I loved every moment of the process of research—from the initial stages of utter bewilderment to the compilation of data to imagining and completing the final form of the paper. I knew what I loved, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. In some way or shape or form, I wanted to be a full-time researcher…
I love walking through rows and rows of books, breathing in the dust of years and wisdom. At some odd and truly mysterious level, I desire to become a part of all that. From book dust you came, man, and back to book dust you will return.
Some people talk about the moment in which Jesus saved them. “Yes, that was February 17, 1988, my junior year of college. I had always gone to church, but it wasn’t until that night that I really met Jesus. At that moment, I came to know Him personally, and He took up residence in my heart.” While I’m quite sympathetic to such a view, I have never had one of those experiences. My own experience was particular and it was grand, to be sure, but there wasn’t any single moment in which I accepted Jesus. It was more of an entire serious of moments beginning at baptism and working its way up through the present, even as I type this.
For me, though, my life gained its clearest equivalent purpose when I was in fifth grade. As I’ve had the privilege of remembering recently here at The Imaginative Conservative, I fell head over heals with and for words and with and for books in early grade school. I devoured (the best word) innumerable books and tried over and over again to become one with the written word. I did not just want to know how one wrote, but how an actual book was constructed, from typesetting and layout to binding.
These loves intersected with a third love, my longing to know the recent past. I especially wanted to understand Kansas life in the 1930s-1950s. My maternal grandfather had served Army Intelligence during World War II, and my mom had been born in 1936. I knew the stories they told, but I didn’t quite understand the context.
In fifth grade, Mr. Kinney began to lecture on his experiences in the Korean War. Born in 1967, I grew up with more vets of World War II and Korea than I could count. They were everywhere in Hutchinson, Kansas, in the 1970s and 1980s—running the stores, holding the offices, and sweeping the floors. I especially loved Mr. McKinney, though. His kindness was only matched by his interesting stories.
Though he made no such assignment, I begged Mr. Kinney to allow me to write a full-blown research paper. My paper? A comparison of the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. Outrageous, of course. Mr. Kinney, though, I think, was more than a bit bemused, and he gave me permission. I ran with it. Going through the public library as well as our own books at home, I took the project very seriously. Granted, my final product was presumably ridiculous to the point of absurdity, but that didn’t matter much to me. I loved every moment of the process—from the initial stages of utter bewilderment to the compilation of data to imagining and completing the final form of the paper. With that project, however bizarre, I knew what I loved, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. In some way or shape or form, I wanted to be a full-time researcher. Naturally, I had no clue what that really meant or what kind of jobs might exist out there. Somehow, I became convinced that anyone would want to hire a full-blown researcher.
As I look back now, I realize that I desired full immersion into something that I could make my own. Growing up in the days of free-range parenting, I spent my days on bike or foot exploring the environs of Hutchinson, Kansas. A Saturday or a summer day meant getting up early, having a few bowls of cereal for breakfast, and returning home in time for evening dinner. My mom never cared what I did during those hours of exploration as long as I didn’t do anything criminal or dangerous.
Research, I see now, was a way for me to explore without limits of environment, without considerations for weather, and without borders. Additionally, my mind needed something that demanded lots and lots of attention. I suppose even at age eleven, I had more than a bit of OCD as well as a perfectionist streak. Add in that domestic life was, more often than not, horrific on the home-front, I was eager to escape—whether to Carey Park or to the public library.
To this day, I have never lost my love of research. Indeed, I can define every year of my post-fourth grade education by the one topic I focused on each year: from the Panama Canal to the Milton Friedman-inspired research into Hong Kong to the Israeli raid on Entebbe to the pursuit of Hobbits into Mordor to the decisions of a Miami Indian chief during the American Revolution. These things and so many more intrigued me endlessly.
Two things, especially, impress me about research. First, each project provides an endless, complicated puzzle, a problem to be solved, but never fully and rarely permanently. Follow one path and end here; follow another and end there. The possibilities seem gloriously unending. Second, the researcher comes to know his subject in the way a musician knows his music or an artist understands her painting. Research is an art, demanding full immersion, both in the gathering stage and in the compiling stage.
And, though I’m very near the end of this essay, I’ve still not touched upon the grandest of all forms of research: archival research. If a library is a heaven, the archive is even more so. Whereas the library is public, the archive generally is intensely private. Books, of course, are usually written for all who want to read, to read. Archival papers, though, are generally meant only for a party of two or, perhaps, three or four.
One of the most exciting moments in my life occurred in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1994. As I was researching the papers of the British occupying army during the American Revolution, I found a stash of love letters written by John to Abigail Adams. The British had intercepted them during the war, and they had never reached their intended home. Yet, here I was, centuries later, reading the intimate words of one of the greatest men in the world to one of the greatest women in the world. The letters were love letters, but of the highest intellectual and moral levels. I realized that Abigail was not merely John’s wife, but his equal, his best friend, his helpmate, his advisor, and his moral comfort. It was the kind of revelation that can only come from touching something so intimate, touching something that is universally true but only particularly manifested.
Let’s all breathe the good stuff.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Man Writing a Letter” (c.1666) by Gabriël Metsu (1629-1667), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.