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Anno Domini: Ask the digital dust
December 23, 2013 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
December 26, 2013

As the year winds down, once again I find myself with a larger body of memories and experiences behind me than in front of me. As Earl Pickles from the comic strip “Pickles” observed on New Year’s Day, he had one less year in front of him, one more year behind him … and confetti in his shoes.

So for a year-end semi-occasional column, I’ll employ a literary device called “stream of consciousness,” where the writer mentally jumps all over the place, grabbing anecdotes at random. A good example is the T.S. Eliot piece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” something I struggled through years ago in a class on American Literature.

I’m proud to admit I’m among those who call themselves (or at least I do) “keepers of odd knowledge.” I guess another term could be “trivia sponge.” I can tell you the etymology of the word lavender or the tragic story of Sailor Jack, the little boy whose likeness first appeared with his dog Bingo on the Cracker Jack box in 1918.

In past years, keepers of odd knowledge would have shelves full of obscure books and filing cabinets stuffed with scraps of paper, newspaper articles and other stray bits of information. But today, it can all be stored in digital form on a computer hard drive. I have files full of it, collecting what I call digital dust.

While many of the files don’t aspire to much more than mental floss, others are important because they tell the stories making up the patchwork that is our Americana, our shared cultural history.

And when I look at the time stamp on some of those files, they go back quite a few years. But I save them because those stories share truths that were relevant then and will remain unchanged into the future.

Digitized files are convenient because they’re easily accessed for reference material. They also save a lot of shelf space. Still, there’s just something about real books, something you can page through and read from your easy chair.

It’s become a tradition for me at year’s end to dig out the Christmas stories, books to be revisited like old friends.

One story that keeps sticking in my mind was written by Nebraska author Bess Streeter Aldrich back in the late 1930s. It’s one of those timeless stories just as relevant today as in the Great Depression.

In “The Drum Goes Dead,” (a reference to the mummers and maskers losing their money), bank cashier Richard Lanning was feeling disenchanted during a time that should be filled with joy. Their little Midwestern town was still struggling from a wrecked economy and an extended drought as the people were losing their farms and businesses. He wondered whether the festivities should be put on hold until the world was a better place.

Richard thought he was just going through the motions from his cashier’s booth on December 24 as he asked customers, from the young people to the old timers, what was their favorite Christmas. And as the day went on, he started to see a common thread emerge – family and home.

When Richard was recruited to play Santa Claus in the community Christmas celebration that night, he found out he’d done so much more for the community than he ever realized. And from all the appreciation from the children, he learned that as long as there is hope, it knits the community together into the bulwark that is American society.

The Aldrich collection of Christmas stories is just one example of the timeless works that are too often forgotten in a digital world. But for those who would seek the stories out, they leave the reader a much better person.

I hope that everyone will take some time during this season to seek out the old stories, the old songs, the old recipes. They’re all part of the incredible tapestry that makes us who we are.

Those truths were best said for me in an essay I found in my computer’s pile of digital dust. Its title was “Ancient of Days,” written by Anthony Esolen, professor of Renaissance English Literature at Providence College in Rhode Island. A couple of lines stood out for me, especially during this Christmas season. “Here in the dead of our winter, it would do us well to remember that every passing thing in this world derives its true meaning from that Child; that upon the boy asleep in the manger depends all of man’s history.”

So as we again celebrate these good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, I’d like to thank you for reading. And have a blessed Christmas season.
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