Last week, a friend posted a story from Science Daily that reported that having books in the home has as great an influence on a child’s eventual level of education as does the parents’ levels of education. We’ve long felt that the books in our homes (see our earlier post on encyclopedias) helped shape who we’ve become and fueled our curiosity about the world. But of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Both our fathers grew up with Erector sets, those artifacts of an era before product safety lawyers were part of toy design teams. Even the heavy green metal case had corners and edges that could gash a careless child’s hand. Doug and his brother Richard inherited the Erector set that their father and uncle shared as children. The next generation whiled away hundreds of hours using the metal girders, bolts, electrical motor, and pulleys to construct small new worlds around them. Anna never played with an Erector set, in large part because her father, as the last of four boys, had the weakest claim to ownership of the family’s set. But even as an adult, his childhood memories were so fondly fixed that he bought an incomplete set at a yard sale on vacation in Wisconsin. The Erector set, first patented in 1913, is an open-ended toy, one that stimulates the imagination.
When we were in fourth grade, we each received such a gift for the mind’s eye: a microscope. Our optical microscopes were nothing fancy, just inexpensive stamped metal. They used a mirror as the light source so that we had to exert painstaking care to position the tool near a bright lamp or sunny window and then tilt the round mirror just so. We secured each slide—maybe a hair with a split end, maybe a stained paramecium—between pieces of glass and under the silver clips to hold it in place. Compared with grown-up microscopes, the magnification was unimpressive, and the coarse focus—moving the eyepiece down and then up slowly until the image sharpened—required patience. And yet, it opened our eyes to worlds we hadn’t imagined—to the structures of fabric, leaves, skin, blood. The microscope came with prepared slides, and we made more. Doug made dozens. The joy of peering through the eyepiece came from discovering something that’s there, but that can’t be seen otherwise. What’s next, we wondered. Look!
So too with the Visible Woman, one of Anna’s gifts from Santa. Her parents may have thought the investment in an anatomical model was a waste, for she never painted the plastic organs as the written instructions directed, nor did she fit the many pieces all together at once to make the body whole. Instead, Anna would put some organs into the clear plastic shell, then take them out again, turning them this way and that. Look around, and that’s what bodies are: singular entities. No, the Visible Woman was fascinating because it was a bunch of parts, each of which fit into the digestive system, the respiratory system, or somewhere else, somewhere specific. But looking at each unhinged from its context was as important as seeing the connections. Unlike the Visible Man, the Visible Woman had extra parts that could be swapped out for pregnancy—bulging breasts and abdomen, a fetus in utero. There was a “real” quality to this toy that other childhood toys (Barbie was the closest equivalent in size and shape) didn’t share. Anna didn’t become a surgeon based on her hours with the Visible Woman, though she’d thought about it. Our childhood experiences aren’t often that directly practical, or at least aren’t solely focused. Still, indirectly, the Visible Woman showed Anna a way to look at things, to appreciate details, to know that there’s more than meets the eye.
In Genius, his book about Richard Feynman, James Gleick writes, “it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios.” Since reading that book, Doug has wondered what influence receiving a young scientist kit had on his adult pursuits, particularly whether that kit instigated his tendency to change jobs, even careers, every few years. In that white box could be found the very same things as Feynman-era physicists—chemistry and electronics—but Doug grew up in the age of Apollo, so his kit also included rocks and minerals, a rubber-band-powered airplane, and a model rocket. The model rocket’s instructions frequently mentioned nichrome wire, a phrase as aesthetically pleasing as it was functionally necessary to ignite the engine. Perhaps the path of Doug’s career (career also means rushing forward while swaying here and there) might be explained by the fact that, after working his way through the first few experiments, he decided that he was happiest reading the instruction manual over again. He’s now very happy as a bookish librarian. The imaginative thinking that reading stimulated was even more satisfying than the physical outcomes of, say, the change of color in a pH strip.
For each of us, there existed different triggers for our childhood imaginations. Each of these tools—Erector set, microscope, Visible Woman, young scientist kit—invited, even demanded, we create new experiences. Each toy has a context and a process appropriate to that context. Yet each time we pulled out the microscope and raised the window shade to get the best light, we had to interpret anew. It’s not so different from story-telling, as when Jane Smiley reinterprets King Lear in A Thousand Acres or the Coen brothers recast Homer in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s all been done before, and it’s all new. Who knows what might unfold next?