Thursday, June 23, 2005

In Search of that Last Bit of Information

I’m getting ready to go on a research trip to southern California. Research is something I love to do (a remnant of my reporting days, perhaps?), as it can be an endless search for connections. You find an oral history or an article or a book that sheds light on your topic and then you look at the footnotes to see where the author got her information. Then you go to the cited sources to see if there is more information there. So on and so on.

Research can be addictive. I always feel if I keep on looking, I will not only find that document that reveals a secret, but I will finally fully understand, in my case, the man I am writing about, Isaias Hellman. The problem, of course, is that those kinds of discoveries rarely happen. It’s hard, though, to stop the quest for those moments of epiphany. But as a wise teacher, Stephen Koch, once told me, at some point you just have to start writing. The writing will then inform the research. (Koch, the former chair of Columbia’s graduate creative writing program has many other words of wisdom in his excellent book by the Modern Library called Writer’s Workshop. He also just published The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles).

My first stop in southern California will be the Huntington Library, one of the world’s great research institutions. It’s a place that reveres scholars and treats them wonderfully. Imagine spending a morning in a spacious, temperature controlled reading room. You get an assigned seat at a gleaming wooden table and are offered a bookcase to store the books you check out from the library’s cavernous stacks. You write down what you want on tiny slips of paper and a half an hour later your requests appear. Scholars get lunch at a discount and the free use of computers. The institution lists the name of those visiting in order to promote scholarly discourse.

The reading room closes down for lunch, which is a blessing, because then you are forced to go outside and wander the 150 acres of gardens planted by Henry Huntington in the early part of the 20th century. If you want a taste of Japan, you can wander in the bamboo grove. If Fiji is on your mind, you can spend time in the tropical forest. There are roses everywhere, lawns galore, and more flowers than a person can possibly smell. The Huntington is conducive to contemplation.

I get a kick out of this because it’s such a shift from the reporter’s life where everything is rush, rush, rush. I’ve never seen a press room that wasn’t squalid. Reporters are rarely treated with reverence. And taking discounts is strictly forbidden.

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