Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Transcending Time and Space

I mentioned a few posts ago that I recently spent some time at the State Historical Society combing through old microfilm for some work research.  There really can be no more entertaining endeavor than sitting for hours soaking in the zeitgeist of some past era as told by the newspapers of that time.

In my hours there, I noticed an interesting phenomenon – there appeared to be a pack of elderly gentlemen spending a great deal of time reading old newspapers, but not for any real reason.  They just sat there, hour after hour, quietly reading newspapers from a half a decade ago.  They didn\’t take any notes, and only stood up to pull another reel out of the endless rows of microfilm files on the walls.

It was only after I left that I realized what might be going on here.  These might be old men who are wholly disillusioned with current popular culture, spending time reconnecting with the events of a happier era.  Essentially, if you don\’t like today\’s culture, the miles of microfilm housed at the Historical Society just allows you to pick a new era and live there for a little while.  Little, insignificant stories from your younger days might trip something in your brain that takes you back to a time when things were simpler.  You can just check out of America 2008 and be magically transformed back to the Eisenhower days, before crudity became the cultural standard and kids could actually run a lemonade stand without a permit from the city.

Imagine your life if you\’re a 75 year-old recent widower.  You can hop into the way-back machine for a few hours and comb through the world when you and your future wife had just met.  You can soak your senses in the JC Penney ads that were running when you got up the nerve to ask her out on your first date.  It\’s as close as you can get to the sensation you felt at the time, when the world was your oyster – and you didn\’t realize one day you\’d be spending your days trying to reclaim them by steadily scrolling through faded microfilm.

Of course, this is all speculative on my part.  Maybe they\’re just old men killing time, bored to tears by their retirement years.  But I almost feel like I need to go back and talk to some of these guys, to see if I\’m right.

Going back to the beginning of this post, here\’s an example of what I was talking about when I mentioned the entertainment value of combing through old newspapers.  Here\’s a news analysis that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal in January of 1984.  God bless their hearts.



  1. Nice theorizing– but I propose a different explanation. I think those men you saw aren’t so much nostalgic as they are homeless. (Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories– in fact, if I was homeless, I would certainly be nostalgic for a time in which, say, I wasn’t homeless.) I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries/archives/etc over the years and it’s always the same– large numbers of men (though sometimes women) doing exactly as you describe. They’re seeking shelter from the cold (or the heat), seeking someplace safe and quiet, and they can stay there all day as long as they don’t bother anyone.

  2. Christian Schneider

    December 29, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Of course, I considered that they may be homeless. In fact, there were plenty of transients there. But these guys were different. I could be wrong, and my “homeless-dar” may need re-aligning.

    The library downtown, on the other hand (and yes, this being Madison, there is only one “downtown” public library), is populated almost entirely by the homeless. It reeks of Ripple and urine.

  3. Hmmm, interesting. Well, maybe they aren’t homeless, then. It always makes me sad when I see just how many libary patrons are homeless– for whom, I’m guessing, the books aren’t really the first priority. Then again, at least they have a safe place to be.

    Also, you deserve some sort of special mention for referencing Ripple. I didn’t know what it was and had to google it. Perhaps I’ll do some more research on it the next time I go to the library.

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