The world is going to hell in a handbasket.
At least that’s what I understood as I looked at the book the guy sitting next to me in the plane was reading. I had settled down into my seat for a flight, and as a frequent flyer, I’ve perfected the maneuver where I can casually glance to my side and register any important details concerning my flying neighbors.
I wish I could remember the title of the book now, but it was clear the book was of the genre which adds fuel to the fire of people’s fears. The cover touted the many problems which face today’s world, how terrible they all were and how unlucky the reader was to live in this era. I envisioned chapters devoted to terrorism, crime, global warming, and other fears, real and imagined. And I wondered: is it any fun reading that stuff? Perhaps more importantly, is it realistic to think we’re worse off than our ancestors?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting we bury our heads in the sand. There are problems today, and they need to be studied, understood, and confronted. However, as I sat on that flight, safely traversing time zones at 30,000 feet, I got to thinking how great it is to live precisely now, at this point in history, and how I might organize a book based upon that premise. Here’s a rough draft….
Chapter One: Smallpox. In many early American cities, the heat of the summer meant it was also smallpox season. When there was a particularly bad epidemic, the fatality rate was gruesome. There were no class distinctions, as the poor and rich alike buried multiple family members David McCullough’s biography of John Adams is a book which gives us a peek into the all-encompassing terror of smallpox outbreaks in Philadelphia and Boston during the summers of the Revolutionary War.
Chapter Two: Immobility. Let’s face it – if you were a poor farmer, and chances are you would have been if you lived any time before the Industrial Revolution – you were stuck there. Thomas Hobbes famously described life in the 17th century as follows: ‘No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’. I personally am glad to have missed that. Today, if an American doesn’t like his or her circumstances, moving to a new locale is as easy as it has ever been. Even if you’re not looking to start a new life, this increased mobility has great vacation value, as people have the ability to travel down to Orlando and back in a single week. Your ancestors would be amazed.
Chapter Three: Working Conditions. Since I mentioned the Industrial Revolution in the previous chapter, we might spend a bit of time reflecting on what life was like for your average worker in industrial London in the 19th century – or the Chicago stockyards in the early 20th. Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair’s books give a glimpse into both. By comparison, the average worker today has considerably better working conditions, as well as immeasurably improved access to medical treatment (see chapter 75, titled “Life Expectancy”).
Those are the first three chapters, and I’m only getting warmed up. We haven’t even gotten to chapters 42 (“Running Water”) or 98 (“ESPN”). Of course, we shouldn’t be too quick to congratulate ourselves. While smallpox may be eliminated from our daily concerns, the current AIDS epidemic in Africa will be a black mark on our history, and while the holocaust came to an abrupt end in 1945, the recent problems in Rwanda, the Balkans, and now Darfur indicate that we cannot be complacent.
All things considered however, we’ve got it pretty good. So when you’re walking through the bookstore, and see the latest doom and gloom book about how bad the world is today, just keep on walking.
After all – you likely will be holding a cup of coffee, on your way to purchase great writing with the swipe of a plastic card, before getting into a reliable motor vehicle and quickly returning to a home with indoor plumbing, a microwave oven and a furnace. Sit down in a comfortable chair, turn on an incandescent light, say a few words to loved ones on the other side of the country via phone or email, and then read something that gives you a sense how special it all is.
Life is good.
Published October, 2006, when the reference to going to a bookstore didn’t look as odd as it does today. Chapter 623: e-books.