Voices
Matt Rose for WORLD

Hard to hold on

How do you decide what's a throwaway and what's an irretrievable link to the past?

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

Holding appropriately to the past, I'm discovering, is a hard assignment.

Last year, it was my mother's household items after she died at the age of 91. This summer, my wife and I are helping her parents sort out and distribute the furniture and artifacts they've assembled over 64 years in the same home. And at the very same time, WORLD magazine is moving its offices just a couple of miles to a new location-after having spent the last 34 years at just one site. What to keep? What to throw away? What to pass on to someone else?

It's a hard enough assignment with the little things-like tea cups with a special history, or needlepoint done in the 1800s by a barely known grandmother, or handwritten notes from half a century ago. But some assignments are bigger and bulkier. I have a friend, for example, who last year inherited two antique Jaguar automobiles when a friend of his died. Both were in disrepair, but both were also too old and too valuable to discard. Where do you put them while thinking it all through?

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My toughest challenge this summer is a small printing museum I assembled about a dozen years ago. I've mentioned it here before, but always with optimism. Now I panic a bit. How can I take historical relics, weigh them out for scrap metal at 18 cents a pound, and say goodbye?

And especially so with my Model 14 Linotype machine (shown at right). So remarkable is this 2,000-pound marvel that I simply must describe it for you again. Its inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler, was a German watchmaker who at the age of 13 repaired the broken-down clock in his village Lutheran church. Emigrating to Baltimore, Mergenthaler became intrigued with the fact that for 400 years, no one had improved much on the moveable type developed by his fellow countryman, Johannes Gutenberg. So he set a tough goal for himself: He would design a typesetting machine so brilliant in concept that it would never be improved upon, and built so sturdily that it would never wear out. History says he came remarkably close on both fronts, although in the process wore himself to such a frazzle that he spent his last days mentally incapacitated.

The machine Mergenthaler unveiled in 1886 overtook the publishing world. Thomas Edison called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Prior to the Linotype, composing the words for just one page of a daily newspaper required 25 to 35 man-hours of painstaking labor. The Linotype reduced that to three. Before Mergenthaler, even big newspapers consisted of just eight pages. According to one historian, fewer than 300 personal libraries in the United States had as many as 1,000 books. Because of the remarkable leverage the Linotype brought to the spread of information, it might well be seen as the capstone of the industrial revolution. Certainly, it was a forerunner to the generation of computers that came a century later.

Such a historical item sits right now on the loading dock behind and below our WORLD offices. First given to us in 1998 by WORLD subscriber and supporter David Bell, who is publisher of the Vandalia, Ill., Leader-Union, this marvelous witness to human ingenuity taunts me. Is it part of the past to wave goodbye to, like a sort of cultural threshing machine, to be preserved only in the mind's eye? Or is it a literal part of history that needs to be maintained, even at a modest cost-so that at least for another generation or two, youngsters who think that everything just falls out of a laptop or a smart phone might be linked thoughtfully to the past?

Both at my mother's home last year, at the home of my parents-in-law this summer, and on the WORLD loading dock, I think: Most things that used to be valuable in time can be set aside. With some things, though, I wonder: What if this particular item is an irretrievable link to the past? And just exactly how is a layman like me supposed to know the difference?

Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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