Cedar and Pearl

Fit to print

By John Piotti | Jul 05, 2016

For the past few days I’ve been staying at one of those hotels that provides complimentary newspapers. I picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal that announced Britain’s decision to leave the European Union — the so called “Brexit.” I have the paper with me still, and I think I’ll save it. After all, it’s full of history.

While looking for a folder I needed for this trip, which I hoped was somewhere in the upstairs bedroom where I store stuff, I came across a copy of The New York Times from Aug. 9, 1974. I saved that newspaper when I was a kid. The big front page headline: “Nixon Resigns.” That appears right below the Times’ banner, complete with its credo, “All the news that’s fit to print.”

I haven’t been saving newspapers regularly over the past 40 years — I’ve only put aside a few others. But seeing that issue of The New York Times reminded me of the value of capturing a day in the past. I pored over it, not reading about Nixon, but about a whole bunch of other items recorded that day, such as price of men’s dress shoes at Macy's and the fact that the Red Sox lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 3-5. (Carl Yastrzemski was 0-3 at the plate.)

If I do save this Brexit edition of the Wall Street Journal, and I — or more likely, one of our children — happen to come upon it in another 40 years, I wonder what content will spark attention. Maybe what will stand out, rather than Brexit, are the numerous columns and articles about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Or the photos of the newly reopened Ritz Paris? Or the advertisement for pre-owned Ferraris, starting at $139,000? (It is, after all, the Journal.)

Or maybe what will be most striking is remembering how there once was this thing called a newspaper, printed on actual paper.

In our house sit three large wooden trunks, which are used primarily to store out-of-season clothing. One trunk belongs to Susan, one to Anna, and one to John. They are all antiques that Susan’s father refinished and relined, as memorials to their birthdays. Each trunk’s interior is lined with newsprint from the day one was born, protected with a coat of clear varnish.

Dad put a lot of time and effort into refurbishing these trunks, and they are wonderful keepsakes. But they don’t give an amateur historian everything he is looking for.

The inside surface area of a trunk is small compared to the square footage of newsprint in a daily paper. As a result, the linings are collages of headlines, article fragments, and select advertisements. One can’t open the trunk and read any article start to finish. And one can’t go to the trunk 40 years from now and find what may then prove to be the most fascinating items in that newspaper, unless they were items that Susan’s dad had the presence to include.

I really like the idea of saving whole newspapers, because we simply don’t know what from today is going to be most interesting in the future.

I have long thought that maybe I’ll make trunks for our grandkids the way dad did for his. But when I buy a newspaper for that purpose, I plan to buy two. I’ll cut and paste one to form the trunk lining. (In this case, I mean “cut and paste” literally.) Then I’ll set the second newspaper in a plastic sleeve that can reside at the bottom of the trunk, for future perusing and study.

Out of curiosity, I went online to see if I could find a copy of that Aug. 9, 1974, issue of The New York Times. I can easily find a copy of the front page. And the Times website allows me to view some other headlines from that day. But they are all about the big event of the day, Nixon’s resignation. I’m sure a sophisticated researcher could dig up more, but there is no way I could easily read about what’s happening away from the White House, whether in Peoria or at Macy's or Fenway Park.

I think a lot about how we increasingly get our news and information electronically. I can’t help but think about that when I travel, as I’m doing now. In fact, I’m writing this at the Detroit airport, where I just raised my head from my computer screen to scan the seating area. There is not a single person within my sight who is not staring at a screen. This includes an elderly man to my right, a middle-aged couple across from me, a few 30-somethings in the next row, and not far from them, a little girl, maybe 5 years old, sitting next to her mother, each clutching a phone. Hers is pink.

I’m not completely down on cell phones and other electronics devices. I certainly depend on a computer for much of what I do at work, as well as this column.

Yet it does seem to me that, as a society, we have become so enamored of these devices that we see only the ever-expanding functions and applicability, not limitations. We falsely believe that all the world’s knowledge and information is at our fingertips, but that is simply not true. The internet gives us primarily the headlines of our world, and not all of them. And increasingly, more and more of what we see is tailored by algorithm to give us what computer code determines we want, often with the goal of selling us something — be it merchandise, entertainment or ideology.

The deeper story of the Brexit vote — viewed from a historical perspective — may prove to be the role that social media played inciting voters.

Beyond all that, it simply saddens me to see everyone staring down all the time, whether walking the street, riding a subway or waiting for a plane. I can’t help but think of it as some kind of societal-wide subservience — but to what? Are we a congregation at church, awaiting absolution from above? Are we slaves in a field, afraid to look up and catch the eye of our master? Are we children so focused on a game that we’re unaware of what’s happening around us?

At least when I write on a computer, I frequently look up from the screen, thinking, watching. For a moment that afternoon at the Detroit airport, the sky turned a deep purple, as the billowing clouds from a passing shower approached from the southwest. It was quite a sight — something to remember, even to write about. But at least in my part of the airport, I was the only one who saw it.

John Piotti lives in Unity. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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