Back when Edward R. Murrow ruled the airwaves, one of his catchy features from 1951 to 1955 was “This I Believe,” a brief essay by the famous and not so on the principles that informed their lives.
In the last few years it was revived, first on NPR (2005-2009) and since then on Bob Edwards Weekend. Of course, we all have beliefs (examined or not) on all sorts of things — the good life, love, death, politics. But having to pick one and describe it for three minutes or a few hundred words forces you to think about what’s important.
If I were asked to play, here’s what I would say. Because I have always been a reader, I start with the belief that writing may have been the greatest invention of man. It allows what we think, dream, or discover to be preserved and passed along forever.
But at once it becomes obvious that this is too narrow. Man creates and not just in poetry and prose but in paint and sculpture, architecture and mathematical formulae, recipes, and computer code. It has been so since caves got illustrated and rhapsodes chanted the history of the tribe. There’s no chance it will stop anytime soon.
Humans make things, and the stuff we make can go on forever. But it can also perish. Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of plays the golden age Greeks produced, only 44 survive. In his great meditation on this theme, “Lapis Lazuli,” W. B. Yeats laments the fact that not single example of the famed sculpture of Callimachus survives, that “all things fall,” and catalogs the long list of “old civilizations put to the sword.Then they and their wisdom went to rack…”
Therefore, I believe that after creation itself, the noblest thing humans do is to preserve for the next generation and all the generations to come what humans have made. If that’s true, then the most important and admirable institutions are those that do it — libraries, museums, archives and other repositories. Not just towering institutions like the Louvre, the Met, The Smithsonian and the British Museum but provincial history museums or homes of the once famous.
How wise our ancestors were to crete the census, the Library of Congress, The National Archives and all the other storehouses that together comprise the collective memory of the race. This can range from the rarest works or genius, Vermeers and First Folios, to the most mundane courthouse and parish records of births, marriages and deaths, land transfers and wills. They are all footprints on the sands of time and needn’t be blown away.
Once everything men made was impermanent and survived by accident or luck. Now virtually everything we do can be recorded in one format or medium or another and theoretically kept forever. What wouldn’t we give for a CD of Bach performing his own well-tempered works or a DVD of Hamlet’s opening night at the Globe? Yet possessing the ability to preserve doesn’t guarantee that it will be done. Of all the thousands of Silent Era movies made before 1929, only 10 percent survive.
People have got to care enough to lovingly protect what people create, and I believe those who do it — restorers, archivists, librarians, curators — are performing an essential and heroic task, though they are often unnoticed and unthanked for the effort. A society without the means to record its creations in art, science, literature, history is as ephemeral as each one of us, whose memory is doomed to slowly vanish to nothing. A society whose work is recorded and preserved can come as close to immortality as this mutable world permits.