Poor Man’s Time Machine

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 12, 2018

Some days you just want to live in another era. Statistically, we live in the best of times. If you’ve read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, you should feel safer about war, crime, and violence. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress promises to make us feel better about everything. Bill Gates is calling it his all-time favorite book. Yet, 2017 was a very depressing year for me because of Donald Trump. 2018 should be even more depressing because there’s no sign that Trump will be impeached or quit.


Whenever I watch the NBC Nightly News it makes me wish I had a time machine. Sadly, I can’t afford one. When I read Global Citizen I feel like I should be doing something to help the world because that site shows how people can make a big difference. But to be honest, I’m old, set in my ways, and don’t want to get out in the world anymore. When I look at Congress I see a rabid pack of old white guys snarling and snapping at each other to shape America with their narrowminded beliefs. It’s time for women, youth, and diversity to take the reins.

I don’t think the world needs input from another old white dude, so I’m retreating from the rat race by reading books. What’s hilarious, those books are mostly by old dead white guys. Maybe it’s like the old Tarzan movies, and we’re like a dying elephant knowing where to go to our secret graveyard.

I’ve been time traveling back to the late 16th-century by listening to The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame. When Montaigne was still in his thirties he retired by retreating to a tower in his castle, bringing a desk, chair, and a thousand books. There Montaigne contemplated reality by comparing his personal experiences to what he read. Along the way, he invented the personal essay, which is why I consider Montaigne the Patron Saint of Bloggers.

Montaigne remains essential reading for jaded bookworms because he explains the usefulness of all those dead white writers of history, the ones remembered in The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Listening to Montaigne makes me understand why 19th-century intellectuals were so big on classical studies. By the way, if you have a detailed scholarly bent, love annotations, and notes on textual variations, you might prefer the M. A. Screech translation. Listening to the Frame translation makes me feel like Montaigne is talking at me. It’s very smooth.

And I highly recommend you listen to Montaigne on audio because he’s a rambler, and rambles on for over a thousand pages. But, if you prefer to hold a book in your hands, I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works, also translated by Frame. It’s easier to hold and has a nifty ribbon bookmark. However, you’re still holding a 1,336-page book. Because there’s no ebook edition with a Frame translation, I’d recommending getting older Cotton/Hazlitt translation from the public domain for your carry around everywhere on your phone edition. Amazon has many 99 cent Kindle editions, but I picked this edition because the text reformats nicely on my phone.

(By the way, I got turned onto Montaigne from reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.)

When I’m not back in the 16th-century I spend a lot of time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, either by watching old television shows and movies, or reading old books, or listening to old music. Recently I’ve been listening to a playlist of music from the 1920s and 1930s created from ten volumes in a series called The Big Broadcast.

I’m still having big fun reading through The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. These stories were from the great science fiction pulp magazines. It almost feels like I’m living in 1940 when I read the stories and play music from that year, especially when I get so deep into a tale that I forget it’s 2018, and a maniac runs the country.

I’ve fantasized about redecorating my living room so it only contains furniture and objects that could have existed before WWII. We bought the house my wife grew up in after her parents died, and left the living room unchanged with the old furniture, lamps, and pictures on the wall. I imagine smoking a pipe wearing a smoking jacket while sitting in one of the blue chairs reading a July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories.

Susan did add an antique floor standing radio she bought at an estate sale. We gutted the old equipment from it that didn’t work, but left the knobs and the frequency scale. I could build a computer to hide inside it that played pre-war radio shows and music. I could put mint copies of old books, slick and pulp magazines on the coffee table. Then play Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong while reading and imagine I’m back in the past.

I’d have to concentrate hard not to remember Donald Trump. Actually living in the 1930s would be horrible compared to today. I’m just nostalgic for its pop culture, well some of it. For example, I’d have to make sure I played “All of Me” instead of “Strange Fruit” when listening to Billie Holiday.

Sadly, there is no utopia to escape to. Steven Pinker is right, now is the best of time for humanity. The future is unknown. I hope trends continue and things continue to get better. But as long as Donald Trump is in the news I just can’t imagine it.


12 thoughts on “Poor Man’s Time Machine”

  1. Wow – that’s the best blog post you’ve written yet, Jim – to my way of thinking anyway.

    Yes, I read the Pinker book and i know that in general we, in the US and Canada and many other places, actualy do live in much safer times than in past centuries – it just seems really scary because we have television and other media brining us every possible story intensified for ratings. Also, we know how those other periods of time turned out so they’re not so scary as looking at something we don’t know how it will end up.

    I am so glad to read a white male talk like you did about the old white men running this country. There aren’t so many books in the canon by women because 1. most women didn’t even know how to read and write – it wasn’t thought necessary even by upper and upper middle class folks. 2. there are a few who were powerful enough to be written about – Cleopatra to Abigail Adams to Hillary Clinton – while powerful men abound. That’s just the way it is. We’re ready for them now but there’s nothing available because – duh – they were oppressed that way. We can’t just make stuff up – have to work with what’s there.

    So I too am reading history and historical novels as well as some futurist stuff (sci-fi or whatever) and enjoying it immensely. I like classic lit – I just finished a reread of Pride and Prejudice with Kristin Lavransdatter in progress. But I am so looking forward to William Gibson’s new one – Agency (due out in December!!! – omg)

    And finally, thank you for the recommendation of Montaigne on Audio – I think I’d like to be able to listen to Christopher Lane read that – or which narrator are you listening to?


    1. Thanks, Becky. Yes, Lane reads the Frame translation. The other unabridged edition at Audible is the Cotton/Hazlitt translation I believe.

      If you dig around you can find interesting women to read from the past. My feelings are often hurt when I hear young women warn each other not to read old science fiction because the genre was dominated by old white guys. Well, I’m reading pulp magazines from 1939 and 1940, and some of the stories were by women. Not many, but some. C. L. Moore for one. Yeah, she hid the Catherine, but not all the women back then did that.

      1. No, of course there were some women writing sci-fi who – 1. would be interested and 2. got through the writing publishing stuff. I think the oldest one I read was Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World which is really, really odd – published in 1666. A few others I’ve read are Connie Willis, even Doris Lessing. And wanted to try James Tiptee, Lois McMaster, more. Actually, there are a LOT more women writing sci-fi today and more men appreciating it too – Ursula LeGuin (fantasy I know) is mourned by all sci-fi/fantasy lovers.

        Women today (my granddaughter) have a lot more freedom from biological, political and social constraints to use the opportunities which are widening. I know when I was growing up I was “allowed” to dream whatever I wanted, but when the chips were down the reason I was sent to college was to find a good (college-educated) man to marry, raise babies intelligently, and play bridge with my old sorority sisters. (lol) Women my age sometimes talk about the changes from our own girlhoods.

      2. If memory serves, C. L. Moore used her initials to keep her shameful “Buck Rogers stuff” pursuits away from her day job, NOT to fool the SF community. It wasn’t a secret that she was a woman. Other respected female writers I remember reading while I was growing up (pre-1970):

        Andre Norton (also not a secret)
        Judith Merril
        Margaret St. Clair (aka Idris Seabright)
        Katherine MacLean
        Lee Hoffman
        Zenna Henderson
        Anne McCaffrey
        Miriam Allen deFord
        Leigh Brackett
        Ursula Le Guin
        Mildred Clingerman
        Rosel George Brown
        Evelyn E. Smith

        and for the younger set:
        Madeleine L’Engle
        Evelyn Sibley Lampman
        Eleanor Cameron
        Mary Norton

        Remember that before the 1970s the entire SF community was relatively small. Later, there was an explosion of both female and male writers, as SF turned “respectable” (in other words, there was money to be had) and also became much more fantasy oriented.

        James, have you ever read Jack Finney’s “Time and Again” (1970)? It’s a lovely conceit that by physically and mentally immersing oneself in the mileau of a prior century, one might actually be transported in time. I read a message board post not too long ago from someone who is attempting to re-live his 1970’s childhood in real time, living in his former house, reading 1970’s magazines and watching 1970’s TV in the proper release order, eating 1970’s food, etc.

        1. PJ, I’ve read Time and Again twice and listened to it once on audio. It’s a wonderful novel. I’ve also read the sequel. I often meditate on time. We only perceive time because things change. Sometimes when I’m walking in my neighborhood and don’t see any cars, I realize the houses don’t look much different from year to year. Sometimes I try and imagine the neighborhood looking like it did in the 1960s.

          Yeah, before Star Trek the science fiction community was tiny. I remember in junior high looking for a friend who read science fiction. Never found one. Star Trek brought in loads of fans, and even women fans. I remember this girl coming to our SF club in the early 70s. We all chased after her. She was a Trekkie. (That’s why they called themselves back then.) Then Star Wars came out and it seemed like everyone wanted to be a science fiction fan.

          I’d love to read an account by that guy returning to the 1970s. I went looking for it and found this (which I watched when it came out.)


  2. I’ve read Montaigne several times over the decades, both the Frame and Screech translations. But I have not listened to Montaigne on an audio book. I plan to give it a try!

    1. George, which translations did you like best, and why? You must have discovered Montaigne at an early age. How did you do that? I only go onto his trail in the last couple years. Have you read the Bakewell book?

    1. It was just released today but it’s been getting exciting press coverage for weeks. The New York Times had an interview between Bill Gates and Steven Pinker. It was a total lovefest. Gates said Enlightenment Now is his favorite book of all time. I just snagged the Audible copy. I’ve been anxiously awaiting it.

  3. Yes, I’ve read the Bakewell book and enjoyed it. I prefer the Frame translation, but Screech is pretty good, too. You can’t go wrong with either one of them. I took a World Literature class in High School and we read Montaigne. I was hooked early.

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