Part 4: Why I Like Genealogy
(A Plagiaristic Parody of Ayn Rand's Essay on Stamp-Collecting)
Why I Like Genealogy
I am often asked why people like genealogy. So widespread a hobby
can obviously have many different motives. I can answer only in regard to my own motives, which I have observed also in some
of the genealogists I have met.
The pleasure lies in a certain special way of using one's
mind. Genealogy is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people -- because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of
a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, entirely private world.
A career requires the
ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady
progression toward a goal. Purposeful people cannot rest by doing nothing; nor can they feel at home in the role of passive
spectators. They seldom find pleasure in single occasions, such as a party or a show or even a vacation, a pleasure that ends
right then and there, with no further consequences.
The minds of such people require continuity,
integration, a sense of moving forward. They are accustomed to working long-range; to them, the present is part of and a means
to the future; a short-range event or activity that leads nowhere is an unnatural strain on them, an irritating interruption
or a source of painful boredom.
Yet they need relaxation and rest from their constant, single-tracked
drive. What they need is another track, but for the same train -- that is, a change of subject, but using part of the same
method of mental functioning.
Genealogy fulfills that need.
establishes a wide context of its own, interesting enough to hold one's attention and to switch one's mind temporarily
away from exhausting problems or burdens.
In the course of a career, every achievement is an end
in itself and, simultaneously, a step toward further achievements. In genealogy, every new piece of data is an event, a pleasure
in itself and, simultaneously, a step toward the growth of someone's family tree. A genealogist is not a passive spectator,
but an active, purposeful agent in a cumulative drive. He cannot stand still: a pedigree chart without fresh additions becomes
a reproach, an almost irresistible call to embark on a new quest.
In a career, there is no such
thing as achieving too much: the more one does, the more one loves one's work. In genealogy, there is no such thing as
too much data: the more one gets, the more one wants. The sense of action, of movement, of progression is wonderful -- and
A career requires full, focused attention and problem-solving -- creative problems,
technical problems, business problems, etc. So does genealogy: while it is sometimes a process of cashing in on the given
and known, it often requires much ingenuity and detective work -- as well as literary skills, once one reaches the point of
writing up one's findings for others to read. To the extent that one can find others with insufficient time, energy, or
skills to do such research and writing, but with money enough to pay another to do it, one could conceivably do genealogy
full-time, not merely as an empty escape -- for an unproductive mind does not need rest -- but actually as an alternate career.
There are also certain differences.
The course of a career depends on one's own action
predominantly, but not exclusively. A career requires a struggle; it involves tension, disappointments, obstacles which are
challenging, at times, but are often ugly, painful, senseless -- particularly, in an age like the present, when one has to
fight too frequently against the dishonesty, the evasions, the irrationality of the people one deals with. In genealogy, one
experiences the rare pleasure of independent action without irrelevant burdens or impositions. Nobody can interfere with one's
pedigree chart, nobody need be considered or questioned or worried about (though oral interviews of one's elderly relatives
can be very helpful). The choices, the work, the responsibility -- and the enjoyment -- are one's own. So is the great
sense of freedom and privacy.
For this very reason, when one deals with people as a genealogist,
it is on a cheerful, benevolent basis. People cannot interfere, but they can be very helpful and generous. There is a sense
of "brotherhood" among genealogists, of a kind which is very unusual today: the brotherhood of holding the same
values. In the midst of today's cynical inversion and corruption of all values, one seldom meets a person with whom one
has any interest in common; most people today do not actually value or enjoy anything. Genealogists have a wide latitude of
individual preferences, but the basic principles of the hobby are objective and clearcut. A genealogist would not reject a
copy of his great-great-grandparents' marriage certificate on the grounds that it pertained to an event that occurred
over a century ago -- and he would not forego it in favor of six copies of his parents' marriage certificate on the grounds
that these were more fashionable since more of one's relatives had them.
The pursuit of the
distant, the unexpected, the unknown, the difficult to find is the motive power of genealogy. It endows the hobby with the
suspense and excitement of a treasure hunt -- even on the more modest levels of genealogy, where the treasure may be simply
an unexpected name or date from a distant relative, which fills the one blank spot, completing a level of one's pedigree.
This mood of lighthearted benevolence is particularly important to people whose careers deal with grim, crucial issues
-- as, for instance, a writer who studies the trends of the modern world, or a surgeon who faces the constant question of
life and death. It is not an accident that a great many doctors are genealogists.
Careers of that
kind require such a ruthless discipline of total dedication that one can become almost depersonalized. This is why an hour
spent on an activity whose sole purpose is one's own pleasure, becomes such a restoring, invigorating life line.
When one turns to genealogy, one enters a special world by a process resembling a response to art: one deals with
an isolated and stressed aspect of existence -- and one experiences the sense of a clean, orderly, peaceful, sunlit world.
Its rules and boundaries are strictly delimited -- the rest is up to one's individual choice. But one does not choose
blindly, one deals with firm, intelligible, changeless things. There is constant change in the world of genealogical data,
and constant motion, and a spectacular display of human data processing -- but there is no change in the nature and purpose
of genealogical data. Nobody tries to claim -- as people do in other fields -- that a discarded grocery receipt from his garbage
can is a superior kind of genealogical data. It is not the place for whims. It is not a world for those who like the chaos
of undefinable, shifting, whirling, drippy emotions. It is a world for orderly, rational minds.
-- it is asked -- why not collect cigar bands, or coins, or old porcelain? Why family trees?
family trees are the concrete, visible symbols of an enormous abstraction: of the phenomenon of nested, hierarchical order,
which permeates not only our conceptual and value hierarchies, but also the "tree of life" by which all living things
are descended from a common ancestor, as well as the structures and functions of every living being on earth and of much of
An inextricable part of even a casual glance at a family tree is the awareness
of what a magnificent achievement it represents: for a few pennies, you can have a photocopy of a chart showing your ancestry
and numerous relatives to the earliest date they can be traced. Think of the human ingenuity, the technological development,
the large-scale synchronization of effort that were required to create the U.S. Government's Federal Archives, the Mormon
Church's International Genealogical Index, or Broderbund's World Family Tree. (You may curse the inefficiency or intrusiveness
of the U.S. Census Bureau -- and the agencies abroad may be worse -- but look at the total picture of what they have helped
While the world politicians are doing their best to split the globe apart by means
of iron curtains and brute force, the genealogical services are demonstrating -- in their quiet, unobtrusive way -- what is
required to bring mankind closer together: a specific purpose (data-gathering) cooperatively carried out, serving individual
goals and needs. It is the lineages of individual persons that genealogical data bases preserve through the decades and centuries;
it is individual persons that need such a service. In this sense, the Mormon Church with their Family History centers are
the world's ambassadors of good will.
Genealogy gives one a large-scale view of the universe
-- and a very benevolent view. One feels: no matter how dreadful some of mankind's activities might be, here is a field
in which people are functioning reasonably, efficiently and successfully. (I do not mean the political and religious bureaucracies
involved, I mean the technical aspects and skills required to gather and store the human race's enormous amount of genealogical
When I hear in the news the surname of some distant relative that I discovered only through
my family tree -- such as Cloud or Van Boskirk -- I feel a touch of personal recognition, like an affectionate greeting. One's
family tree gives one a personal value-stake, a kind of proprietary interest in certain surnames which, otherwise, would remain
mere names and empty abstractions. A family tree is like a tour of human history, with the advantage of focusing selectively
on the best aspects of various ancestors, and without the bitter disadvantages.
I want to say a personal "thank you" to a company whose extremely copious goods and services have helped me to find
my way in a very complex world: Broderbund Software. The infectiously irresistible enthusiasm they project for the world of
genealogy -- in their direct mail literature and on their website --and the glamor of the genealogical establishment they
have created give them an unusual position in today's cheerless world: the head of an empire dedicated to human enjoyment.