Writing Lessons

Go to the (Primary) Source

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By Dava Sobel

December 8, 2014


 

My theater history professor required all his students to consult primary sources while preparing their final projects. To comply, I visited the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center, where I experienced my formative encounter with crumbling documents.

At the time, I interpreted the professor’s insistence on primary sources as a rule of scholarship, but now (more than four decades later) I look back on it as the best writing advice of my life. Reading other people’s mail has led me to stories that have been a thrill to tell.

You might think you would pay a high price for the privilege of handling, say, Galileo’s correspondence, when in fact an earnest interest is the only admission fee at repositories where such material survives. If you are at least 16 years of age, have a driver’s license, a government-issued ID or a passport, then you, too, can plumb the holdings of the Library of Congress.

My current book project concerns a group of 19th-century astronomers who carried on a dialogue via letters, which have been preserved in the Harvard University Archives. Working in its reading room is tantamount to time travel. Old missives yield odd facts not recorded in official histories. One person’s sprawling handwriting amplifies the contents of his message; another’s embossed aqua stationery defines her taste.

All around me, at the other tables, other researchers on their own trajectories sift through boxes of file folders stuffed with past lives. We treat the collections with respect, of course, but still, by the end of the day, the carpet is littered with tiny flakes of paper.

 


Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude, Galileo's Daughter, The Planets, and A More Perfect Heaven.


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