Books are the perfect time machine. They can take you into the past, allow you to travel to pivotal times and places in history. And yet, they have the perfect protection against paradox: books provide no ability whatsoever to change the past. I thought about this recently while reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.
Biographies seem particularly susceptible to time travel. You hope back to some past era, and for a period of days, jump through the life of some famous person. You learn their family roots, and you are there long before the subject is famous. You are there when they are born, a pink and wrinkled baby, wailing for warmth and milk. That baby, often in surroundings, will change the world in some important way.
Long biographies take a particular toll. You come to know the subject better than they could possibly know you. You are, in fact, invisible to the subject, the way a good time traveler should be, never giving any hint that you are there, observing. Regardless of the subject, a certain anxiety steadily builds up with the foreknowledge you have that the subject lacks. I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s massive Lincoln: The Plains Years and the War Years, and when Lincoln was born, I thought: this little baby will go see a play one day, and that will be the end.
The intimate knowledge that time travel brings can often make you feel as if you are friends with the subject. This has happened to me on several of my jaunts back to colonial America. Twice I’ve gone back to witness John Adams’ extraordinary life. He lived a long life, but on the day he died, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I found myself saddened almost to tears. Thomas Jefferson died on the same day.
At times I want to shout at the book: “Don’t go to the play!” I plead with Lincoln. “Don’t head down to Brazil!” I tell Theodore Roosevelt, knowing that the injuries and illness he’ll sustain on that journey, to say nothing of the bullet he took giving a stump speech, will lead to an early grave.
But books have built-in protections from the paradox of time travel, protections that cannot be beat. No matter how much I yell and plead, Lincoln cannot hear me, will never hear me, and he will head off to see “Our American Cousin.” Roosevelt will plow unheeded through the Brazilian jungles.
Time traveling through history and biography gives the pleasure of meeting amazing people. Yet at the same time, as we grow to know these people, we also know we have to say goodbye to them. And unlike the subjects, we know the where and when of that goodbye. The foreknowledge lends a weighty anxiety that is the baggage of any foray into the past that we take. It is as inescapable as the knowledge of our subject’s fate. Still, I am an addict. I can’t help but travel back. There are just so many people to meet. So many events to witness.
H.G. Wells’ time machine was a complicated device, so I find it both comforting, and a bit ironic, that the real thing is so much simpler: nothing more than bound paper and text. With this perfect time machine, I can, it seems, go anywhere.