“Why do you love genealogy?”
As a leading question, this ranks close to “When did you stop beating your wife?” For years I’ve dodged it by mumbling about coincidence and the need to make a living. Recently, though, I had to answer in public, and found myself coming out with some truths.
First, I love the endless solving of thousands of small puzzles. It is literally addictive. The tiny hit of satisfaction from uncovering a minuscule piece of the jigsaw and seeing it fit with the whole is very like the sweet little nicotine rush I used to get from each pull of a cigarette. The compulsion to go on is continually reinforced, and the fact that no family history can ever be completely finished, that the bigger puzzle can never be solved, just amplifies that compulsion.
Second, the part of genealogy that I enjoy most, making heritage databases, has a near-religious rightness about it. As in Van Morrison’s classic ‘Cleaning Windows’, things that were opaque are made clear. And like Van, I take an evangelical pleasure in it. As well, of course, as the less pure satisfaction of revenge on records that used to consume days of my life but now take only minutes.
Most of all, though, genealogy brings history to life in ways that are endlessly enthralling. To use records properly, you have to try to see them through the eyes of the people who made them, the recorders, as well as the people who are recorded. The result is a worm’s-eye view of history, where the laws of statistics don’t apply and great events happen away in the distance.
As a way of understanding history, it has its flaws – our ancestors didn’t necessarily understand what was happening to them, any more than we understand what’s going on around us now. But it certainly helps.