Chapter Seven

Reading the Background

I was working in an archive of a 250-year-old business, reading correspondence from about the time of the American Revolution. Incoming letters were stored in wooden boxes about the size of a standard Styrofoam picnic cooler, each containing a fair portion of dust as old as the letters. As opening a letter triggered a brief asthmatic attack, I wore a scarf tied over my nose and mouth. Despite my bandit’s attire, my nose ran, my eyes wept, and I coughed, wheezed, and snorted. I longed for a digital system that would hold the information from the letters and leave paper and dust behind.

One afternoon, another historian came to work and suggested to me that instead of reading, I should be sniffing letters. ...

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