Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Nautical Library

A political phenomenon of the late twentieth century is the presidential library. After the torch is passed to the new head of state, the one just retired builds a library. In theory a repository of presidential papers intended for use by scholars and historians, the imposing new edifice usually seems as much a monument to a still-living and still self-aggrandizing great man as it does a research facility. The exception to this, of course, is the Library of Congress. Bequeathed to the nation by President Thomas Jefferson, it enjoys universal recognition as one of the greatest, largest, and most diverse collections of research materials in the world. My home library is not as ambitious as this, however, nor does it commemorate my political glory. Instead, it houses a very modest general collection and two more extensive specialized collections.

The first of these specialty areas supported my career in the Merchant Marine. Professional volumes such as Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, Donn’s Meteorology, and Tate’s A Mariner’s Guide to the Rules of the Road line the shelves. While of little interest to a layman, these and other such tomes are critical components of a mate’s collection. I spent many intense hours with these and other volumes while studying for the various license exams. My favorite was George’s Stability and Trim for the Ship’s Officer. Filled with esoteric prose, complex technical diagrams, advanced mathematics, and applied physics—not exactly light reading—this book successfully saw me through the most difficult part of the chief mate’s exam, and for that I was very grateful. Subsequent to that, I consulted all these volumes regularly for license renewal exercises. To this day, I still refer to these resources, either to refresh my memory or to look up points of curiosity.

In addition to professional and technical books, I have several works on the history of seafaring, plus histories of famous ships. And as a library is not a collection of books only, I have an assortment of pictures—photographs, paintings, and pen-and-ink drawings—of all the ships that I sailed on, of the transatlantic liners that my grandparents sailed on, and of various historical vessels. A few of these are framed and on display; most are filed away for safekeeping, but hopefully, display at a later date. Then, there are my licenses. I keep these in a safe place, too, even though they’re no longer valid for sea service. I treasure them for the knowledge and the experience which they represent, and I admit to feeling somewhat sentimental about them. Finally, there is my sextant. I used this instrument many times aboard many ships to take sightings of the sun, moon, and stars, one of my favorite duties on long transoceanic voyages. Every so often someone asks if he may look at my sextant, and I’m always happy to show it off.

The second specialty area supports a more ongoing project in family history and genealogy. In addition to my interest in seafaring, I’ve long been collecting genealogical documentation and family-historical items. In the process of researching ancestors and relatives, I’ve amassed reams of documents that identify all the folks in the extended family. Who they are and how they’re related is the genealogy; where they lived and what they did is the family history. The two dovetail together naturally. The result is an ever-growing collection of official certificates, ecclesiastical records, written histories, newspaper articles, cemetery maps, and photographs. This assortment covers generations long deceased as well as the generation recently born. In what was perhaps an overindulgence with pen and camera, I’ve assembled dozens of photograph albums and almost as many notebooks depicting and detailing my children’s activities since their births. Some people may find this a bit much, but I like it. On a practical level, this collection always proves its worth. Whenever family members want to know when something took place and who was involved, they come to me as the authority on the matter. If I don’t have an event photographed or written down, then it didn’t happen!

This paper part of the family history and genealogical collection is organized into diverse volumes such as picture albums, binders, notebooks, and a few actual books, too, and this assortment occupies significant shelf space. But neither is this a collection of books only. Framed portraits of family members both living and deceased line the walls above the shelves and in several other rooms as well. Professional memorabilia and personal mementos from several of the deceased line the top shelf and fill several boxes. Once again, I admit to feeling sentimental about much of this material. One of my favorite items combines both seafaring and family history: a portrait of my grandparents in tuxedo and evening gown at the Captain’s party aboard the American Export Lines’ Independence at sea between New York and Casablanca in November of 1966.

In retrospect, I think their departure on this voyage aboard the Independence got me started in family history. I remember the day they left. Back then the passengers’ families were allowed to visit the ships prior to sailing. Armed with my first camera at the age of nine—a cheap kid’s toy that took very mediocre black-and-white photographs—I succeeded in getting on everyone’s nerves in a relentless picture-taking quest. Now, despite their dubious artistic value, these humble first attempts at family portraiture have become family heirlooms.

In addition to the genealogical, family-historical, and nautical materials, I have a modest humanities collection, chiefly in the areas of history, literature, and religion, as well as over fifty years of National Geographic. This includes many of the classics of our Western world, the scripture, both sacred and secular, bequeathed to us by our Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian heritage. These writings, from some of the best minds in history, enable us to acquire a broad spectrum of knowledge and wisdom and thereby raise our own minds to a higher level. Authors with names revered through the ages rank among our best friends and most interesting companions. Their ideas have shaped human history and thought for so long and to such an extent that it seems impossible to even imagine a world without them. These writers, while long dead, “whisper to us out of the dust” (2 Nephi 26:16) with “the words of them which have slumbered” (2 Nephi 27:6). Though dead, they continue to speak, as Professor Jastrow, a scholarly character in a contemporary classic describes:

There’s something personal and alive for me in this room.
These books speak to me. The authors are all my friends
and colleagues, though some of them crumbled to dust
fifteen centuries ago. I shall leave the villa with no regrets,
but it will hurt to leave these books behind.1

Just as, for example, Plato and Augustine and Shakespeare, though dead, continue to speak to all who will listen, so also do my kin, though dead, speak to me. Through what they wrote and what others wrote about them, through their vital records, their photographs, their memorabilia, and the inscriptions on their gravestones, I have come to know them. I often feel a special unity with them. Their spirits, I believe, guide me in my research, and they are my friends and colleagues as well as my family. I treasure the time that I spend with them in my little library.

I also treasure the hours I spend with the rising generation, recording the children’s activities, compiling their photographs, and organizing their school memorabilia. While many others of my age are building large-scale political and business empires for themselves, I prefer the cloistered life that my library affords. I often think of Prospero, the Shakespearean character who fell out of political favor and lamented not the loss of his office but the loss of his library:

Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough.2

As is mine today. In my youth the sea was my dukedom—and it was plenty large enough—but now my library suffices. While my library naturally contains material concerning my career in the Merchant Marine, which is now part of our family history, I see it not as a monument to myself like a presidential library, but as a monument to all the members of my family. It commemorates their lives by archiving their histories, displaying their portraits, and enabling the present and future generations to know those of the past. It is bequeathed to the family of the future, to my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren ad infinitum. My hope is that through this legacy the past generations, though dead, will speak to the future generations just as they have to me.

1 Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978, p. 198.
2 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, I:i:109-110.

1 comment:

  1. " In my youth the sea was my dukedom—and it was plenty large enough—but now my library suffices."

    There is beauty in a simple truth like this.

    Duke of the Library, that's you.

    Awesome post.