My recent trip to Europe inspired all sorts of romantic notions about literary Europe in my imagination. Besides walking around with a notebook (that I primarily used for writing down restaurants I wanted to try) and experimenting with wearing a beret (a failed experiment, I might add), I also decided to read or re-read some of the great literary works about Americans in Europe. So, onto my kindle, I downloaded Joshua, Then and Now (technically about a Canadian in Europe, and not well known by American audiences), A Moveable Feast, Tropic of Cancer and The Sun Also Rises. I read none of them during the trip. I dunno. Reading old books is hard for me. I stuck to modern, critically acclaimed novels (The Art of Fielding) and celebrity biographies (Born Standing Up). Since returning, though, I did go back into the my kindle library and re-read The Sun Also Rises, a novel I first read while I took a high-level Hemingway English class in college.
I remembered my general impression of the book when I read it in college, and it’s still held; the use of language is great, the descriptions of Paris and Spain are evocative/romantic, and the characters are all entitled jerks/anti-Semites. What also stuck me, as I was thinking back, was that I could remember almost nothing about the class I took in college. I couldn’t remember who taught it, how big it was or what I’d written/thought about during the class. Granted, this was seven or eight years ago, an era of my life when I smoked copious amounts of pot, but still. I knew I took a class on Hemingway and I knew that I really enjoyed it, but I no longer knew why. And that’s why, a couple nights ago, as I was in the midst of reading, I put the kindle down got onto my my alma mater’s website to do some investigating.
#1: Look at your old college transcript
It only took a few tries to recreate my university login and my password, and I was in. Turns out I was an ok, but not phenomenal student. B average, with a handful of As, and a couple Cs, in classes where I couldn’t get by on my creativity and ability to bullshit alone. Also, I don’t remember very many of these classes at all, though the ones where I did better, I’m more likely to remember at least a bit about the professor and what I learned, and maybe which pretty girls from college were also in the class. That’s just how my brain works.
But examining the transcript, which only had course numbers and official titles, I couldn’t figure which class was my Hemingway seminar. I started to wonder if I even actually took the class I remembered, or if I’d just read Hemingway on my own and somehow imagined I’d taken a class on it. Despite my flakey memory, though, that seemed unlikely. There were a couple course titles that could have been the Hemingway course. “ENGL 408: The 20th Century”, taken winter semester 2004, and “ENGL 345: Literature and Society”, taken fall sememester 2003, both seemed like likely candidates. But a couple Google searches with those course titles in quotations didn’t reveal anything except what those classes were for the upcoming 2012-13, which, while interesting, but doesn’t help me reconstruct my past. Then I had another idea.
#2: Use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to look at websites you used to frequent
I’ve used the Internet Archive a handful of times when doing research for a work project of some sort. I’ve also used to gogback to long defunct sites I remember frequenting in the halcyon days of the internet (hiphopinfinity.com, anyone?) But going back to look at my old university website, a site I had to log onto multiple times a day for four years of my life, brought about an eerie-sense of déjà-vu. I instinctively knew how to navigate from the anarchic, terribly-designed front page (even by 2003-standards) to the English Department’s listings of course syllabi. And within a couple of tries, I’d found the course description and reading list, along with the professors name for “ENGL 408: The 20th Century”, course subheading “Hemingway.” My memory hadn’t deceived me. I’d taken the class.
Looking back at the class reading list, I was able to reconstruct in my head which of the novels I’d actually read and which I’d probably just done a cursory reading of online. As noted above, I was lazy/creative student, not prone to reading every single thing required. I was still bothered by not remembering a thing about the professor, apparently a PHD student at the time. I Googled his name, found his profile at his current teaching position, and kind of recognized his picture, but not really. I was also bothered by not remembering anything about the term papers I’d written for the class. I clearly took away a decent grasp of Papa Hemingway’s canon and a bit of insight into contemporary readings of his work, but I was curious about what critical work I had actually done for the class and there was only one place to look.
#3. Read old emails you sent years ago.
I stopped using my henrylovebooty @ hotmail about the time I graduated from college, wisely switching to a less juvenile gmail address. (Anyone who had a dumber @hotmail address in their younger days, please feel free to leave in the comments) But I’ve been able to keep it alive as my requisite depository for spam all these years. There are currently 2706 unread emails in the inbox, all completely useless. The email account does contain the majority of my communication from my college years. After searching for old college essays in my scattered archive of docs from that period of my life, I figured hotmail would be a good place to look. I’d often work on essays at the computer lab and then email them to myself using my hotmail. I think. It’s also possible I used a floppy disk to save them, but that seems crazy, even though I think there might have still been disks back then. It’s hazy.
So, I searched my old hotmail for the term “Hemingway,” and no emails with attachments came up. What that probably means is that for the term papers for this specific class, I simply went to the 24-hour computer lab the night before the essay was due, pounded back a few GURUS (a Canadian-equivalent to Redbull at the time), and wrote the whole thing night before, neglecting to save it anywhere, and turned in the only copy to the instructor. There may still be a graded copy in my box of college things at my parents’ garage. I’m not sure.
What I did find, in my hotmail search, though, was an email I’d written to old David Larson. I’d told Larson a story about how I gave a presentation in this Hemingway class, essentially on the fly, about how a character in a short story bullshit their way through a conversation. And as I told Larson in the email, I found it amazing, because I’d bullshit my through the presentation and gotten a good grade on it. And suddenly, I remembered a lot more about this teacher and the class a whole. This was all thanks to a few clues I found in the wilds of the internet, some of which I’d left for myself.
We’re lucky to have grown up in a generation where we can use these digital tools to make up for memories lost. But it’s also a reminder to be conscious about what you put out there. Since finding the old correspondence with Larson, one of my oldest friends, I’ve gone back through other letters from the same time period. My letters to my parents are great to read, because I can see myself whitewashing my experience for their benefit. And offering some pretty insightful commentary (if I do say so, myself) on then-current Trailblazers front office moves. Example:
i like the Bonzi trade just for it’s immediacy. however, if Randolph hadn’t gotten arrested and the front office wasn’t desperate for a PR boost, I think they could have kept Bonzi. remember last year when Stoudamire got caught with a pound of herb and sat on the bench for half the season? well, look at him now? he’s playing hard as ever. despite Wells’ attitude, if they could have just iced him on the bench for half the season, maybe he could have brought anther 45 point playoff game appearance like last year.
There are a lot of digital records of our lives as they are now. Trips, life events, great nights out are all extensively documented. But after taking some time to look back into my old email letters, it reminded me that these are the only record of me trying to explain my life as was at the time to anybody, and that’s invaluable. Maybe that’s why I try to write this blog regularly, nowadays. Anyways, I recommend that you use the above listed digital tools to look back at what life was like for you 5-10 years ago and see if it doesn’t make you want to send someone a letter.
Henry Goldman is founder and editor of yr an adult and is addicted to nostalgia, as if you couldn’t tell.