In The World We Have Lost, Peter Laslett attempted to study life in fifteenth- and sixteenth century England. He was remarkable successful, all the more so because he had only public records to work with. He had few anecdotes, few diaries, and few personal accounts to inform his writing. Laslett extrapolated three-dimensional life from two-dimensional statistics. In spite of all the handicaps, he snatched a diamond from the coal field, even if he had to be cold and clinical.
We take literacy for granted. Five and six centuries ago, we would not have been able to. Reading and writing were reserved for the aristocrat, the cleric, and the merchant, and they seldom wrote about the the “common” folk. For “average” people, the ability to preserve personal experience was limited. If anyone asked, perhaps they could tell about their experiences. But that was pretty much it. The silence was deafening.
That’s not true today. Almost everyone can read and write. Literacy has transformed the way we live. Anyone who wishes can not only tell their stories, but they can also preserve them for posterity. Technology has given us tremendous advantages. We can now tell our stories and record them at the stroke of a few keys. We can use voice-recognition software to make prints out of our spoken words. We can make audio and video. We can add texture and meaning to the statistics social scientists use.
But we can’t just talk about it. We have to do it. We have no excuse except “I don’t want to.” Our kids will thank us. Future generations will thank us. We can offer the next Peter Laslett a vision the last one could only dream of.