—which meant that long messages were just as easy to deliver as short messages.

So, in 1879, a new pricing structure was announced: For messages travelling within the Paris tube network, the price was fixed, no matter how long the message. Faster than the post and cheaper than sending a telegram, this network provided a convenient way to send local messages within Paris, though the service was operated by the state telegraph company and the messages were officially regarded as telegrams.

Messages were written on special forms, which could be purchased, prepaid, in advance. These could then be deposited into small post boxes next to conventional mailboxes, handed in at telegraph counters in post offices, or put into boxes mounted on the backs of trams, which were unloaded when the trams reached the end of the line. Once in the system, messages were sent along the tubes to the office nearest the destination and then delivered by messenger. Each message might have to pass through several sorting stations on the way to its destination; it was date-stamped at each one, so that its route could be determined. (The same is true of today’s e-mail messages, whose headers reveal their exact paths across the Internet.) No enclosures were allowed to be included with messages, and any messages that broke this rule were transferred to the conventional postal service and charged at standard postal rates.

The scheme was a great success, and the volume of messages being passed around the network almost doubled in the first year. The network was further extended as a result, and for many years messages were affectionately known as petits bleus, after the blue color of the message forms.

Could this be where Senator Stevens got his “series of tubes” idea about the Internet? Perhaps he wasn’t that far off after all.

The Victorian Internet: You had me at …. . .-.. .-.. —

“Romances of the Telegraph,” an article published in Western Electrician in 1891, tells the story of a “pretty little romance” that took place at a remote station out in the desert at Yuma, Arizona… There was nothing to do, it was unbearably hot and very difficult to sleep, so unsurprisingly the operator at the station, John Stansbury, turned to the telegraph wire for companionship.

An acquaintance soon sprung up between Stansbury and the operator in Banning, Californian, known as “Mat,” whom Stansbury described as a “jolly, cheerful sort of fellow.” They soon became firm friends and agreed to spend their vacation together in the mountains hunting and fishing. Every detail of the trip was arranged, with Mat insisting that they take rubber boots for fishing, even though Stansbury said he was quite happy in his bare feet. But at the last minute Mat pulled out of the trip, having decided to take the train to vacation in New Mexico instead, a trip that involved passing through Yuma, Stansbury’s station. But by the time Mat arrived at Yuma, Stansbury had been taken ill with a fever and was quite delirious.

“During the days of my agony I was vaguely aware of gentle, womanly hands and a kindly female presence in my sick-room,” Stansbury later wrote. “And when I returned to the conscious world I was not surprised to find a fair and pleasant face beside me. Its owner said that she had been on the train when I was found stricken down, and had stayed to minister to my sore need. The idea may seem preposterous, but I believe the foundation for my affection had been laid while the unconsciousness of fever was still upon me, and the affection grew into the deepest love as she cared for me during the days of my convalescence. After a time I ventured to tell her of my love, and to ask her if she would be mine; but I was not prepared for her answer. ‘John,’ she said, ‘do you really mean that you wish to marry a girl that insists upon wearing rubber boots?’

“‘Mat!’ I said, for I was completely beaten. Then it flashed upon me. She was the operator at Banning, and I, like a fool, had always taken it for granted that she was a man. I am not going to tell you how I convinced her that I wanted to marry her, boots and all, but I did it, and here we are on our wedding journey. The Southern Pacific Telegraph Company has lost an operator, but I calculate that I am way ahead on the deal.”

My grandmother had a brief stint as a telegraph operator in the 1920s, but by then telegraph machines had been automated. She was trained on a Simplex Automatic Printer, a typewriter-like telegraph machine that sent and receive messages via perforated tape that was converted into electrical impulses and then decoded into print on paper. The cozy human element was gone, and the operators worked in shifts around the clock, which my grandmother didn’t like so she quickly moved to the bookkeeping department. But it’s quite amazing to think that in only two generations we’ve gone from telegraph to Twitter. I wonder what’s next?

Teletypewriter, 1930.

UNESCO World Book & Copyright Day 2014

Happy World Book and Copyright Day! It is very significant that this year UNESCO chose Port Harcourt, Nigeria, as the World Book Capital of 2014. I can’t help but think it is a direct response to the ongoing terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, whose name literally means “books are forbidden.” Their stated aim is to abolish what they call Western education and impose Islamic law on all Nigerians. They enforce that law with the most brutal methods imaginable, preferring blades to guns. They have been responsible for the murder of some ten thousand Nigerians, mostly Christians but also Muslims who actively oppose them, and have succeeded in shutting down the school system in the northeast of the country.

This Easter, Boko Haram launched their most horrific attacks yet, with a string of bombings that killed nearly 300 people and the mass abduction of over 200 girls who were sitting their final exams. The school had only two guards, who were easily dispatched by the raiders. It is in the midst of this worsening nightmare that UNESCO is celebrating the power of books to foster peaceful prosperity and coexistence. Though a good education never stopped anyone from becoming a terrorist, I believe an educated public is essential to organizing a society that is capable of repelling threats like Boko Haram.

We can help by supporting literacy organizations the operate in Africa and other regions where schools are under violent threat. If these children are brave enough to risk death or abduction in order to learn, surely we can do something to help them? This year UNESCO has partnered with Worldreader, a non-profit organization that is trying to capitalize on the popularity of mobile technology in Africa to distribute ebooks and ereaders where they are needed. In places where it is simply too dangerous to go to school this is a godsend. There are also other great organizations that distribute paper books and teacher resources in Africa; here are some of my favourites. In the battle between books and brutality, let’s make sure books win.