“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” – G. K. Chesterton
I’ve been reading a lot of old newspapers recently. This past November (Nov. 11, to be exact), I looked at microfiche of the local newspaper published on 11/11/1911. Honestly, nothing much was going on. The most interesting event that day was a public interest lecture on how certain fungi was affecting local agriculture.
But I was determined to find something worthwhile, so I asked how far back the archives went – amazingly, the library has film of newspapers dating back to before the turn of the 19th century, meaning I could search a Charleston paper from 1811. Let me say, that was far more interesting. Books by Jane Austen and Percy Bysshe Shelley were coming into port on the next British trade ship. The groundwork of the War of 1812 was being laid. Sabrina Island had just been formed by volcanic lava in the Atlantic Ocean. So yeah, there was a lot to talk about that day.
But it wasn’t the content of the articles as much as their voice that captured my attention. There was a wonder and curiosity about what was happening in the world that came through the block lettering. A sense of discovery in the reports of expeditions. I’ve found the same in newspapers from eras of war and scientific exploration.
World War I and II newspapers are fascinating, with their unyielding optimism despite uncertainty. Articles written during the Great Depression show an America looking outside herself for distraction. Papers of the 1950s and ’60s reveal the excitement of the space race and nuclear arms missions.
Something changed after that. It must have seemed like we had discovered all there was to discover. As travel became easier and medicine more refined, the world became smaller and safer; the romance and danger of the unknown was now outdated. The sense of wonder disappeared further with every advance of technology. Discoveries and breakthroughs became routine. Now we demand something new with each day’s headlines.
But surely our sense of awe is not dependent on finding a new island to claim, or a revolutionary invention, is it? Is it possible to reset our perspectives to find wonder again? To regain the magic of the unknown?
Maybe it isn’t about what we know, but how we perceive what we don’t know that shapes our perspective.