Among the boxes with mysterious labels on them marking their subject matter are those marked “Ref-Gene”. This stands for “Reference: Genealogy”. We do have a modest genealogical section at the Book Fair: publications of new research, republications of old research, and books and magazines on How-To-Do-It. It reflects one of our big fan bases at the Newberry, the people who come to do genealogical research.
Of all the subjects at the Book Fair, perhaps only the Paperback Romance section draws as much contempt. “Genealogy! You mean people who want to prove they’re related to someone famous!” “Ah, that stuff: who DOES that?” “When you go back far enough you get to Noah anyway, so what difference does it make?” Those people who want to know what happened in between are regarded as persons with vaunting ambition for the dead, who will grasp at any straw to make their ancestors Somebody. Genealogy is given the same general respect as butterfly-collecting or researching the distinctive points of first editions. The most famous remarks about genealogy in American literature are the Stage Manager’s remarks in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, where he concludes “Guess that don’t do no harm either.”
It is Uncle Blogsy’s desire to spread a little more tolerance for what people like to read in their spare time, and what research they pursue. (For one thing, Uncle Blogsy sells more books that way.) There’s no call for me to show contempt for somebody else’s contempt: you may regard any individual book or any individual category at this Book fair in any way you please. But the study of history can be approached in many ways, and surely following a family through history is as valid as following a building or a document or a concept. A lot of history would have been lost—documents and manuscripts of purely local significance—if some people didn’t preserve it out of this misguided belief that a person’s life may be interesting or significant even if that person never became Senator or General. Such locally significant matter may become the stuff of significance because it holds a clue to an era or an event. Or it may just be fun to read, and those of you who sneer at the Genealogy section on your way over to buy the latest book on axe murderers for bedtime reading might consider that. Those of you on your way over to buy the last book on how to invest in the stock market shouldn’t feel too superior, either. What is your stock research, anyhow, but a look into the family tree of a company?
HOWEVER, Uncle Blogsy realizes that there are lots of people out there who regard themselves as Practical, and uninterested in the “layers of foolishness” Thornton Wilder spoke of. What you’re doing reading this column, I’m not sure, but as long as you’re here, I’ll pass along a side note about how Genealogy can be a sound investment. See, once you get into your great-grandparents’ affairs, you find yourself with a lot more cousins than you imagined. And there is a time of your life when, if you have children or grandchildren, having as many cousins and second cousins as possible can be a great return on the investment you made in genealogical research. Let me sum it up in just two words:
Think it over, Practical Ones. Enough cousins, carefully tended, and you could pay off two years’ worth of tuition. Guess that don’t do no harm.