Searching for Beauty

Every object has a story—a beginning, a middle, and inevitably, an end. Each one plays a role in one life and touches others. Over time, these stories weave together and become a unique narrative. They become a fragment of history. Some of these histories take hold of us, inspiring and captivating minds in delightful ways.

At creation, we admire state-of-the-art novelty. We are lovers of progress, and the latest and greatest is the visual embodiment of progress. So we laud what is shiny and new, what we have never seen before.

As time passes, the novel becomes decidedly less so. We then acknowledge usefulness. Perhaps this helps us filter through what is worth keeping in our lives amidst the deluge of things that come into our lives. Does this make my life easier? Then I shall keep it for a little longer. Will this object find the dark box in the closet to be its new home? Then out it shall go!

But the useful life of any object is dated. Time passes and a new object will inevitably come along that is more efficient. So the older object loses its place in our lives. As it fades, however, we may realize that something tiny made its way into our lives. A secret, almost invisible something. While we passed the years of our lives with the object, this small something slowly grew and flourished.

We gained an emotional connection. And once we realize that, we begin to admire qualities we didn’t really notice before.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

—Virginia Woolf

Take, for instance, the old radio owned by my mother. I grew up hearing its whispers in the dark hours of the morning. It would keep her company as she went through her daybreak rituals. The soothing threads, alternating between music notes and voices, lulled me out of sleep as they traveled out one room and into another. Sometimes, when I’d pass through her room during the day, I’d see the source of these murmurs. A small box, rounded on the corners, with a silver antenna coming out of one corner. Sometimes, it was up. Other times, it was collapsed and folded neatly against the white and blue metal body. I didn’t think much of it.

When I eventually moved out of that house, the little box had gone through its period of usefulness and been replaced by a newer model. It still sat in the room, but rarely spoke anymore. One day its shape piqued my curiosity. So when I left, I took the little box with me. I didn’t know why it caught my attention then, but I thought I’d give it a chance.

The controlled movements needed to make that radio sing is more fulfilling than pressing a button and letting the machine scan the airwaves on its own. Years ago, I never knew the feeling. I never turned the dials myself. I never reached out to shift the length and direction of that antenna. I didn’t startle myself with a careless flicker of the volume dial. Of course, I never felt the frustrations of using a crude piece of machinery to do something so fragile as catching sound in the air. But neither did I experience the joy of catching what was so fleeting and elusive. If I had played with that little box as a child, would I have learned of these emotions earlier? Would I have gained the affinity for that radio that I have now, but 15 years ago? Maybe it wouldn’t have been able to stir such emotions at my young age. Maybe those moments would have meant nothing in a time of analog technology. Or perhaps it would have become a passing interest, but one quickly forgotten in the bustling world of a child.

But I can appreciate the quirks now.

my mom's radio

“I have not yet lost a feeling of wonder, and of delight, that this delicate motion should reside in all the things around us, revealing itself only to him who looks for it.”

—Edward M. Purcell

While browsing a used book store one day, my eye was caught by a familiar-looking title stamped onto a thick blue spine that was over a foot tall. The Universal Penman, it said. I slid the book out and took a look at the front cover.

engraved by
London • 1743

The book was a famous compendium of English calligraphy used to teach writing styles in the eighteenth century.

As Philip Hofer explains in the foreword, “The Importance of the Universal Penman in Relationship to Modern Calligraphy”, The Universal Penman was released as a fifty-two part subscription. Because subscribers collected each section as a learning tool, issues were discarded after they had served their purpose. The subscription took 8 years to complete, so the earliest pages were deteriorated with use by the time the last pages came to life. Therefore, complete collections of all pages, in good condition and in the correct order, were rare.

Chances of republishing a complete volume of work deteriorated with technological progress. The beauty of calligraphy was replaced by more efficient writing and shorthand. Eventually, even those were replaced with the always-legible letters of the typewriter.

This volume I held in my hands was therefore intriguing. With its thick spine, it was obviously a completed copy. That isn’t terribly difficult to find a copy of these days, though the volumes tend to be small trade paperbacks. Its large size—over a foot tall—seemed different, though. Helpfully, on the front endsheet, someone had written “The Scarce Ltd. Facsimile Edition”. Another hand had added “#638/1000 Limited”. By 1941, someone had found enough beauty and historical significance in Bickham’s work to publish a complete collector’s edition in a gorgeous large format volume.

And now a copy was sitting in my hands, itself an object of beauty, with its worn cloth cover, gold foil stamped title, and slightly yellowing pages. Somehow, history had shaped us to admire what were once loose leafs of educational material.

the universal penman

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”

—W. Somerset Maugham

Every object has a story—a beginning, a middle, and inevitably, an end. Each one plays a role in one life and touches others. Over time, these stories weave together and become a unique narrative. Before the end comes, cherish its beauty.

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