Curious? There’s an app for that.
By Janice Lindsay
The first U. S. Social Security check was issued Jan. 31, 1940, to Ida May Fuller, 65, of Ludlow, Vt. When the Social Security Act had been passed five years before, average life expectancy was around 60. So if you reached 65, you were officially old. The government apparently figured that, by the time most people turned 65, they would be gone and not collecting.
The point is not who’s old and who isn’t, or who collects Social Security payments and who doesn’t. The point is this: I love my “2012 World Almanac and Book of Facts.”
I didn’t plan to buy an almanac this year, though I’ve had one on my reference shelf for all my writing life. I reasoned that I could find any fact on the Internet.
Then I got curious about life expectancy, and happened to be in the bookshop, located the almanac, found the life expectancy table. It was all laid out for me in an easily scanned table, including overall averages, averages for men and women, for white men and women, for black men and women, for every year from 1900 through 2009.
I flipped through the almanac, as people tend to do with paper books. And imagine all the other interesting stuff I found, that I never would have thought about if I hadn’t had that book! New words that have been added to English since 2003 (eco-friendly, smartphone, text message). Final words spelled correctly in recent national spelling bees (cymotrichous, stromuhr, Laodicean). Prime-time Emmy Award winners since 1952. Widely Known Personalities of the Present (I’m not on the list). Everything you might need to know about the nation of Tuvalu.
Almanacs and other reference books-on-paper are like that: easy and inviting to browse when you don’t know what you don’t know.
So, I love my almanac.
But for research, I also love the Internet. It’s perfect if you know what you’re looking for and if you know how to assess reliability. Not all information is created equal, especially on the Internet, which bulges with the inconsequential, the unreliable, the dangerous, and ads disguised as facts. But once, I needed Theodore Roosevelt’s position on women’s suffrage. Googled it. Found the website of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, an authoritative source located in seconds.
While we’re on the subject of book/Internet, I must admit that, even though I’m a certified books-on-paper lover, I also love my Kindle electronic reader. Once, for a project with a tight deadline, I needed to study life in fourteenth-century England. A new book dealt with exactly that, but procuring the book-on-paper would take too long. The Kindle version downloaded in seconds. Electronic books are immediate, convenient and easy to read. You can carry a library wherever you go. They’re not so good for browsing, though: no pages for easy flipping.
All in all, it’s a great time to be a curious person. The Internet offers a world of useful information. And we’ve never had such easy access to so many wonderful books, where, unlike the Internet, the text is focused, authoritative and quiet; it stands still, and leaves you alone with your thoughts.
By the way, I stumbled on a mention of Ida May Fuller and her Social Security check while I was happily flipping through a reference book-on-paper. I learned she lived to be one hundred. On the Internet, I searched for her name and learned she was a schoolteacher then a legal secretary, had been a classmate of Calvin Coolidge, etc.
Curious? Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Lots of apps.
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